A Winery and Vineyard Experience
By Michelle Matswayi
Lying hidden within the picturesque Nyamasanga River Valley is Bushman Rock Safaris currently the only boutique winery in Zimbabwe. The renowned operation is a popular farm experience not only for wine tasting but, the outstanding natural beauty and tranquillity of the farm offers a scenic safari view and sensation.
A TOUCH OF HISTORY
In the early 1900’s the estate was known as Sellair Farm, which had close to two and half thousand hectares and was first owned by a pulp and paper company. The farm was then turned over to tobacco and mixed farming enterprise. In the late 1930s Mullins, a Scotsman passionate about the vines and established the first vineyards in the valley. Mullin’s vision was to create a vine covered valley that would rival best in Italy. Remarkably he later on sold it to an ex-Italian prisoner of war who when captured in North Africa was sent to the then Rhodesia and fell in love with the area. The vineyards were extended 1950s with extensive plantings of available vine varietals, the majority of which are not known for their wine grape quality.
BUSHMAN ROCK TODAY
Today the vineyards have been re-strategised and replaced with more noble French varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvingon and Cabernet Franc (the Bordeaux varieties). Mr Jono Passaportis, the M.D of Bushman Rock Safaris Pvt Ltd explains that further changes are underway with the whole operation adopting a wholistically managed agriculture approach with the employment of various regenerative agricultural practices. “Zimbabwe has challenging growing conditions for grapes which prefer dry, hot weather conditions. In the past chemicals were used extensively to combat some of the issues raised by the climate. As we move forward, we are really focusing on the long-term health of the soil and as such, are introducing various livestock practices within the vineyards to promote soil regeneration” says Jono.
Chickens: At Bushman Rock one can find free-range layer chickens. The chickens are kept in large, airy barns overnight as the area is full of natural predators due to Bushman Rock also being a wildlife reserve. The birds are released in the morning to roam freely underneath the vineyards, pecking white-ants found in the deadwood of the vines and gobbling the succulent broadleaf plants that would previously have been sprayed with weedkillers. So far, this project has been proved incredibly successful and has significantly reduced the use of chemicals and fertiliser within the vines as it is manured by the roaming chickens.
Sheep: Globally, weeds are controlled within vineyards through the practice of chemical burning. To this regard, Jono engineered an ingenious solution by constructing a makeshift sheep ‘tractor’. The prototype ‘tractor’ was inspired by a neighbour who is using the idea within their pastures to great effect. A box like compartment was made with recycled of metal poles and wire-mesh. On wheels, the frame sits within the vineyard rows allowing the sheep to graze within the vineyards but restricting them from eating the vines themselves. The “tractor” has a small flock of bachelor sheep and is moved daily once the sheep have grazed the area. The system has been trialled for 6 months and is proving very effective in the control of vegetative growth within the vineyards.
Although Zimbabwe is not well known as a grape growing region, the Mashonaland East Province has been highlighted as having very good viticultural potential. At an altitude of over 1400m the Bushman Rock vineyards are some of the highest in Africa and the world. This altitude brings winter frosts ensuring dormancy and brings beautifully sunny hot days in early summer. Over the years the vineyards were moved away from the original varietals to more “noble French” wine grape varieties. The vineyards were planted to over 10 different varieties;
The White varieties – Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay, and Viognier.
The Red varieties – Cabernet Frac, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage, Syrah, and Alicante Bouschet. Jono explained that although a lot of the vineyards were replanted in the early 2000’s, Bushman Rock has the oldest commercially cropped vineyard in Zimbabwe in the Alicante Bouschet vines. Estimates are that these vines are over 70 years old and still produces some amazing wines known for its dark purple colour as Alicante Bouschet is one of the few grape varieties that has red juice.
“A fun fact in wine making that a lot of people do not know is that, Red grapes are also used for making white wine. By squeezing out the juice from red grapes without contacting the skin you get what is called blanc de noir which is white from black. Red colour in wine comes from the fermentation of the red skins which hold colour” Jono.
As vines age the quality of the grape tends to improve but the yields decrease. Normally vineyards are replanted every 25-30 years. Jono explained that the vineyards will require extensive replanting over the next decade and the strategy will be to focus on a smaller range of wines but increase their production volumes. Over the past decade Bushman Rock Wine Tasting Lunches have proved the ideal opportunity to get first-hand guest feedback and so varieties that have struggled will be replaced by more successful varietals. Wines such as Moscato have developed a cult following and expansion of the small Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are planned.
Viticultural practices optimise vineyard health, improve crop quantity, and quality leading to increased profitability. Like pest and disease management, viticultural practices should be implemented in a timely fashion throughout the growing season to maximise practice efficiency and benefit gain.
