Drinking in Change

Drinking in Change

There are no climate change deniers in the wine world. In a global industry predicated on the very climate itself, producers and growers have witnessed and documented the incremental shifts that affect their livelihood. There’s no better example than Champagne: as the region warms the famous levels of high acidity in the grapes is declining. Houses are implementing tactics to preserve the brightness of the wines such as reducing dosage as well as by blending high-acid reserve wines into current vintages. Pioneers are also charting future-fit courses by developing new grape hybrids as well as buying land and planting vines in more marginal places, such as England.


Here in South Africa, we are well aware of the implications of water scarcity and the effect it has on our vineyards.


The issue of sustainability may have started out as a marketing gambit for some brands, but with the spectre of climate change slowly assuming solid mass, being sustainable is no longer a choice, but a necessity. It is not OK to not farm sustainably, especially if you want to play in the world of luxury wine. Being premium means being for the planet: in this time of shifting weather patterns and rising temperatures, fine wine is being redefined to incorporate responsibility both to the land and to the people who tend it.


In book Down to Earth, authors Janet Fletcher and George Rose describe sustainable farming as thus: ‘The principles that define sustainability are a comprehensive set of environmentally sound, socially responsible, and economically viable best practices that encompass every aspect of the vineyard, winery, surrounding habitat, ecosystem, employees and community.’


There are many wine farms in the Stellenbosch winelands who fit this bill. Custodians who nurture the land they farm and uplift the people who have their hands in that very soil. 

What happens if we just stop spraying?

This was the very question the Griers of Villiera Estate asked themselves approximately16-years ago, and have not used insecticides and pesticides since on their vineyards. Initially they found that yes once they stopped spraying the pests did increase, but soon the natural predators descended, restoring the natural balance. Today, a flock of 1000 Peking ducks keep the majority of the pests under control.

The move to stop spraying was two-fold; not only did these commercial farming methods feel backwards, but the idea of asking a vineyard worker to risk their health by spraying chemicals was also abhorrent.

Shares Simon Grier: “If you don’t look after your environment and social issues; you’re not going to make progress. We simply subscribe to the philosophy of ‘doing the right thing’.”

Villiera also produces a large portion of its own energy requirements from their solar power installation (covering 1155 m2). Water conservation (augmented by a rainwater harvesting system), recycling and greening initiatives are all part and parcel of what they do, such as the indigenous tree project, which saw 1000s planted on the farm to further off-set the Villiera’s carbon footprint.

Pebbles Projects also has their headquarters on the farm. Early childhood development is provided to over 30 children of Villiera farm workers. This together with the Owethu Clinic and Early Childhood Development Centre and After-School Club has earned them WIETA Accreditation and BBBEE (Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment) certification.


Go with gravity

Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, purchased Glenelly in 2003 at 78-years old, and in 2009 she built her cellar, a feat of modern winery architecture. The 6,000-m2 structure functions by gravity flow, with 5 floors half underground, minimising the winery’s carbon footprint.

Lady May’s grandson, Nicolas Bureau recently moved down to the estate from France with his wife and three children to continue his grandmother’s legacy.

“We do our utmost to work in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. In the vineyards, we are in the process of converting to organic viticulture,” comments Nicolas. “The South African climate suits itself to this practice as it is dry during the growing season, and the constant wind keeps the bunches healthy. So no pesticides and herbicides are used, just natural practices. In the cellar, we purify and recycle all the water used. The gravity fed cellar means that we minimise the use of pumps, and the solar panels which cover the rooftop gives us up to 40 per cent of our electricity needs in the cellar.

“Why do we do all of this? We want to reestablish the balance of the environment in which we grow our grapes. Fauna and flora are all part of what makes a terroir unique and by promoting this diversity of plants, insects and animals, we will gain more in complexity, purity and authenticity in our wines.”

Social development is also an important cornerstone of the Glenelly community. The Glenelly Care Centre for the farm children (the children receive a balanced meal after school) and the Glenelly Recreation Centre for the farm workers was established in 2010, both kids and adults alike make use of the library and the computers.


You grow what you sow

“If people learn how to grow their own food, they will never go hungry again,” says Megan McCarthy, who oversees the new Spier Food Garden, which falls under the Growing For Good programme at the wine estate, empowering communities to make positive social and environmental changes. The produce garden provides food for communities as well as acts as a training resource.

Also under the Growing For Good banner is the ‘Tree-preneurs’ initiative, a project that teaches members of impoverished communities how to care for indigenous plants, which can then be traded for goods. Along with a full programme that supports local arts.

Spier terms the way they farm as ‘the practice of regenerative agriculture’, which can be described as a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services.


Farming for the future

“We farm with nature, for the future, and not just with vines,” says viticulturist David van Schalkwyk of Waterford Estate. This isn’t just lip-service, only 55Ha of the 120Ha estate is under vine, the rest is given over to the natural world.

“If the natural fauna and flora isn’t maintained to a certain degree, Waterford Estate’s soils will become depleted over time and the vineyard’s life expectancy will be reduced.”

This approach includes the planting of indigenous trees, making their own compost, drip irrigation in dry seasons and using natural methods to protect the vines from animals, an example of this is the placement of dog hair to scare buck away.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed; the wines all bear the Integrity & Sustainability seal. Plus Waterford Estate holds an Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) certificate for its sustainable, environmentally friendly production methods. The estate is also a member of the Biodiversity in Wine Initiative (BWI).

Stellenbosch Wine Routes is leading the way in the South African winelands when it comes to sustainability, with many of its members embracing better ways to farm.

Climate change is already changing the way we make wine; and this is one party you really don’t want to arrive late to.