Viticulture research turns over a new leaf

by | May 2, 2021 | Article, Oenology research, Viticulture research, Wineland

Centenary celebrations at the Stellenbosch University in 2019 prompted the academic institution to turn over a new leaf at its viticulture and oenology research and training programme. This year, the Welgevallen Training and Research Vineyards were established by its Faculty of Agricultural Sciences in collaboration with the Department of Viticulture and Oenology (DVO) with support from various sponsors in the private sector. Funding came from the university’s strategic fund as well as the Faculty, which appointed wine industry body Vinpro to implement it over the next three years. With a proven model to promote knowledge transfer in the South African wine industry through commercial demonstration blocks and vineyard trials, Vinpro’s own Gen-Z vineyard project (initiated in 2017) provided the perfect framework to establish the vineyards on the Faculty’s behalf.

Great minds

The site is described as an extension of the classroom and laboratory in the DVO where it will form part of the undergraduate training in fulfilment of a four-year BScAgric degree. Postgraduate training and research is coordinated through The South African Grape and Wine Research Institute (SAGWRI) in partnership with other national and international higher education, public and private enterprises. The DVO and SAGWRI are the only University-based environments in South Africa that offer under graduate and postgraduate courses in Viticulture and Oenology.

“It was perfect timing that the two projects happened to coincide,” says Francois Viljoen, manager of Vinpro’s Gen-Z project. “We address the need to demonstrate new research, technology and viticultural practices through the ‘seeing is believing’ principle, which changes decision-making and behaviour. Just like the Gen-Z project, it’s all about the next generation. The vineyards will train top-class viticulturists, winemakers and producers who will one day deliver back to the industry.”

Asset to the industry

The previous vineyard blocks on the experimental farm were removed after the harvest in 2019 and the soil was thoroughly mapped and prepared. Trellis systems set up after good winter rains the new blocks were planted between August and September 2020. “We planted all 4.5 ha simultaneously which took a bit of coordination,” says Francois. “Once they’re properly set up in about two years, we’ll hand the keys back to the Faculty. In the meantime, they will provide an excellent training opportunity for students to be part of the establishment of new vineyards from planning to production.”

The vineyards are divided into six blocks which focus on various grapes, clones and rootstocks under different irrigation, trellising and pruning systems. The variety of options provide an unprecedented platform for training and research by students of the university. Non-students will also benefit. “We intend to host groups of wine producers, viticulturists and farm managers, but more importantly also farm workers,” says Francois. “It makes sense to make this platform available to the industry as widely as possible.”

According to Emma Carkeek, viticulturist with the Gen-Z project, work has already begun on the next stage: 15.5 ha of commercial vineyards which the University will take over at the end of 2023. The site is predominantly virgin soil on the upper part of Welgevallen, using five carefully selected red cultivars, with a good mix of clones and suitable rootstocks. “We had to take the site characteristics and environmental influences into account, but also the current and predicted grape prices together with the ultimate wine quality goal,” says Emma. “The commercial vineyards are a crucial part of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the training blocks.”

Sponsoring excellence

Setting up a world-class training and research programme with enough expertise and state-of-the-art technologies wouldn’t be possible without the support of sponsors and contributors, and more than 20 suppliers to the wine industry jumped at the opportunity to be involved. Among them is smart irrigation specialist Netafim. “Netafim has come a long way with the wine industry and it’s important for our company to plough back into the industry,” says marketing manager Willem Botha. “For us, it’s important to be involved in the project, not just to support the university in their mission to train ‘future fit’ viticulture and oenology students, but also to expose producers to new practices, trends and demo sites.”

For Revolute Systems, the connection was with past as much as future. Founders Berno Greyling and Jacobus Els are both SU alumni. “I studied in and Berno worked for the viticulture department before we founded Revolute,” says Jacobus. “When we heard about the project at Welgevallen we asked if we could sponsor some of our services.” Revolute provided electromagnetic soil scanning technology to create detailed maps of soil variation. The maps were used to plan optimal block layouts in combination with other expert inputs and surveys done before planting. “For us at Revolute it’s important that new students are exposed to the newest technology being used in farming, and this is an amazing opportunity for them to do so.”

Voor-Groenberg nurseries donated 19 different cultivars of varying numbers for the cultivar block. “This block will serve as a mini cultivar collection for the student to gain exposure in the study of ampelography,” says executive member Johan Wiese. “Identification of the most well-known cultivars is important in any vineyard industry. The grapes can also be used for small-scale winemaking by students.” The block can be used to demonstrate pruning of different cultivars, ripening times, canopy management as well as production levels, cluster shape and other differences between the cultivars. “The differences in cultivars and wines of cultivars are the basis of viticulture in any country that is serious about providing quality wines to the public.”

Sean Robinson, owner of Cape Agricultural Products (CAP) became involved with the Welgevallen vineyards as the South African agent for Deltex polyester wire that’s used for the foliage wires in wine grape vineyards. This product, manufactured in France, is used in markets throughout the world as a replacement for conventional galvanized steel wire to manipulate the vine canopy. “Exposing students to the Deltex product will give them a good idea of its benefits,” Sean says. “It shows prospective viticulturists there are alternatives to the older, traditional materials used.” The vineyard block that CAP and Deltex has sponsored is also used for testing vineyard poles made from new materials, such as mild steel, stainless steel, PVC and fibreglass. By using Deltex in this block, students can study how the product interacts with these new materials. “This raises awareness of what new materials are available to future farmers,” Sean says.

Sven Lindenberg, factory representative of Profil Alsace in South Africa, a major manufacturer of steel trellising systems, says the project provided an ideal opportunity to cooperate with Stellenbosch University to deploy its modern trellising designs for the next generation of viticulturists. “We’re firmly committed to the South African wine industry thriving through modernisation and innovation,” says Sven. “The irruption of modern and more sophisticated machinery in the vineyards has elevated trellising from a necessary nuisance to one of the cornerstones of contemporary viticulture, impacting the quantity and quality of the farmed grapes.”

“We’re proud to be part of this exciting process by introducing cutting-edge technology already widely used in other parts of the world. It’s thrilling to be part of this venture with our reliable partner KaapAgri, creating a better and more stable future for many South Africans.”

Layout of the Welgevallen Vineyards

Block 1: TABLE & RAISIN GRAPES

  • 18 Table grape cultivars on 3 trellis systems
  • 6 Raisin cultivars on 4 trellis systems
  • 8 grapevines per combination

Block 2A: WINEGRAPE CULTIVAR CLONE ROOTSTOCK COLLECTION

  • 84 Cultivars
  • 5 Clones of 8 cultivars (10 grapevines each)
  • 17 Rootstocks

Block 2B: PRUNING SYSTEMS

  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Clone 46 on Richter 110
  • 10 Pruning Systems
  • 1-2 Rows per system – early vs. late pruning

Block 3A & 3B: WINEMAKING BLOCK

  • 19 Cultivars: 8 white & 11 red
  • 100-1000 kg/cultivar for student practical winemaking
  • Vineyard post demo: 9 post types

Block 4: IRRIGATION RESEARCH

  • 2 Experiments
  • 4 Cultivars
  • 4 Rootstocks
  • 3 Irrigation Strategies
  • Chenin Blanc (SN220/R99) outside experiment

Block 5: WAGON WHEEL/ROW DIRECTIONS

  • Pinotage PI48/R110
  • 46 Row direction variations

Block 6: TRELLIS SYSTEMS

  • 19 Trellis systems
  • 1-4 rows per system

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