Reconciling wine production with conservation
By Samarie Smith - Photographs Courtesy of the estates, posted on 05 December 2022
Sustainability is the buzzword of the century. Yet, acting on its pivotal role in economic viability, environmental protection, and social equity is the invisible tread keeping the world alive as we know it. Globally, the wine industry is making its conservation efforts visible, and South Africa intends to remain a vital part of the conversation.
Klein Constantia's annual tree drive includes purchasing at least 100 indigenous plants in the farm's natural areas.
The booklet, Our Sustainable Wine Journey, produced by Wines of South Africa (WOSA), highlights the ethos of Southern Africa's indigenous /Xam San people as custodians of the land that gave rise to an alliance of organisations - Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA) - driving the industry's commitment to sustainable production. This wine country's liberating tale includes groundbreaking initiatives to save water and energy, advocate Fairtrade, education, support thriving black-owned brands and many more.
As the representative body for the South African wine industry, sustainability has been integral to building Brand South Africa in the local and international consumer market, says Rico Basson, Vinpro Executive Director. “The South African wine industry is a world leader in production integrity, embracing strict guidelines for sustainable farming and the responsibility of protecting our environment and conserving our biodiversity. It's at the forefront of research projects about climate change, such as Terraclim and Gen-Z. However, for the industry to grow, it is vital to have a policy and regulatory environment that provides incentives for investment”.
Resilient business models allowed the industry to keep its head up with the onslaught of added economic pressures due to alcohol bans and the disastrous effects Covid-19 had on wine tourism. Still, ongoing projects like the revival of old vineyards and improving the livelihood of communities dependent on the industry have elevated the Cape's stance on sustainability. Moreover, they have increased consumers' awareness of its ethical and environmentally-friendly practices and led to its industry wine exhibition, CapeWine 2022, coining the theme Sustainability 360.
For Klein Constantia viticulturist Craig Harris, "We neeed to ensure the soil is passed on to the next generation in a similar or better state".
The pandemic prevented CapeWine from happening in Cape Town but fuelled the need to showcase projects, programmes and activities anchoring the industry's longevity.
As a result, according to Maryna Calow, communications manager for Wines of South Africa (WOSA), CapeWine 2022 has seen a record number of exhibitors since its inception in 2002.
“Sustainability 360 focuses on three pillars: people, planet and prosperity. We want to highlight how far we have come to embrace and promote these practices on our farms and communities to see our industry thrive for another 360+ years.”
CapeWine 2022 offers a unique opportunity to share the message of sustainability and promote the Cape Winelands as an exceptional tourism destination, adds WOSA CEO, Siobhan Thompson. “Initiatives include the Wine of Origin certification (WO), Integrated Production of Wine (IPW), Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), among others, highlighting that sustainability sits at the core of the South African wine industry”.
The pledge to create a sustainable harmony between place, product and people while providing the world with an enormous diversity of quality wines has also led to 77% of the country's 92,000 hectares of vineyards being Wieta certified.
Spier became a WWF-SA conservation champion in 2012 and aims to nurture the unique biodiversity that encourages the return of faune, flora and insect life back onto the farm.
WWF Conservation Champions
South Africa's wine industry rapidly expanded in 2000, spurring a partnership between the conservation and wine sectors. Initially named the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) in 2004, the programme was renamed the Conservation Champion programme, offering wine producers advisory support with tangible targets to improve their water and energy efficiency. Conservation champions collectively own 45,200 hectares spread across the Cape Winelands, of which 24,300ha of the Cape Floral Kingdom is conserved, boasting over 9,600 plant species.
These environmental leaders collaborate with the WWF to set up environmental management plans and implement systems to meet market requirements through the IPW certification scheme. Wines produced by WWF Champions carry the distinctive sugarbird and protea logo on their bottles, affirming their commitment to biodiversity and conservation. In turn, this commitment is perpetuated by every consumer buying a bottle bearing this logo.
La Motte Estate in Franschhoek has been awarded Great Wine Capitals winner in the category for sustainability multiple times. Yet, CEO Hein Koegelenberg commends the entire wine sector for its persistent efforts. “We have such diverse terroir with talented people working in wine. It is our responsibility to continue focusing on upliftment, education, training and employment to better the lives of our local communities”.
Creation, situated in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, received its official WWF conservation champion status in May 2022.
La Motte's projects have seen the implementation of excellent regenerative farming practices. “Vast rehabilitated areas cleared from alien invasion have seen previously unprotected ecosystems being restored, providing a habitat for rare and endangered species and luring natural predators like snakes and owls to control pests”, adds Koegelenberg.
