Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. – Albert Einstein
On Thursday, 18 May 2023, the Hartenberg team welcomed media, influencers and wine industry stakeholders to the estate for a first-hand experience of our pioneering work in Regenerative Viticulture. Despite a chill in the Autumn air, guests were excited to set out on an adventure into the vineyards on the back of a tractor. They were accompanied by Cellar Master Carl Schultz, viticulturist Wilhelm Joubert as well as James Browne, husband of co-owner Tanya and representative of the Mackenzie family, owners of the estate since 1986. We were fortunate to enjoy clear blue skies and sunshine, in the wake of a rainy day or two preceding the event.
First stop: Meeting the Ankoles High-intensity, controlled grazing
in the vineyards is one of the regenerative viticulture principles Hartenberg has pioneered in South Africa. Wilhelm first introduced cattle to the farm in 2017 to graze fallow lands and a few other areas. However, further research revealed that grazing animals could actually have a positive effect on plant and soil health in the vineyards too, provided they are managed correctly. The combination of the treading effect from the cattle’s hooves, the pulling effect from the way they graze, as well as their saliva, manure, and urine all improve plant and soil health.
During the outing into the vineyards, guests could witness this process first-hand,
in the form of our herd of ten Ankole browsing the juicy tops of cover crops among rows of Merlot. Wilhelm explained that the grazing has to be strictly controlled to avoid overgrazing and uprooting of crops. As they move along, their urine, dung and saliva provide natural fertilisation for the soil, while their hooves and slight tugging motion made while grazing are a gentle alternative to mechanised tilling. The secret is in our soil This method may, of course, sound completely alien and rather reckless to the more traditional-minded wine farmers out there. In fact, Carl and Wilhelm both recall learning that grazing animals and vineyards should simply never cross paths. Fortunately, neither is a stickler for rules, which allows them to continually experiment and refine their methods. “At the end of the day, it’s about the soil,” said Wilhelm. “Healthy soil means healthy plants, a healthy environment and very good wine.” “We recently conducted an analysis of the soil in a plot where grazing happened and compared this to a plot where it didn’t,” said Carl. “What we found was a huge improvement in the quality of the soil [in the former] over a very short period of time.” Resalt consultant and veteran soil scientist, Bennie Diedericks, has been working closely with Carl and Wilhelm over the past few years and confirmed this finding. While there is no single, simple recipe for the cultivation of healthy soil, he said that taking the context into account, being willing to experiment with different methods and, more often than not, trusting your gut was of the utmost importance.
A natural haven for birds
One of the clearest indications of a healthy environment being nurtured from the soil up at Hartenberg, is a wealth of thriving indigenous fauna and flora. While watching the Ankole, we were also treated to a bit of drama as an African Harrier Hawk alighted upon an owl house towering above the vineyard. The simple wooden structure provides shelter for a breeding pair of barn owls, which form part of Hartenberg’s extensive biological pest control system. Aware of the fact that the nest may contain either eggs or chicks, the Gymnogene attempted a fly-by take-away by reaching his claws inside but left unsatisfied. Apart from Barn Owls and hawks, Hartenberg is also home to a healthy population of Cape Eagle Owls, as well as another 80-plus bird species, attracted by the protected wetland area, irrigation dams and all-round healthy ecosystem. The cutest cows you ever did see Apart from the large-horned Ankoles grazing in the vineyards, our guests also got to catch a glimpse of some of the other bovine farm-dwellers. Known for their placid temperaments, indigenous Ngunis are often deployed to accompany and keep the peace among their more hot-headed Ankole counterparts. Their beautiful, speckled hides also make for a particularly pretty picture against the backdrop of autumn vineyards. Stealing the show, however, were the Dexters. A relatively new addition to the farm, this petite cattle breed is a perfect match for vineyard work, as they can easily navigate tight spaces and may add a measure of efficiency to grazing. Although only one Ankole herd has currently been put to work, Wilhelm says that by mid-July no less than five different herds will be doing their thing in the vineyards.
Lunch in the cellar
The morning ended on a scrumptious note with a wine tasting led by Carl as well as a harvest-style lunch in our underground cellar, the largest of its kind in South Africa. The feast consisted of Amasi-marinated kudu accompanied by purple heirloom potatoes, sauteed baby carrots, and phyllo pastry filled with spinach and feta. All fresh ingredients were specially sourced from the neighbouring organic vegetable farm. All in all, it was a true celebration of all things Regenerative Viticulture at Hartenberg. The fresh air, tractor ride and delicious food and wine left our guests with a healthy, sun-kissed glow and a first-hand understanding of farming closer to nature.