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The Nature of Wine Farming in South Africa

Oscar Foulkes May 22, 2008 Uncategorized 1 comment

Terroir is a French word that describes the sum total of soil, climate and landscape; all of which work together to produce fruit (and hence wines) of a unique style and quality. It’s a way of wine that also governs French wine marketing, in that wines are labelled according to the narrowest possible geographical description. For example, Le Montrachet, the source of one of the world’s most expensive white wines, is a chardonnay vineyard only 20 acres in size. There are many thousands of acres of chardonnay vineyards across Burgundy, but there is only one Le Montrachet. Alexander Dumas may have said that it’s a wine to be drunk “on bended knee, with head bared”, but it could as easily be said that its value is driven by the same constraints of supply as any other real estate. Le Montrachet is the Manhattan or Ginza of the wine world.

With its rolling Rs, terroir is a somewhat intimidating word to say out loud, which plays right into the hands of chauvinistic French wine marketers. They forget, however, that a number of their countrymen left for the Cape more than 300 years ago. They may now speak Afrikaans, but their tongues have no difficulty at all in forming strident rolling Rs. The Swartland brei is our version of the French rolling R.

Over the past couple of years Wines of South Africa (WOSA) has used the strapline ‘Variety is in our Nature’ in its marketing campaigns around the world. Touching on the demographic diversity that inspired Desmond Tutu to invent the term ‘Rainbow Nation’, the campaign highlights the amazing floral diversity in the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK). It’s one of the world’s smallest biomes, and a globally recognised hotspot that’s home to nearly 10 000 different plant species; more than the whole of the northern hemisphere. Just Table Mountain has more species than the entire United Kingdom!

The CFK covers an area that more-or-less approximates the wine growing areas of the Western Cape. Whereas indigenous plants respond to differing growing conditions by spawning new species (the driver behind the CFK’s diversity), vines respond by producing wines that reflect the local conditions, or terroir. Even a novice can taste the difference between an Elim or Rawsonville sauvignon blanc. That’s terroir in action, and the basis for the ‘variety’ part of the campaign.

The ‘nature’ part was introduced by means of the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI), which was formed to ensure that eco-friendly farming became a priority of the wine industry. The programme laid out criteria covering all the possible areas in which a wine farm could impact the environment. Those that complied with the very highest standards could apply to be named Champion (thus far there are seven, with a further 10 applications in progress). One of the requirements for Champion status is that the farm has a minimum area of pristine natural vegetation, which should also be governed by a formal conservation agreement. The ultimate aim is to have 100 000 hectares of natural vegetation – roughly equivalent to South Africa’s vineyard plantings – under conservation agreements.

BWI Project Co-ordinator, Inge Kotze reports that they have now reached over 63% of this target, commenting in particular: “growth in co-op (collective cellars) membership is fantastic – by bringing one co-op onboard we are actually reaching anything between 20 to 150 individual farms, raising significant environmental awareness and neighbourhood policing amongst members.”

”In the last six months of 2007 we brought on 22 new members, 3 co-ops and 2 champions – which is phenomenal growth. Darling is set to become the first Biodiversity Wine Ward, with all members signed up to the programme.”

Darling’s annual Wild Flower Show makes it the spiritual centre of the CFK, so a mass buy-in is a powerful statement on behalf of the programme. Darling’s first Champion was Cloof, and two more are in progress.

BWI provides guidance in terms of day-to-day issues, like cellar waste water management and spraying programmes, focusing particularly on individual farms’ conservation management plans – one is as likely to find conservation officers on wine farms these days as winemakers.

While vitis vinifera is itself an alien – an irony that does not go unnoticed – it is not invasive. Ultimately the CFK will face its greatest challenge from invasive aliens, like Port Jackson, Black Wattle, Eucalyptus and Rooikrans, all introduced from Australia for what – at the time – appeared to be sensible reasons. These aliens are also responsible for raising fire risks and depleting water resources. Alien eradication is a landowner’s legal responsibility, but one of the strongest pressures to conform appears to be coming from the BWI.

While the jury is out on the efficacy of WOSAs ‘Variety is in our Nature campaign’ at a consumer level, there is no doubt that BWI is having a huge impact on conservation. Graham Beck Wines’ (the second Champion) Ann Ferreira says: “We believe in doing our bit for a sustainable future. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.”

Environmentally friendly wine farming is being pursued on many levels. Backsberg recently became the world’s third carbon-neutral wine farm, Stella Winery is certified organic, and yet others are experimenting with indigenous cover crops.

It doesn’t take Faith Popcorn to recognise that the environment is very hot right now (no pun intended). The French have demonstrated the vast price premiums that result from narrowly defined production areas. If WOSA can effectively link sustainability and terroir in consumers’ minds, Cape wine farms could turn out to be smart investments.

Reproduced with permission from Property Magazine

1 comment

Backsberg's Blog - May 22, 2008

Hey, thanks for the mention! Simon Back

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