Pruning: Pruning is based on producing fruit in the coming season and renewing young canes for the next year. At Bushman Rock the vines are pruned manually in winter every year. It improves air circulation, vine growth, and fruit quality as the vine only cconcentrates its energy during the growing season into selected fruiting wood.
Weed control: Bushman Rock has not used weedkillers for over 5 years inter-vine growth is controlled with mechanical strimming and inter row growth is mowed by tractor. If the sheep tractors continue to prove successful, the need for these practices will be greatly reduced.
Pest and Disease control: Focus has been given to improving the overall health of the vines, thus reducing the opportunistic attacks by pests and disease. This is a long process as there is no quick fix to ensuring all the elements within the soil and plant are balanced. Prevention is always better than cure and organic options such as lime sulfur are fantastic, however, the incessant rains during periods of the 2021 growing season played havoc and mildews were rife. These issues are one of the things dealt with in growing vines in a summer rainfall area.
Irrigation: The Bushman Rock vineyards are irrigated using drip to reduce the humidity within the leaf structure. By watering directly to the base of the vines it is much more efficient, and the efficiency is increased by the use of extensive mulching under the vines. As Bushman Rock focusses on regenerative farming, replanted vineyards will first be established with a mix of cover crops encouraging carbon transfer to the soil.
“The specially selected noble vine varietals combined with our unique terroir ensure lively, vibrant wines that are completely unique in their style.”
Since 2007 significant investment has been made into the “quality” of the wine production. Although this investment is still ongoing the improvements to the production have already returned fantastic results. The introduction of improved crushing, cold settling, and cold fermentation equipment has greatly improved the juice extraction. The introduction of oak maturation barrels, a small amount of stainless-steel, and renovations to the original concrete storage vats resulted in greatly improved controls and consistency and new filtration machines and an updated bottling system have added greatly to the Winery’s production value. The impact of the interaction between the wine and the oak has on the aroma and taste of the wine. The majority of tertiary aromas found in wine are developed thanks to prolonged contact with the oak. Vanilla, cinnamon, hazelnut, toast, leather, etc. different aromas depending on the type of wood, its origin, and the way in which it was toasted during the manufacture of the barrels.
THE VINEYARD TOUR AND WINE TASTING EXPERIENCE
During a vineyard tour at Bushman Rock, you can expect to not only walk through the vineyards, and wine making facilities, but to learn about the history of the vineyard, how they make wine, and their wine philosophy. The tours end in the tasting room, and you can taste the wines produced at the vineyard from various vintage. Bushman Rock understands that one’s relationship with wine is personal, and believe that all visitors, whether wine connoisseurs or complete beginners will enjoy their range. Wine tasting at Bushman Rock is based on sensory evaluation making it a tutored tasting experience. Using the 5 “S” approach i.e. See, Swirl, Sniff, Spit, and Savour you get to use your 4 main senses of sight, smell, taste, and touch. Being able to experience the 4 senses enable you to enjoy and gain more appreciation to wine.
Sight: Colours give the taster clues on the grape variety as well as the age of the wine. The paler a white wine is or the less colour it has, resembles dryness and a younger age. This goes for the opposite as well, the deeper the colour, the older it is and the more dryer it tastes i.e., from pale greenish-yellow to brown. However, note that a white wine that is brown has gone bad. For the Red wine in terms of colour- colour comes from the skins that are crushed to give colour. The amount of skin contact, the deeper it the more time it had with the skin.
Smell- Swirling the glass, gives air and releases the wine’s aroma. Through nosing one can identify a clean or dirty wine as the primary objective. The main objective of nosing is to pick up scents. Primary aromas are generally native to the grapes whereas the secondary aromas are brought about through fermentation, that is through the yeast acting on the wine. Tertiary aromas; it is important to note that no added flavours are given to wine, flavours come from the grapes themselves within the barrel. Due to the aging process of the barrel and where you get your barrels from is what adds the aroma to the wine. For instance; French oaks give a fruity scent while American oaks give herbal scent. White wines are aged in stainless steel tanks. The flavour or aroma comes from chemistry of the wine that oxidized during the process and aging.
Tasting– Has 3 stages i.e., Sipping and Swirling in the mouth for 3-5 seconds then Spit. Letting the wine sit and coat the surface of the pallet gives the taste to the actual wine (spitting is not mandatory).
Touch– allowing the wine to sit on the pallet and then swallowing allows you to savour the wine which is then tasted through the sense of touch. The coat and taste savouring within your mouth is what lets you judge the wine, using all senses now from the sight, smell, taste, and touch a complete sense gives you the overall judgment of the particular wine.
During a day trip or overnight farm-stay at Bushman Rock Safaris you will enjoy the stunning views over the vineyards landscape, experience the beauty of grape farming, and enjoy a fabulous gourmet meal offered. After the visit, you will understand where and how history and wine intersect through the estate’s rich and storied past.