If you ever considered yourself a religious person, or if not religious, then at least ascribing to a higher power/being/energy - then YOU believe in magic.
Think about it. Things we cannot necessarily explain in a logical, scientific manner, but believe in nonetheless, that’s my definition of magic. NOT magic in an entertaining, sleight-of-hand, kind of way, but MAGIC, influencing events or situations through mysterious or supernatural forces. Which is where Avondale Wine Estate in the Paarl comes in, a SUPER - natural wine farm. Johnathan Grieve, in the role of druid, viticulturist, and owner of said Estate employs an intriguing mix of Organic, Biodynamic and Scientific Principles to maintain a SUPER-natural balance between the soil, the animals, the people, the elements, the plants and ultimately the universe. While this might sound outlandish to some, I would contend that the techniques in use are nothing more than ancient, natural practices aimed at maintaining a healthy ecosystem - mixed in with a few modern elements where necessary (arguably how the founding fathers of said doctrines would have tweaked their principles if they had access to the technology) and just a little bit of actual magic.
Druids fulfilled a variety of roles in ancient Britain and France (think Asterix and Obelix). They were “philosophers, teachers, judges, the repository of communal wisdom about the natural world and the traditions of the people, and the mediators between humans and gods.”* While completing a marathon interview with Johnathan a few weeks ago at Avondale and having listened to his seemingly endless knowledge of the natural world and what makes it TICK, it struck me that he may just be a modern-day druid. Reworking and implementing the communal wisdom of the ages to create a near perfect ecosystem in which to thrive and grow (quite possibly) the most NATURAL grapes and resulting wines you’ve ever had the pleasure of sampling. His reasoning, to my mind, is faultless, if fanatical, though a measure of fanaticism is required when departing from the norm. Johnathan says that it all stemmed from 18 months of normal farming practices, during which the chemical salesman made numerous trips out to the farm suggesting one chemical or the other to combat a variety of ills. The only overriding result being that there was subsequently NO wildlife, NO life on the farm - the main function of a herbicide or pesticide being to kill things, which in the process then kills off other things. Johnathan started employing organic tactics to nurture his vines- planting cover crops to insulate the soil on which the vineyards grow, to stop it drying out in the Paarl summer heat and generate the necessary nutrients to keep the soils healthy.
From there, his aspirations took flight, as he started consulting the ‘great god google’ as he calls it and was introduced to the biodynamic farming principles of Rudolf Steiner an Austrian philosopher, also known as the founder of Waldorf education and an advocate of ethical individualism. His work was widely criticised for its lack of scientific evidence and what was perceived as an over-reliance on esoteric knowledge and mystical beliefs - though given that today there exists an international biodynamics standards group, Demeter, as well as a number of international certification bodies for biodynamic products - one might argue that any initial criticism may merely be attributed to the “newness” of it all. Biodynamics is primarily based on 9 preparations of the soil - though technically there are 3 used directly in the vineyards and then the rest relating to the preparation of compost. The goal being healthy SOIL. There is a biodynamic planting schedule by German biodynamic authority, Maria Thun, which is regulated by the cycles of the moon, planets, and constellations. The distribution of soil strengthening elements using Radionics via a field broadcaster (the principles of which I urge you to read up on). A variety of bugs to control pest infestations. Nomadic, working, cows and chickens (the chickens even have their own egg mobile), their enclosures are moved every day making them graze and fertilise each block of earth as they go. A troop of pest control ducks, who seasonally get released into the vineyards to make sure no snails get to the vines. And then automated irrigation utilising highly intelligent software attuned to each one of the 13 different soil types on the 300ha farm (of which only 65ha is under vine, and another sizeable portion planted to plums).
Johnathan’s quest to rejuvenate the soil and ecosystem on Avondale has resulted in his pioneering the BioLOGIC approach to sustainable viticulture - a SMART mix of Organic, Biodynamic and Scientific Principles - of which, the WINE can be your measure of its success.
The wine is SLOW wine, where possible Johnathan and winemaker Corné Marais have employed organic winemaking practices, having brought in Qvevris from Georgia (they were the first to do so in South Africa) - porous, earthenware vessels that are buried underneath the soil to ensure cool temperatures and no light, with no additives, in which wines are left to ferment and age at their leisure, ORGANICALLY. Similarly, they utilise Amphorae, the only difference from the Qvevri being that it is stored above ground and not oval shaped at the bottom. Avondale’s Amphorae are made locally with actual clay from the estate to impart even MORE sense of place. These vessels produce the orange wines resulting from such natural practices and an integral ingredient to some of their most prized white wines. Where they can, or where relevant they have removed the use of first fill French Oak barrels, opting for fruit-forward, long-lasting wines from larger format, 2nd, 3rd, and even 10th fill barrels.
The resulting wines are older and more finely developed than your BIG, oaky wines that perhaps lose their luster in a few years’ time. To give you an idea of age, the Armilla MCC, Johnathan’s mother’s favourite, is bottle-aged for 7 years - described as a moreish Blanc de Blancs. Named for the armillary sphere - a model of the objects in the sky - the constellations, and a perfect nod to Johnathan’s methods. The Anima Chenin may very well have been my favourite from the impressive line-up of wines, including 15% of the naturally fermented Orange wine, continuing our trend of stellar South African Chenin with an estimated ageability of 8 years. Anima being Latin for ‘Soul’ and in reference to the inherent minerality of the wine. Then there is the Cyclus white blend, named for the cycle of life. The Camissa, the Khoisan name for Cape Town, meaning ‘Sweet Water’, a Blanc de Noir in celebration of the gravity flow winter rainfall that looks after the farm and its 7 dams. The Samsara Syrah, Sanskrit meaning ‘Rebirth’, made in the old-world style with warmer ferments. The La Luna Cabernet dominant Bordeaux blend, named for the moon and its cycles that dictate everything. And finally, the Navitas, which Johnathan describes as the most un-flagship-like, flagship wine. An unassuming Rhône style blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, the name Latin for ‘Energy’; though as Johnathan explains it, this wine took the least amount of work given the natural methods employed. The perfect snapshot of Avondale’s naturally made wines.
When I arrived that morning, harvest had just begun. Consisting of 90 people, from the marketing manager to the kitchen staff, everyone got involved. For this, their 22nd harvest, as is tradition, Father Ivan, the Grieve family’s priest made his way out to bless the harvest. After which, they all had breakfast together. And that’s the thing about Avondale, it’s not just the soil, EVERYTHING contributes to EVERYTHING. There are 20 families living on the farm, there is a crèche with a trained teacher and computer facilities available for homework. The chickens lay eggs and provide meat to FABER restaurant (the BEAUTIFUL restaurant on the farm - well worth a visit), there is a complete vegetable garden supplying the restaurant with the goal to be self-sufficient in the future, the cows - ditto, all of them justifying the people and their labours. Johnathan tells me that when he hired his new marketing manager, he left him at the farm for two weeks while he went abroad on a marketing trip, and when he returned he noticed something was just a bit off. He eventually had to sit him down to find out what was bothering him. His answer: IT’S ALL TRUE.
* Taken from the book “Druids: A Very Short Introduction” by Barry Cunliffe.