Five years ago, UK motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson spent some time test-driving cars around the Cape and fell in love with the winelands.
‘For 30 years I’ve toured the globe looking for the same light that we saw in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Paul Newman takes Katharine Ross for a spin on his new bicycle,’ he wrote. ‘You know what I’m talking about; that dandelion-flecked morning promise of warm summer breezes to come. Well it’s there, in South Africa.’
But the organisers of his road trip then arranged a visit to one of our state-of-the-art wineries, no doubt thinking that the latest technology would impress a motoring hack more than gnarled bush vines and 300-year-old manor houses.
‘It was full of huge steel vats and pressure gauges,’ wrote a deeply disillusioned Clarkson. ‘It was like being in a nuclear power station.’
He was exaggerating, no doubt, but discovering that modern winemaking is high-tech can come as quite a shock. The beauty of most wine-producing countries combined with centuries of tradition and purple prose on back labels has perpetuated the idea that wine is one of the less ‘manipulated’ beverages around.
What could be more natural than fermented grape juice? Right?
In fact the additives permitted in modern winemaking make for interesting if not downright alarming reading. While most wine drinkers understand that (added) yeasts, bacteria, acids, enzymes and sulphur dioxide have a role to play, what about the bleach hydrogen peroxide or things like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone?
And if that last one sounds scary (PVPP is used for stabilisation and clarification), what about the toxic chemicals that producers use in their vineyards to kill weeds, insects, fungi and diseases? If trace amounts are found in the wines that we drink, significantly larger amounts permeate the soil to impact on the environment as a whole.
‘I find it quite amusing that organic producers have to be certified to farm in the most natural way possible,’ says Josef Lazarus of Lazanou Organic Vineyards in Wellingon. ‘It’s conventional farmers who should need to get special certification for all the harm they do. As I see it, conventional farming is a deviation from the norm, not organic farming.’
The green movement
It was only after World War I that synthetic chemicals were introduced into food production – an ingenious way to get rid of all the ammonium nitrate no longer needed for weapons manufacture. Prior to that, farmers grew everything ‘organically’, using compost and planting other crops to make the land more fertile and/or to attract insects that are the natural enemies of crop pests.
In part driven by consumer demand for products that are more ‘natural’, in part due to a growing realisation that a chemical or ‘scorched earth’ approach to farming is not environmentally sustainable, the green movement has gained momentum in recent years. No longer the soul food of New Age hippie-types, ‘organic’ has almost become a synonym for ‘high quality’ as far as food produce is concerned.
But the same has not been true of wine.
On the contrary, organic wine has long had a poor image, which some people attribute to producers in marginal areas of quality having leapt onto the green bandwagon because of its save-the-planet marketing potential. ‘They just got organic status in an attempt to make more money,’ claims Wolfgang von Loeper of Schapenberg estate Wedderwill. ‘Their wines would have been inferior regardless.’
The flipside is that some famous producers have quietly been getting on with making wines regarded as the world’s best in – as it turns out – an organic or even biodynamic way (‘biodynamic’ being a term that predates ‘organic’ and is a more self-sufficient and even ‘spiritual’ approach to farming, recognising that all life forms have inherent value, are interconnected and part of an infinitely big picture, namely the earth’s place in the universe).
‘Around 60% of Burgundy is farmed biodynamically,’ estimates Clive Torr of Topaz Wines who also has two tiny biodynamic vineyards in the Cote d’Or. ‘The vignerons realise they will lose themselves in the melange of the international market if they don’t express as much terroir as possible.’
Terroir can be described as the ‘sense of place’ found in some wines. In other words, they taste distinctly and consistently different from other wines made from exactly the same grapes grown elsewhere. This uniqueness is attributed to the local environment in which the vines grow, including the climate (or more localised mesoclimate, referring to the sunlight, moisture and wind exposure of a specific site), the geography (e.g. altitude, aspect, slope) and the geology (not only soil type, in organic parlance, but also how ‘alive’ it is in terms of beneficial weeds, insects, fungi and bacteria).
‘You can’t talk about having terroir-expressive wines if your grapes are grown in superphosphate fertiliser,’ says Johan Reyneke of Reyneke Wines, SA’s only certified biodynamic producer.
‘Terroir is based in the soil,’ agrees Johnathan Grieve, MD at Paarl estate Avondale whose motto is terra est vita (soil is life). ‘But chemical farming pays no attention whatsoever to the soil. How can you express what is uniquely yours if you’ve completely sterilised it?’
