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Wines of change

South African wines are rated top of the global connoisseur’s list and have been for very many years. For most South African wine consumers, the marvel of having so many award-winning vineyards on our doorstep is often taken for granted, as are the underlying facts of them being located in a very unique biosphere, giving our wines their special ripe qualities. The Cape Floral Region, where most of the vineyards are located, is on of the richest floral biodiversity hot spots on the planet, while also being one of the smallest.

Wine exports are growing on an annual basis and it is estimated that South African export volumes will reach 300-million litres in 2009, up from 270-million litres in 2006. This increase in volumes will be the result of vineyard expansion, impacting on the Floral Region’s biodiversity. However, the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI), established in 2004, focuses on biodiversity conservation in the region. The BWI is the result of wine producers and the conservation industry pro-actively collaborating to ensure sustainable practices and conservation of the rich floral biodiversity in the region.

I had the privilege of visiting some of our wineries in the fairest Stellenbosch earlier this week. Taking into consideration that, on average, approximately 50% of locally produced wines is exported, many producers are aware of international market pressures related to product carbon trails and organic farming practice status (although there are still a number of definitions for what exactly this means and I have my own doubts). However, besides the commercial market incentive of “going green”, producers are actively driving sustainability practices and developments in the local communities.

One example is the Spier Wine Estate. Here owners and employees alike are highly aware of environmental and sustainability issues and driven to improve current business processes, increasing awareness and entrenching sustainable practices into every part of their business. These initiatives have often resulted in commercial benefits, among them spin-offs of a number of small businesses, generating additional value for the group.

In the past six years, Spier has turned its business inside-out by implementing sustainable practices. It has started a natural brickmaking operation on the estate and will be using these bricks to develop a socially integrated eco-village, while running an architectural design competition to plan the self-sustaining village.

Other initiatives include biodiesel production for use on the estate, developing a waste-treatment process called Biolytix and starting a vermiculture operation (worms and byproducts), which in turn may produce material as fertiliser for agricultural practices on the estate.

Additionally, Spier is also experimenting with biodynamics, which centres on principles of organic farming and planetary alignment. This may sound esoteric to some, but in fact is a very ancient method that dictates when certain activities should occur during the crop cycle, such as planting, fertilising and harvesting. Only natural herbal extracts are used as fertilisers and pesticides and these herbs will also be grown on the estate.

Ideas among wine farmers in the region on how to improve their ecological impacts and minimise their carbon footprints abound; they are, after all, attuned to the earth and reliant on it and climate for their daily existence. There is, however, more potential to improve continuously, through considering initiatives like bulk exports, which will reduce transport and packaging cost while reducing related greenhouse-gas emissions. However, impacts on brand value may not support this strategy.

The wine industry is perhaps ahead of the curve in South Africa and may well be showing the way for other agricultural sectors. Consumer support is required in order to snowball these activities and escalate sustainability stewardship among producers. We may question the true motives of these initiatives: Are they the result of true and honest conviction and commitment to sustainability, is it a marketing motive or are these farmers and wine makers the pioneers who will change the face of agricultural practices in our country in order to ensure sustainability of their own business into the future?

I don’t think we should concern ourselves with conspiracy theories on what the real reasons are. The results are reward enough and should make us all proud when we clink our glasses again in a salute.