24 January 2019

Nature first: Biologically friendly winemaking at Bellingham

Although this method of farming is more challenging than conventional methods, the rewards are infinite – from vineyard to glass. We sat down with Heini Nel (HN) Head Viticulturist at DGB and Richard Duckitt (RD), Head Winemaker at Bellingham to learn more.

Holistic wine-making practices aren’t easy, what are you and your team doing at Bellingham to incorporate a challenging winemaking method into the DNA of this brand?

RD: We don’t only apply biologically-friendly vini- and viticultural methods at Bellingham, but we also encourage all the farmers we source our grapes from to do the same. All our farmers support us and farm using biologically sound practices.

What do biologically sound practices entail?

HN: A very important component of this is healthy soil: farmers are encouraged to cultivate cover crops and legumes between vines to encourage healthy microbial activity. This also suppresses weed growth and the need for subsequent herbicides. This has a healthy knock-on effect as cover crops also assist in water retention, and with water scarcity being one of the Winelands’ biggest challenges, this is absolutely vital.

How about what happens above the soil?

HN: Of course, managing pests in the vines is a challenge, but at Bellingham, we have a saying: “if you kill the bad you kill the good with it, and then you have a bigger problem”. We are proponents of using natural enemies in the vineyard to provide natural pest control. To combat the pesky mealybug, for example, we have released natural enemies (lady birds) in those vineyards where mealybug populations are too high. The lady bird is a natural enemy of the mealybug and can so live in symbiosis with the vines. We are also compliant with the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) system. Our compliance with the scheme provides buyers with a guarantee that grape production was undertaken with due consideration of the environment, and that the wine was produced in an environmentally responsible manner and is safe for the consumer.

You’ve touched on water shortages, how did Bellingham cope with the Cape Winelands’ worst droughts to date, in vintage 2018?

RD: The short answer is terroir. At Bellingham, we are mindful to plant the right cultivars in the right soil, which allow vines to thrive naturally without too much artificial assistance like irrigation. Many of our vineyards are unirrigated, planted on deep well drained soils with a very high water holding capacity. For the rest, we have clever irrigation-management systems in place which only allow us to irrigate when absolutely necessary.  The result was a smaller vintage in 2018, but highly concentrated berries and top-quality juice.

Looking towards the future: how is vintage 2019 shaping up?

RD: The dams are full, and all looks promising, but we are mindful that the climate is shifting. We are prepared for warmer, longer, drier periods and are constantly innovating to be equipped. We are experimenting with new varieties that are hardier and better drought-resistant. Because we are mindful of nature, we will never be in a position where there isn’t wine bottled by Bellingham.

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