Apart from the vines themselves, fed on a fast-food diet of NPK fertiliser (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), conventional vineyards are usually noticeably lacking in all other signs of life. As Reyneke says: ‘When I took over the farm, it seemed fundamentally wrong to me that everything was sprayed until it looked like a wasteland. It was spring, yet there were no flowers or bees or butterflies…’
Edmund Oettle of Upland Organic Estate in Wellington tells a similar story: ‘As a vet, I didn’t know where to begin when I took over the farm. Everyone said, “Just make sure you spray weedkiller!” so I called the KWV to advise me exactly what to spray and they duly came to have a look. “But where are the weeds?” they asked. The land was completely barren.’
Apart from being worried about the use of poisons on land where he was living with his family, Oettle’s medical background also made him question conventional disease control: ‘If you treat an animal with antibiotics all the time, you end up with long-term problems. So I decided to heal my farm like I would heal an animal, building up its immune system. Everyone said I would go bankrupt, and I nearly did because there was no information available. But I went ahead, and it soon became clear to me that I was on the right track. Where the soil used to be like concrete, we soon could dig in it with our hands and no longer had soil erosion problems.’
For many farmers abandoning chemicals, however, the benefits are not immediately obvious. Even Reyneke, now SA’s leading authority on biodynamics, recalls being at a complete loss when his first converted vineyard became infested ‘with every plague you can imagine’.
He soon learnt that it wasn’t enough to stop doing everything he’d previously done; he had to put another methodology in place: ‘There’s organics by neglect and organics by design,’ as he puts it.
On a philosophical level, he liked the ‘you-are-what-you-eat’ traceability of biodynamics: ‘For food that is wholesome in a nutritional and spiritual sense, you have to go right back to the soil.’
On a practical level, he had to learn what the weeds were telling him in order to restore natural balance: ‘Some were there to form nitrogen, some were there to convert the nitrogen into food, some were there to loosen the soil, some were there to correct the pH of the soil.’
And dandelions, he discovered, were a fantastic way of stopping mealy bugs from spreading leafroll virus, a major problem in South Africa: ‘Mealy bugs prefer eating dandelions and ignore the vines completely!’
A common problem during organic conversion is a drop in crop yield, perhaps comparable to fast-food junkies feeling dreadful during a detox. ‘Although our organic vineyards near Bot River have done well from the start, our converted vineyards in Franschhoek went from producing 180 tonnes five years ago to 80 tonnes last year,’ reveals La Motte winemaker Edmund Terreblanche, reassured by his viticultural team that a composting programme will bring the life back to these ‘very marginal’ sandy soils.
Compost is basically decomposed organic matter, further broken down by worms and fungi to become the nutrient-rich humus so ideal for plant growth. Organic farmers love earthworms, the tireless tillers of soil whose castings make exceptionally rich fertilisers, while biodynamic farmers add a range of herbal and mineral ‘preps’ to boost their compost.
Animals are also a perfect source of nitrogen-rich manure, hence the much-loved cows at Wedderwill and the Percheron horses replacing tractors at Waterkloof, also home to a flock of Dorper sheep for weed control.
At Avondale, meanwhile, there are 100 ducks on snail patrol: ‘Often they get stuck in a particular area, not because they’re lazy but because that’s where the snail colony is. In chemical farming, snail bait gets distributed across the entire vineyard, so if the snails aren’t there, it goes into the soil and kills the microbes instead,’ explains Grieve.
He stresses that the sudden arrival of insects usually indicates an underlying problem anyway: ‘In conventional farming, you see insects, you kill them, but that doesn’t get to the root cause, an imbalance in the soil. It’s a quick-fix rather than holistic approach. We look to nature to sort out any problems.’
For this reason, interestingly, many green farmers are even turning their backs on remedies traditionally permitted in organics. ‘We’re in a high disease area so always used copper and sulphur in the vineyards,’ says Michael Malherbe, viticulturist at Laibach in Stellenbosch. ‘But recently we’ve tried to build up the resistance of our vines using trichoderma fungi and worm pee, and this year we didn’t need to use any copper or sulphur at all. Ultimately our aim is to bring nothing in from outside the farm.’
At Wedderwill they use the biodynamic preps combined with ocean water, unpasteurised cow’s milk, zeolite and fermented plant extracts with antifungal properties. ‘Last November one of our neighbour’s vineyards was infested with powdery mildew, but we got nothing,’ says Von Loeper. ‘Our viticultural consultant, Chris Keet, definitely believes there is validity in it.’
