Wine makers open new African frontier with Dragon Mountain vines

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CATHEDRAL PEAK wine estate’s vines are planted at the foothills of the spectacular Drakekensberg or “Dragon Mountains.” — HTTP://CATHPEAKWINES.COM

SOUTH AFRICA’s wine industry is centered around Cape Town. But pioneers far to the northeast are forging a new frontier in unlikely surroundings as changing weather patterns test long-held conventions.

Cathedral Peak wine estate’s vines grow in the foothills of the Central Drakensberg, or “Dragon Mountains,” the towering range that forms a natural western boundary for KwaZulu-Natal province. Producing wine here at 1,100 meters means turning tradition on its head and nurturing grapes in steamy summer rainfall, rather than the Mediterranean climate and cool, wet winters of the much more celebrated Western Cape.

Owner Mauritz Koster admits that local farmers said he was crazy when he ripped out some of his cornfields in 2007 and planted grapes. Twelve years on, he is cultivating merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and pinotage, the South African-developed cinsaut-pinot noir hybrid. The wines, made by Flip Smith, are winning local awards.

“The summer rainfall adds a novel aspect to wine-making and that, I believe, adds to its uniqueness,” Koster said on his farm as the 2019 harvest got into gear on a warm February afternoon. While his pinot noir vines are “showing promise,” white-wine varietals such as sauvignon blanc have proved less able to cope with the conditions.

Day-time temperatures are around 32 degrees Celsius (90° Fahrenheit) in January and February, which means the fruit must be picked before their sugar content runs riot. Then there’s the hail, a feature of the summer months that requires Koster to protect his vineyards with nets. The vines run east to west to give the prevailing wind the best chance of drying them out after storms. Even so, the grapes must be sprayed for protection against mildew, the destructive white rust that flourishes on moist vines.

At least Koster and Smith don’t have to fret about the changing rainfall patterns and record drought that have caused years of anguish in the vineyards of the Western Cape. Changes to the climate have been a factor in the declining number of producers in the province, which local industry group VinPro says has dropped by 25% in the past decade.

South Africa is the world’s ninth-largest wine-making nation, supported by producers in emerging areas far from the Cape’s Stellenbosch and Franschhoek heartlands. Koster and Smith aren’t alone in KwaZulu-Natal, where the area under vine is increasing. Wines are also bottled by the Abingdon and Highgate estates in the Lions River district to the south east.

Local recognition for Cathedral Peak includes winning, appropriately, “most innovative wine” at the 2017 Michelangelo competition. Platter’s, a 700-page guidebook clutched by South African wine lovers as they tour estates for tastings, says Smith, a third-generation wine maker from the Robertson area, “deals with challenges that might shock his Western Cape counterparts.”

The estate’s merlot has “expressive fruit,” according to the 2019 salmon-colored edition of the volume, while the pinotage displays “prosciutto” and “salty liquorice savoriness.” Both cost 160 rand ($11) at the cellar door.

Koster intends to expand the size of future harvests through what he calls an outgrowers program that started in 2016, involving commercial and subsistence farmers in the surrounding community. That will boost the area planted with vines to 90 hectares (220 acres) by 2021, compared with the 29 hectares on the farm.

The initiative has backing from the government, which has agreed to provide about $11,000 for each hectare over five years, with the proviso that 30 jobs be created at each site. If the plans go well, opening a new wine frontier as South Africa contends with climate change may tackle another of the country’s problems — unemployment. — Bloomberg