* This article first appeared here on Wine.co.za
I recall being caught off guard the first time a viticulturist told me that to the land, vines were foreign plantings and so not too dissimilar to weeds. It helped me realise that at the expense of our wine pursuits, the land was offering up all its precious resources. It made sense then, the recent focus on regenerative and sustainable farming practices – born out of reverence for the land and a desire to be better stewards of it. Wanting to play my part – and better inform my buying decisions – I spoke with three wineries that have made determined efforts in land preservation.
Starting in Robertson, I was visiting South Africa’s home of sparkling wine. Thanks to the philanthropic work of The Graham & Rhona Beck Development Trust, an impressive half of the estate is dedicated to altruistic causes. What I hadn’t known was that a substantial portion of this was devoted to environmental initiatives.
Climbing on an open-top vehicle, I was joining the estate’s Horticulturist Niels Huitema for an eco-drive. Having moved from the Lowveld, I asked how he had felt, about taking on the big responsibility: “It was quite daunting, but I knew what I needed to do”, and for Niels, that meant a very ambitious planting programme.
Horticulture was, of course, nothing new for the estate. While Graham Beck was establishing the estate and vineyards, his wife Rhona put equal focus into the gardens: at its zenith, her team totalled 64 gardeners. Today, for every hectare of land under vine, Graham Beck conserves eight hectares of land. That is an impressive 4000 hectares of pristine Renosterveld.
Niels and his team have focused primarily on indigenous plants – especially those found in the estate’s Renosterveld, which serves as a buffer zone between adjacent Karoo and Fynbos regions. The majority of the impressive 30,000 plants grown are vygie, aloe, and euphorbia – and then are interplanted on the estate.
Niels’s advice to estates wishing to follow suit? Simple “Get a nursery growing. Collect plants and cuttings.” Visit their website to read more about their range of conservation initiatives. grahambeck.com
Next I turned to the vineyard-laden hills of the historic Constantia Valley, where Klein Constantia stands proudly as a WWF Conservation Champion. The programme began in 2004 and now has 55 members. Make no mistake, achieving membership is no easy feat; the measuring standards among others, include water conservation, energy conservation and biodiversity conservation.
Look for the distinctive sugarbird and protea logo on wine bottles – you can also download the Conservation Champions wine app which helps you plot your estate visits based on the various members. At Klein Constantia, the integration of buffer zones for endemic fauna and flora has been central.
Talking with Vineyard Manager Craig Harris, I was reminded that what may seem like conserving a little, might make a big difference. I asked about Grootboskloof – the estate’s slice of indigenous forest that I’ve often walked through. “It is a sliver in the grand scheme of things but does represent 10% of the farm’s total area – but significantly is a catchment area for 50% of the farm’s water supply. Clearing alien vegetation has been a problem, but was turned into an empowerment project. The gentleman who removes them makes firewood out of the trees which he sells for an income. Despite this, there is a diversity of plant life, including oak trees, cork oaks, ericas, everlasting stars (Sewejaartjies) and other fynbos.”
Some of KC’s key elements in sustainability have been managing soil erosion, protecting against fire, harnessing solar energy, reducing herbicide usage and embracing an integrated pest management programme. Craig’s advice to emerging estates? “Start small, not everyone has large tracts of land to volunteer to nature so use what you have. You can do it without a budget, leave a piece of land for a while and nature will take over, just keep the nasties away and fynbos will appear.” kleinconstantia.com
Finally, shifting to the Franschhoek Valley, I was interested in Backsberg’s praiseworthy efforts at carbon reduction. In 2006 they were certified as South Africa’s first carbon-neutral winery, and Simon Back, a director of Backsberg Family Wines, with DGB, gave me both an honest and inspiring account of how the journey developed.
“As a family, and as a business, we have enjoyed the fruits of the land so to say. We did not always act with the environment being top of mind and came to the realisation that we needed to change the way we were working. We looked at various sustainability options. Looking at the world through the lens of carbon emissions made the most sense for us, in terms of the whole business.”
For wineries that might not have the geographical space to offset carbon emissions, Credible Carbon provides a meaningful solution. Since emissions are unavoidable, the opportunity to invest in an emission reduction project can make reducing greenhouse gas emissions affordable. What’s more, since many of these projects operate on a grassroots level, not only does the winery work toward carbon neutrality but also poverty alleviation. For Backsberg, this has meant support for the Kuyasa Project – a low-carbon housing development in Khayelitsha as well as the Stellenbosch Community Project (a new addition from the 2023 vintage onwards).
This is in addition to the other initiatives Backsberg supports, including the internal ‘Bamboo Project in the Eastern Cape, local tree planting schemes, and working with Stellenbosch University in a previous bee pollination initiative.
Following the 2006 certification, a second celebration for Backsberg has been the 2022 vintage onwards has been awarded the coveted carbon-neutral PAS 2060:2014 verification. Commenting on the recent verification process, Marketing Manager Bianca Lenhardt shared: “It is certainly a feat of note. The team have worked relentlessly to ensure we maintain and exceed our sustainable objectives and we couldn’t be prouder.” backsberg.co.za