Most producers go green because they want to farm more sustainably: ‘I want to give my soils over to the next person who farms here, whether it’s my kids or whoever buys the property from me,’ says Oettle. ‘As humans we must change the way we operate because we are causing huge damage to the environment and making ourselves seriously sick,’ asserts Von Loeper.
But many are convinced that their wines have improved as a result of going green. Even while lamenting the low yields of La Motte’s organic vineyards in Franschhoek, Terreblanche says: ‘There’s already no question that the wines are better, with more concentrated flavours.’
‘I firmly believe that if you start doing things for the right reasons, you end up producing a better quality end-product too,’ says Reyneke, explaining that by achieving balance in the vineyard, there’s no need for artificial intervention in the cellar: ‘As the pH improves in the soil, it also improves in the grapes and in the wine, so you don’t have to add tartaric acid. Because the grapes are no longer abnormally large from being fed with fertiliser and water, you don’t have to add enzymes to boost colour and tannin extraction.’
Apart from boosting soil fertility, Reyneke says weeds and cover crops lower the temperature in the soils, root zones and even bunch areas of his vines: ‘The cooler microclimate results in a softer, more elegant, almost European style of wine. My wines also have a uniqueness, a minerality, that we didn’t get in the past.’
For Grieve a key issue is phenolic ripeness: ‘I’m convinced that the green tannins in so many wines are due to chemicals. When a farmer thinks his plants need nitrogen, he puts down nitrates, usually too much, so there is huge growth – too much growth. Not only does all that abundant greenness need to be trimmed back three or four times a year, but it stops the grapes from ripening properly, so they’re left hanging for longer than they should be, and the sugar levels sky-rocket. The wines either end up jammy and porty, or the winemaker attempts to reduce the high alcohol, sometimes using techniques that aren’t legal…
‘If your soils and vines are in balance, your wines don’t end up as manufactured, over-extracted blockbusters – which usually do well in competitions, another debate altogether – but as elegant wines with a character that you can’t taste anywhere else.’
‘The wines are also much more an interpretation of each vintage,’ believes Waterkloof winemaker Werner Engelbrecht, who sums up his biodynamic approach as being about making wines as naturally as possible. ‘A bit of sulphur, that’s it.’
Organic versus organically grown
Because wines may not be labelled as organic in the USA if any sulphur has been added, many producers prefer to label their wines as ‘made from organically grown grapes’.
‘The beauty of this is that if something looks like it’s going wrong, we can just sulphur it up,’ says Klaas Coetzee, winemaker at Stellar Organic Winery (which is nonetheless the largest producer of no-sulphur-added wines in the world).
However, Michelle du Preez of Bon Cap Organic Winery stresses that the amount of SO₂ permitted in wine made from organically grown grapes is significantly lower than in conventional wines: 100mg/l compared to 160mg/l. ‘And we are only allowed to use SO₂ in gas form – the purest form – whereas conventional wineries can also use potassium metabisulphite in powder form or liquid form.’
Du Preez makes the point that levels of SO₂ can naturally be as high as 40mg/l, often making it impossible to label even a no-sulphur-added wine as ‘organic’ in the US where the maximum amount permitted is 10mg/l.
And this is just one of many headaches involved in organic certification. ‘If you previously used your barrels for wine that was grown organically but not certified as organic, you have to buy new barrels,’ reveals Engelbrecht.
‘Strictly speaking we could label three additional wines as organic but quite frankly we’re irritated by all the paperwork!’ says Terreblanche.
Paperwork is one reason top producers like Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst haven’t bothered with organic certification; another is that the stigma remains: ‘We don’t want nutters buying our wines; people should buy them because they’re good,’ is how Waterkloof owner Paul Boutinot put it a couple of years ago.
However, Waterkloof is now seeking biodynamic certification, as is Wedderwill: ‘Initially we felt we didn’t need certification because we were doing it out of honesty, but increasingly it seems to help with sales,’ says Von Loeper.
‘Mature wine markets are becoming more and more interested in natural production,’ agrees Grieve.
Regardless of how they are labelled, Reyneke winemaker Rudiger Gretschel (formerly at Boekenhoutskloof) believes the future of truly great wines is green: ‘In the next 15 to 20 years, I don’t think there’ll a single premium wine in the world that isn’t organic or biodynamic.’
Ten green wines to try
Avondale Armilla Brut
Waterkloof Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Spier Organically Grown Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Lazanou Chenin Blanc 2009
Reyneke White 2008
Laibach The Ladybird Red 2009
Reyneke Red 2009
Avondale Samsara 2006
Upland Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Stellar Heaven on Earth Dessert Wine NV