Haut Espoir – ‘High Hope’ – is nestled in the mountains at the end of the Franschhoek Valley. It has been developed and run by the Armstrong Family since 1999 who chose to transition to Biodynamics in 2011 to produce handcrafted wines in harmony with nature. This 23-hectare farm dedicates 8 hectares for their shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc vines and the remaining for fynbos restoration, riverine ecosystem and vegetables and herb garden. Planted South East – North West, their vines benefit from a great wind blowing away diseases.
At Haut Espoir, we experienced warm hospitality from the Armstrong family and winemaking team and we got a unique insight into their intentional winemaking.
In the morning, we worked for Marozanne Bieldt and her assistant Bradley. We started with some punch-downs of their Shiraz berries. The berries, after de-stemming, ferment in small open fermentation tanks. With these small tanks, experimentations on fermentation are easier to manage. The spontaneous malolactic fermentation would then take place in French oak and matured for 20 months. Then, we received Merlot grapes which had just been hand harvested and we worked on the very first steps of the winemaking process: first, we manually helped the de-stemming machine to make sure that there were no leaves or stems left. We repeated this for the 15 “lots” that we received. After de-stemming the berries, we put them in the press and kept an eye on the pressing process. The juice was then transferred to stainless steel tank for fermentation. We gathered the waste products from the press that would later be used to generate compost. Finally, we helped cleaning every machine used: we quickly realized that in the winemaking process, a lot is about cleaning and washing!
In late afternoon, Rob Armstrong took us on a walk around the property. We learned on their focus to have a minimal impact on the environment with their biodynamic viticultural practices. One day, Rob decided that they had to stop using fungicides, insecticides and fertilizers because of the growing number of people suffering from all kind of cancers and dying from it. As he said, vines were then “drug addicts”. They had to make a change. Switching from conventional to biodynamic practices was a major decision: the first years, their yields dropped from 8 tons/ha to 0.5 tons/ha. They are now back to 3.5 tons/ha and hope to reach 6.5 tons/ha in the coming years. It was also a tough decision because of their neighbors and community judging their decision. But little by little, they've started paying attention when their vines didn’t suffer from diseases that the rest of the community would get. The new challenge of Haut Espoir is now to get officially certified Biodynamic by Demeter (based in Germany): Demeter have rules on growing and vinification is stricter than organic certification – for example, less use of copper sulphate per hectare, and the requirement for natural yeasts for fermentation.
Biodynamics was first developed in the early 1920's based on the spiritual insights and practical suggestions of the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Biodynamic farmers work with the subtle influences of the wider cosmos on soil, plant and animal health: the ecosystem functions as a whole with each portion of the farm contributing to the next.
What are their practices?
Of course, there is no commercial fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides or non-organic additives used in the vines or in the wine-making process
Following the biodynamic calendar is an integral part of the process and control the farming practices. It breaks all the tasks associated with farming into four kinds of days: root days for pruning, fruit days for harvesting, leaf days for watering and flower days for resting. What’s more, they also use the lunar cycle and its gravitational pull: they harvest in full moon and plant in new moon.
They also use the most famous preparations of biodynamic farming: cow horn manure, also known as preparation 500. Cow horns are stuffed with manure compost and buried for one year into the ground all through the winter, then later excavated. Then, the stuffed material is mixed with water and spread throughout the vineyard. It is supposed to stimulate the soil microbial activity, to regulate pH and enhance the quality and flavor of their crops.
They also treat an effluent in a wetland and a bioreactor system as water.
And many others!
Finally, we got the great opportunity to taste many of their wines: find out more in our tasting article!