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Forget the Western Cape. Wine farming hits KZN

Will the diversification from sugar work?

CAPE TOWN – Leave for a moment the mountains and valleys of the Western Cape which are the heart and soul of the South African wine industry and travel north-east towards the green fields of KwaZulu-Natal.

There an enterprising economic development agency established three vineyards in the heart of the Ilembe District, north of Durban. In total 12 hectares of Villard Blanc grapes were planted in 2010. 

The first grapes were harvested in March this year and viticulturalist and now winemaker Daniel Maerkl is in the process of bottling the first vintage. “It’s a dry white wine called 1781 which is the year in which King Shaka was born,” says Maerkl. “We are trying to create something that is unique to KZN and which will become a tourist attraction in its own right.”

The wine project is the brainchild of Enterprise iLembe and was primarily funded by local government. It aims to create economic opportunities for rural communities in the region. Each vineyard is located in a different local municipality and is owned and farmed co-operatively. Once the grapes are harvested they are transported to a central winery at Collisheen Estate on the outskirts of Ballito.

Maerkl, a graduate of Elsenburg agricultural college in Stellenbosch, is the resident viticulturalist, project manager and wine maker.  He is working with local communities to pass on skills. “We are creating jobs and economic opportunity, we are trying to diversify Natal’s agricultural sector away from sugar, and we are doing something we believe will promote tourism to these areas.”

The job, he says, has been simultaneously rewarding and challenging, with a few hurdles and mistakes along the way.

One challenge was over-coming climatic challenges – notably Natal’s dry winters and hot, humid summers. The Villard Blanc varietal was planted because it is resistant to downy mildew and appears to have responded well to the environment. The harvest yielded 28 tons of grapes which have been pressed and fermented into roughly 9000 bottles of wine which will be eminently quaffable, he says.

The local communities are stakeholders in the project and those working the fields have accepted a lower wage. “There is recognition that it can take six to seven years to make any profits and so it is important that the R19m start-up budget for the project is spent prudently,” Maerkl says.

Wine farming and wine making is a noble and deeply satisfying past-time. But it is not known for its economic largesse. The communities in Northern KZN will need the best of Bacchus’ luck in their endeavours.

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