Radford Dale on organic wine farming

Radford Dale Organic recently acquired an estate in the form of the established organic vineyards of Elgin Ridge, in the Elgin region in the Western Cape.

Jacques de Klerk, Radford Dale: Director of Viticulture & Winemaking, says that this is a historic moment. “Organic agriculture, with particular reference to viticulture, is still very much in its in infancy locally, compared to other parts of the world where it is widely adopted.”

However, what is special about organic farming when it comes to wine production, is that there is a very real difference in the way that it tastes, he says.

“This appeals to the sophisticated wine-lover in a way that is rare, and this makes these wines prized among conventional wines,” notes De Klerk.

Radford Dale was at the forefront of the South African virtual winery concept with their first vintage circa 1998. Ever since then, they have sourced and grown grapes from a variety of vineyard locations to produce site-expressive wines from their Stellenbosch cellar.

In 1998 Radford Dale produced only two wines: a Chardonnay and a Merlot, both from Stellenbosch, and from 1999, Syrah. Fast forward 23 years and our understanding of what grows well under our local conditions has vastly improved. “Thus, the Merlot was discontinued in 2008, while Radford Dale Chardonnay and Syrah remain at the core of our offering,” says De Klerk.

The project was founded by friends Ben Radford and Alex Dale, who made the first wines together. Now Radford Dale is a team effort, comprising three international investors from the UK, Australia and France, as well as local partners Heather Whitman, Kathleen Krone, Andy Openshaw and Jacques de Klerk.

“Our current model has served us well by allowing for adaptability and flexibility in terms of production. We have also learnt a great deal about the different regions and varieties over our first quarter of a century,” says De Klerk.

Although not certified, he says that since 2012 they have produced an organic wine with Radford Dale Nudity Syrah.

“This is where we first became interested in making organic wine. Learning many valuable lessons along the way, we had gained experience in producing Nudity, which we could then implement when we sought to certify our cellar. This paved the way to the new era of certified organic wine production at Radford Dale, and we have since bottled our first fully certified organic Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch.”

He says they are now ready to implement the knowledge gained with the focus that is required to bring out the best within the site they have chosen for their estate.

Radford Dale Organic wine estate  

Elgin Ridge, now known as Radford Dale Organic, is Elgin’s only certified organic wine estate.

De Klerk says that a large part of the reason they chose this estate in Elgin, is because the climate and geology make it a stand-out region for growing Pinot Noir.

“In fact, we have been producing Elgin Pinot Noir for 15 vintages from grapes sourced from other farms in the valley. Now we aim to consolidate production of our favourite grape on our own estate.”

He says that Gamay is an extremely rare varietal in South Africa – there are currently only 6 ha planted nationally, including the vineyard Radford Dale, planted in Stellenbosch six years ago, which was the first Gamay to be planted in South Africa for over 20 years.

“We also see this largely forgotten varietal as one that will become an increasingly important partner to our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay within the Radford Dale range, and a grape we have brought back from extinction and are championing in South Africa.”

Importance of organic winemaking

According to De Klerk, many of the world’s best wines, have for decades, been organically produced, as winegrowers continue to favour age-old, historic, traditional methods. They reject the use of the synthetic and chemical inputs that were brought to the forefront of farming during the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s.

“In organic farming, the use of these synthetic fertilisers, chemical pesticides and other industrially produced products is not allowed. Farmers and winemakers have to focus on the fundamental elements of winegrowing such as soil health, cover cropping, ecology and nutrient cycles, for example, rather than rely on a chemical remedy for every little malady that can affect a vineyard during it’s lifetime,” says De Klerk.

Furthermore, he says that in the case of wine, ‘the proof is very much in the pudding’. “Organic wines tend to have more depth and express their provenance by reflecting the land in which they are grown. In wine terms, this is called an expression of terroir, or a sense of place

“The health benefits of organic produce are well documented and that would include wine. This, as well as the environmental benefits of organic farming, is what is drawing many consumers, and therefore producers, toward this method of agriculture.”

Growing processes and times

Processes vary, depending on the specific conditions of the site, the crop or the climate. However, what they all have in common is the removal of the chemical inputs that conventional farming relies on.

Organic farming requires that weeds are manually or mechanically managed and that pests are discouraged or eliminated by natural means, while the nutrient status of the soil is improved by biological factors. The use of beneficial plants, insects, animals and microbes is a feature of organic farming.”

De Klerk says that the grape-growing season starts around mid-September annually, when the first shoots emerge after winter. Over the course of the next three to four months, the vines grow the canopy of leaves that it will use to ripen the grapes.

Around December, a shift occurs in the growth-pattern of the vines, as it begins to focus on ripening the grapes. The length of the ripening period depends largely on the grape variety and stylistic goals of the winemaker.

Harvest occurs when the grape achieves the required ripeness. This is followed by processing and fermentation. After that, maturation can typically take anywhere between six months for fresh styles of white and red wines, and 18 months in the case of more densely fruited red wines.

“The wine is bottled and further maturation could be required. Overall, under normal circumstances from growing to release, can be anything from a year to two, or even three,” says De Klerk.

Demand for wines with a low-alcohol percentage

The acquisition of Elgin Ridge comes at a time when there is mounting concern globally around climate change and water scarcity.

With water becoming more and more precious, it makes sense to move into the cooler viticultural regions that also have an abundance of available water, according to Radford Dale.

“Our wines tend to be lower in alcohol than the average, historically due to stylistic considerations,” notes De Klerk.

“At Radford Dale, we strive for balance and freshness in our wines and this can often be achieved by picking or harvesting our grapes earlier, at lower sugar levels and thus at lower alcohol levels.”

Consequently, De Klerk says they have been making wines with restrained alcohols, from 10% –13%, for a very long time while it was distinctly against the trend to do so.

Almost a decade ago, they launched a collection of very light wines under the name Radford Dale Thirst. These include two very delicate reds: a Gamay and a Cinsaut with alcohol ranging between 10% and 12.5%.

“Lately we have seen a consumer trend towards more restrained alcohol wines. I think it coincides with a move away from heavy, rich wines that were popular in the 90s and 2000s, as the consumer has tired of heavy, high-alcohol (above 14%), over-oaked and formulaic wines, especially the reds.”

Costs and future of organic wine

From a cost-perspective, organic wine in South Africa currently costs more than conventionally produced wine. This is only because of the cost of production, points out De Klerk.

“As the world’s attitude continues to change and organic produce becomes more mainstream, the cost of organic production will normalise to the level of conventional farming, I think. This will be driven by the ever-increasing demand of discerning consumers of agricultural produce until there is no difference in the price of organic and conventional wine,” he reckons.

Wine connoisseurs can look forward to the release of the Radford Dale Organic Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch) 2020, Radford Dale Organic Chardonnay (Elgin) 2021 and Radford Dale Organic Pinot Noir (Elgin) 2021, later this year and 2022.

Radford Dale believes there will be more organic wine producers emerging in South Africa in the future, just as other global regions have experienced in recent decades.

“For example, 40 years ago, the Burgundy wine region in France had very few organic producers, and today there are very few (of the good ones, anyway), which are not farming organically,” says De Klerk.

He adds that there are more risks involved and no safety net, but the reward is worth it. “As purity and authenticity in wine rise in importance over power and artifice, at the same time as ecology and climate change cause us all to re-evaluate our relationships and priorities with nature, the top producers in the wine world will adapt or be supplanted.”

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Edited by Gudrun Kaiser

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.

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