Vondeling in Paarl boasts species of Fynbos unique to the area, naming their flagship white and red wines after two of these red data-listed plants: Babiana (white) and the Monsonia (red). Following a fire on the Paardeberg in January 2011, a botanical survey was commissioned by the Paardeberg Sustainability Initiative (PSI) in collaboration with Vondeling Wines to record the plant species growing on the mountain. As a result, over 900 species in over 70 families have been collected.
Their passion for preserving their natural environment is palpable at Creation, and co-owner Carolyn Martin shares that being a WWF Conservation Champion resonates with them on various levels. “We support scientific initiatives like ClimaVin (a global climate change project spearheaded by Stellenbosch University) and the Vititec GEN-Z project to establish clones and rootstocks best suited to mitigate climate change”.
As everything is connected, environmentally conscious efforts are bound to give rise to side hustles like WWF Champion in Elgin, Almenkerk, growing its bee population from 0 to 70 boxes. “It is incredibly gratifying to see nature flourish around you and to know you are doing as much as possible to preserve it. We need to leave our children a healthy and financially sustainable farm and cherish every aspect of it”, shares Natalie Obstaele, co-owner at Almenkerk.
Graham Beck is another stalwart WWF Champion. Over three decades, its COO Pieter Ferreira (previously as cellarmaster) saw it being shaped into the conservation-savvy wine mogul it is today. “A substantial portion of the land was set aside as a private nature reserve (the Graham and Rhona Beck Game Reserve) in the semi-arid region of Robertson. Many farms have subsequently followed suit. As a result, the Rooiberg-Breede River Conservancy was established by 27 landowners to protect 16,000 hectares of unique Cape Floral Kingdom fauna and flora”. For every hectare used for agriculture/wine production, nine hectares of natural vegetation are conserved, equalling 1,978 hectares.
Almenkerk, where the well-being of workers at work and in their private spacie is vital, has been a WWF conservation champion since October 2015.
Waste not, want not.
Composting and recycling organic and inorganic waste is crucial in the preservation methods applied at the properties of WWF Champions. The family of Delheim, for example, grew up with conservation being a part of who they are and how they farm, says CEO Victor Sperling, whose mom took a stance against plastic bags in the 80s. “My father planted trees throughout his life to give back to nature. Being a WWF conservation champion tells people we are committed to doing what is right”.
Extracting the good from all plastic evil, La Motte also recycles glass and cartons with recyclable items sold to HE Recyclers, explains Koegelenberg. “The money generated rewards the staff who commits to recycling”. Furthermore, Amorim collects used corks for repurposing, and Brenn-O-Kem removes wine lees for the manufacture of cream of tartar”.
Organic waste material from the winery, such as grape seeds, skins and stalks, are deposited on a designated compost site with green mulches from vine clippings and weed cuttings. The compost is irrigated with treated winery wastewater, and when compost is mature, and the chemical composition has been determined, it is used in vineyards and gardens.
Hein Koegelenberg, CEO of La Motte Wine Estate, enthusiastically shares how South Africa has come from everyday quality wines to exceptional, site-specific wine.
By 2011, Spier had been consistently recycling 85% of its solid waste, shares Frans Smit, CEO of this Stellenbosch wine farm, celebrated for its success stories around sustainability.
"In the last 15 months, we managed to divert all waste, 95-98% recycled and the balance, to a waste-to-energy plant. In the twelve months to May 2022, our recycling and recovery efforts resulted in 73,832kg less CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere, equalling 671m3 of landfill volume saved through waste diversion”, Smit continues. Since 2014, Spier has used the CCC Confronting Climate Change carbon calculator to measure the carbon footprint of their direct wine operations and seek ways to reduce this.
Vondeling's vineyards run off the south-facing slopes of the Paardeberg Mountain where the decomposed granite soil and habitual afternoon south westerly winds give the wines vibrancy in an otherwise warm climate area.
A country like South Africa, struck by prolonged drought, has established a conservation consciousness throughout its wine value chain while maintaining the best possible quality in the most financially sustainable way. Vondeling viticulturalist, Magnus Joubert, believes this process starts in the soil, and a mixture of cover crops is used to preserve soil health. “This year, we used black oats (Saia oats), radish, mustard, vetch and lupines. This way, you cover a broader spectrum of material you put back in the soil: Saia gives green manure, radish helps with aeration, mustard helps protection against nematodes, and vetch provides good ground cover that helps with weed control and moisture retention in the soil. The lupines are a source of nitrogen fixation, and the cover crop keeps the soil alive. We use mulch in the form of Canola bales to help with moisture retention in the soil, and weed control. It breaks down to build soil health and build up carbon in the soil”.
Graham Beck recycles all its sewerage water from the farm and cellar. “All recycled water is utilised for irrigation of the vineyards, amounting to about three million litres per month”, says Ferreira. “We have reduced our water usage to a maximum of 6,000 m3 per hectare yearly through constant and regular neutron moisture probe readings”.
