Plant improvement and provision of the best available plant material is to be taken to unprecedented levels of quality and service in the South African wine industry by the establishment of KWV Vititec.

In the process, combating the apparently rapid spread of grapevine virus diseases, particularly leafroll, will be getting an important boost.

This is the picture emerging from a presentation by the key players in this initiative, made to more than 100 viticulturists, researchers, nursery and producer representatives and other interested parties recently at the KWV head office in Paarl, where this operation is based.

Vititec, as the MD of KWV South Africa, Willem Bestbier, explained, has evolved from the well-established and well-respected KWV Plant Improvement Department, which actually already supplies in 80% of industry’s total plant material needs.

However, by establishing the Vititec brand, this operation will now optimise its proven expertise and impressive capacity by providing certain ground-breaking guarantees in the South African context. These will be effective at two levels:

  • On the one hand, plant material supplied by Vititec will carry a comprehensive set of guarantees.
  • These will then be taken significantly further by plant material carrying the Vititec brand in the form of a label bearing the Vititec logo.
  • The forerunner to this enterprise, KWV Plant Improvement, was started way back in 1963, with the objective to supply the best available viticulturally and oenologically selected clonal material, free from known harmful viruses and virus-like diseases of the grapevine.
  • In view of the present concerns about the extent of leafroll virus, this is probably the best time ever to make a statement with regard to the ability to combat the problem.

But Mr Bestbier emphasised that Vititec’s focus was on finding market-related solutions to plant material supply problems and challenges. These would have the added benefit of protecting clients against leafroll in new material.

Obviously, secondary infection by the virus is something that the plant material supplier does not have control over and it is felt that considerable producer education is still needed in this regard. Ultimately, the answer to the problem probably lies in biological control, particularly genetic improvement, which could take another ten years to be implemented – if it finds general acceptance in the face of potentially strong criticism about tampering with nature.

Meanwhile, the grapevine virus research in South Africa has been strategically reorganised by the relevant organisations into a single programme with a view to dramatically decrease its incidence and spread.

But Bestbier and his team feel they cannot wait for things to happen. They have the expertise, resources and infrastructure to make an immediate impact. “We must progressively chase the latest technology to address the problem from the plant material supply side,” said Bestbier.

“By this commercialising this former service function, which has been financially independent for a long time already, KWV South Africa now intends giving its shareholders a return on their investment while also delivering a quality product. Thereby we shall also utilise and protect our intellectual property, which includes the best clonal supply service in South Africa, top expertise and several ‘unique selling propositions’ (USPs).

“KWV brand-specific plant material is in great demand internationally and the plant improvement section of KWV has evolved into a profitable commercial business.”

The KWV Vititec operation will be headed by Nico Spreeth as Manager, who heads up a team of 63 people based at Picardi farm in Paarl, Grondves at Stellenbosch and Kys at Vredendal. The hub of its activities will be at its laboratories and greenhouses at Picardi, which boast state-of-the-art facilities to enable its scientists and researchers to stay abreast of new developments within the field. This will be done in collaboration with leading international institutions, like the Waite Diagnostics in Australia.

A capital expenditure programme in excess of R1,5 million is underway to improve and expand the facilities and capacity in Paarl.

In terms of the Plant Improvement Law, the Vine Improvement Association (VIA) is the delegated authority which co-ordinates vine improvement in South Africa and administers the “SA Certification Scheme for Wine Grapes”. As a member of the VIA, the clones developed by KWV Vititech are registered at the VIA and the grafted material thereof is issued as “SA Certified” from approved sources.

The development and registration of new clones take place by means of local clone selection in establised vineyards, as well as the importation of high quality clones from abroad, for local evaluation – both viti/viniculturally. Altogether 379 scion and 120 rootstock clones are presently available through Vititec including the “rare” ones which have now started attracting considerable attention in South Africa – like Barbera, Carignan, Grenache, Malbec, Mourvudre (Mataro), Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Tannat, Tinta Roriz and Viognier.

Phytosanitary development (virus detection and virus eradication) is performed in the Vititec laboratories and greenhouses, parallel with viti/vinicultural evaluations in field clone trials and ampelographical control for trueness to type and cultivar.

The three phases of multiplication are:

  • Nucleus vines from each candidate and/or registered clone are kept in VIA approved insect free nucleus block greenhouses at Picardi, from where all future multiplication and evaluation are done.
  • Thereafter, rootstock and grafted vines are established in foundation blocks in insect free facilities and open field isolated areas. Scion and rootstock material from this source are grafted and callused at Picardi and cultivated in foundation nurseries in remote isolated areas for the establishment of mother blocks.
  • Mother blocks are established from the above-mentioned sources on the farms of contracted producers in pre-selected isolated areas. Rootstock mother blocks are only established on selected virgin soil of which about 400 hectares are maintained. Vinifera mother blocks are established from foundation grafted vines produced in foundation nurseries and approximately 1 000 hectares of these are maintained.
  • Nucleus, foundation and mother block sources are inspected continuously by Vititec’s experts for deviations, trueness to cultivar and type and phytosanitary symptoms. Sampling for serological virus tests and quality control are done regularly. Outdated material is annually discarded while new sources from improved clonal material are established for marketing.
  • The market demand for scion and rootstock cuttings of each cultivar and clone is estimated regularly in conjunction with consultants, nurserymen and producers. Vititec’s most important clients are vine nurseries. The certification of grafted material from these nurseries is undertaken by a private organisation, BG Plant Inspection Consultants, on behalf of the VIA.

KWV Vititec is thus able to offer a unique set of guarantees, both viti/viniculturally and phytosanitary. At the same time, it believes that its grafted vines show unique features, like superior grafts by green callusing, as well as vigorous rootstock growth and a particularly strong root system. The organisation also has important strategic partnerships with nursery clients, established motherblock growers, leading companies and research institutions nationally and internationally. In addition, it makes available top-notch facilities to clients, like virus detection and eradication, mist-bed multiplication, green grafting, Omega machine grafting, green callusing in hothouses and rootstock and scion multiplication in a vector free environment.

The guarantees carried by the KWV Vititec brand are:

  • Graft material coming from vines which are Elisa tested for leafroll 1, 2 and 3 on a vine-to-vine basis.
  • Graft material nucleus source plants test free from all harmful viruses of the grapevine.
  • Such material will obviously carry a premium with regard to price.
  • The rate of Elisa tests done at Picardi gives an indication of the extent of the operation to be able to provide such guarantees. More than 30 000 samples have been through these tests compared with 13 000 last year. In fact, a new Elisa laboratory is being constructed at Picardi at a cost of R80 000 to cope to with this escalating demand, which is obviously related to the leafroll problem.

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