South Africa’s Bio-Dynamic wine leader – Johan Reyneke

Sometimes you meet people and you know that they are of the earth.

Years of commercial farming in the last century has separated the farmer from the earth more than ever before. I still believe however that the best wine producers, regardless of their methodology, develop a close and meaningful relationship with their land and vines. But it is the the Bio-Dynamic farmer who is in tune with the entire ecosystem of their farm, the seasonal cycles, the phases of the moon. If there has been ever any doubt of this holistic approach, then the proof would be in the pudding.

Johan Reyneke is the founder of Reyneke Wines in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Earlier this week he held a masterclass with a small group of us in the Queens Room at Middle Temple Hall focusing on Bio-Dynamic viticulture. It was a treat to take part, and to gain a little deeper knowledge on the complex nature of this process of farming.

Johan fell in love with the land and viticulture as a young philosophy student during his holiday job as a vineyard labourer. He slowly found himself drawn to the Rudolf Steiner approach to agriculture. This was in reaction to an early 20th Century agricultural industry. Today with hyper-industrialised farming, this paradigm shift is increasing in importance and it is people like Johan that are leading the way.

In the vineyard Bio-Dynamic viticulturists use herbal, mineral and organic preparations to enhance soil, animal, microbial activity and increase humus levels (fertility of soil). They do this in cycle with the seasons, cycles of the moon and movement of the planets. There is no negative impact on the environment and after a number of years (7 in Reyneke’s case) the land reaches a point of equilibrium where pest control and weed control are almost self regulating – plants are strong enough to fend off disease and big insects eat the little bugs. This doesn’t equate to lazy farmers however -Johan points out that it is still farming and therefore labour intensive – wilderness is not desirable in a vineyard.

The result of such practises produce a strong healthy vine which in turn produces ripe, balanced fruit which reflects the terroir from which it came. Johan started to notice as the years after Bio-Dynamic conversion went by that even individual vineyards started to show differences in teroir with vines just metres apart. He now vinifies these pockets separately to try and get the most honest reflection of the land in each wine.

It is becoming a much repeated cliche that ‘our wines are made in the vineyard’ but the point is that with an increasing focus on ‘terroir’ there is really little alternative. Reyneke’s wines are all hand harvested, fermented with wild yeasts and are free from added enzymes, proteins, added acid, suger and D.A.P (a nitrogen food for yeast cells). They are made in an oxidative (vs reductive) method not usually associated with the New World which makes them slightly muted on the nose (appealing nonetheless) but full and textural on the palate.

The seven wines we were presented were not at all ‘showy’, but showed harmonious balance, fine texture and poise all with an underlying backbone of minerality. Interestingly we struggled to break the wines down into fruit and tertiary characteristics. Like the method by which the grapes were grown the wines in the glass were best viewed as a whole.

We currently have plenty of the Reyneke 2010 Sauvignon Blanc in the shops. It is a pale straw coloured wine with notes of baked gooseberry, melon and chalk on the nose. The fruit continues on the palate, which is delicate but not without trademark sauvignon acidity. I think this would be a great food wine and I’d take the seafood route . . . It’s £14 a bottle, and given the labour and love that’s gone into producing it, worth every penny!

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