Almenkerk in Elgin is home to a spectacle of fauna and flora and they have combined orchards and vineyards to express the diversity found here.
Spier became a WWF-SA Conservation Champion in 2012 and had been focusing on rehabilitating the riparian systems that flow through the farm. “This includes wetland rehabilitation, removing alien vegetation and planting indigenous riverine species that consume much less water”. Since establishing the Spier Nursery, it has planted over 100,000 trees, shrubs, Fynbos, and over a million bulbs.
When the Almenkerk-family acquired their Elgin estate in 2004, they decided to restore sections of the property to their original state, as identified in Botanist Helmes' report of 2002. “Water was the first concern to arise, as the dam never filled its full potential during the rainy period”. Just by clearing alien vegetation to free water, did it freely start running into the dam during the rainy period, and natural vegetation in the form of
Watsonias, Restio's, Arum Lilies and a wide variety of birds return to the area. In two decades, their rehabilitation plans saw an apple farm transformed into an estate that balances apple and grape production and has cleared conservation- & rehabilitation areas that classify as afro-montane forests and wetlands, hosting some red book species. The challenge is to communicate this effectively to our international buyers – and the fact that sustainability is this CapeWine's theme is a major step in the right direction”.
Vondeling Wines vineyards with the Paardeberg Mountain in the backdrop, with 400 hectares of indigenous Fynbos on the mountain slopes, the responsible custodian approach of wine estates has significant impact.
For example, a winery like La Motte uses automatic soil moisture probes, leaf moisture meters (tension-meters), and thermometers in vineyards to determine plant irrigation needs. Computerised water demand management is based on weekly soil and leaf moisture data and climatic information. GEOSS (Geohydrological and Spatial Solutions International (Pty) Ltd) monitors the farm's various water resource levels to improve the utilisation, protection, and management of its groundwater resources. “The patented Bubbler system treats the huge volumes of wastewater generated by the cellar. In addition to treating cellar effluent, the Bubbler is designed to treat sewerage and greywater through the Septic Boss system. The effluent is processed through anaerobic and aerobic digestion coupled with aeration. Pathogens and remaining solids are then removed, making the water suitable for irrigation”.
South Africa's elegant national birds, the blue crane, wander among Pristine surrounds in the spectacular Graham and Rhona Beck nature reserve.
La Motte has rehabilitated 35 hectares of degraded mountain vegetation and commited more than 10% of the farm to conservation.
Save energy for what truly matters
Spier continues exploring ways to expand its generation of renewable energy sources, aiming to reach its net zero carbon footprint milestone by 2030. As a result, the farm has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from electrical consumption by 30% in 2017 based on 2009 levels. In 2021, their solar installations generated over 280,000 kWh, resulting in 107,808kg of carbon dioxide savings.
Energy-saving methods are evident in the properties of many other WWF Champions and wine businesses. The solar panels installed at Graham Beck produce around 30% of the total electricity usage in its production facilities and over 160 solar panels have been installed at Vondeling, providing them with 80 200 kWh on average annually.
Currently, nine solar installations supply Spier farm with electricity, generating over 280,000KWH in 2021, resulting in 107,808KG of carbon dioxide savings.
In 2016, Graham Beck began installation of an extensive solar system, installing 1,200 panels on the roof of its Madela 3 cellar.
Wine Tourism lies at the heart of the Cape Winelands, and producers want visitors to experience positive transformation for themselves. These offerings include sustainable nature-based activities like walking, hiking and mountain biking trails, outdoor dining, bird watching, eco-lodging, picnics, nature drives and 'vinisafari's'.
Visitors to Spier can volunteer in their organic Food Garden or at the Sustainability Institute or visit their eco-friendly wastewater treatment plant that recycles 100% of the farm's black and grey water. Their Tree-preneurs nursery, home to 23,000 indigenous plants, has empowered dozens of tree-growing entrepreneurs living in impoverished communities to grow indigenous trees and plants in exchange for livelihood support”.
Graham Beck takes great pride in communicating its conservation initiatives during cellar tours, tasting and vineyards tours.
Traversing the beautiful Elgin valley, the Active@Almenkerk hiking trail spreads the conservation gospel to local and international visitors that become powerful ambassadors for their brand and its conservation efforts.
The message of sustainability continues to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where Creation has been awarded for the way its vision comes alive in tourism offerings with inventive menus comprising fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. “Consumers want to enjoy authentic wines with traceability and exclusivity. In this context, the future of fine wine is about consumers venturing to where the wine is grown to discover the terroir”. It includes the people who make, grow and harvest it, confirming that the brand you support is committed to a sustainable future, including its beautiful environment, people, community and clients.
Anthony Hamilton-Russell sees his role as "continually enhancing the health and diversity of our overall ecology, the whole team and their families.
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