What beverage could be more ‘natural’ than fermented grape juice?
Quite a lot, actually, if the grapes have been grown (as most wines are) using artificial fertilisers to boost growth, herbicides to kill the weeds also thriving on this fast-food fertiliser diet, and pesticides to wipe out any bugs tempted to munch on the vines – the only living thing left.
Erosion is the most visible manifestation of damage done to the soil by chemicals, but throw in contaminated water and vineyard workers increasingly being struck down by Parkinson’s disease, cancer and several other health issues, and wine can start leaving a nasty taste in your mouth – even before you start wondering how much toxic chemical residue has made its way into your glass.
So it’s good news that many farmers are going green.
Sometimes it’s simply because they realise the conventional or ‘scorched earth’ approach won’t leave much viable land for their children to inherit.
Increasingly it’s also because they realise the old cliché that ‘wine is made in the vineyard’ doesn’t ring true if the soil’s been sterilised, the vines fed on artificial fertilisers, the ‘wild’ yeasts killed off thereby making fermentation impossible without the addition of cultivated yeasts…and that’s without even mentioning the other additives permitted in modern winemaking, from sulphur dioxide to bleach!
Why is a more natural approach particularly important in South Africa?
The vineyards of the Western Cape are situated in the Cape Floral Kingdom, the world’s smallest yet richest plant kingdom – home to over 9000 plant species, of which 6200 are found nowhere else on earth.
Clever marketing types claim that this remarkable biodiversity means the Cape can also produce a diverse and unique range of wine styles – hence the ‘Variety is in our Nature’ slogan used in generic SA wine promotions overseas.
But the rather shameful reality is that over 80% of the indigenous renosterveld and lowland fynbos have been wiped out, and the disconnected fragments that remain (mostly on privately owned land) will soon not be able to maintain the ecological processes required for long-term species survival.
For this reason, the SA wine industry has partnered with the conservation sector to form the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative, which currently boasts 211 members of whom 16 are producer cellars (i.e. former cooperatives) and 21 have achieved champion status. This means they have been independently audited and found to be following the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) guidelines for farming in a more sustainable way.
Sustainable farming includes clearing alien plant species, restoring indigenous vegetation, implementing better waste management, water management, soil management, fire management, chemical control (note: careful use of chemicals is permitted), carbon reduction, energy efficiency and recycling, as well as initiatives ranging from community education programmes to eco-tourism and packaging innovations.
The organic movement is steadily gaining momentum, in part driven by consumers demanding products grown with care for the environment and without posing a risk to their own long-term health; in part because organic farmers believe agrochemicals are detrimental to wine quality, erasing differences between vineyard sites and vintages to result in increasingly generic wines.
For this reason a number of top South African winemakers use organic methods even if they do not necessarily seek certification.
Organic winegrowers completely eschew the use of man-made pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilisers. Although organic fertilisers are commercially available, winegrowers almost invariably have their own composting programmes in place. They also allow plants that are good for the soil to grow in their vineyards, and attract/introduce insects and animals that are the natural enemies of vineyard pests.
Although balanced vineyards are usually healthier, sulphur and copper are traditionally permitted for disease control (in strictly limited amounts).
Organic vineyards have to be certified by an internationally recognised organisation such as the Société Générale de Surveillance in Switzerland or Netherlands-based Control Union Certifications.
In SA, legislation governing organic winemaking is still being tabled, so producers tend to follow the rules of their most important export markets. In the United States, for example, a wine may only be labelled as ‘organic’ if no sulphur dioxide has been added during the winemaking process. Because most producers consider it too risky to make wine without SO₂ (an effective disinfectant and antioxidant), they usually label their wines as ‘made from organically grown grapes’.
Biodynamics is the agricultural system developed in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner (of Waldorf schooling and Weleda health products fame), and it boils down to a shift from sustainability to self-sufficiency (e.g. farmers don’t buy in organic chicken manure, they have their own chickens).
The idea is that the farm can operate as a closed, self-nourishing system once its natural balance has been restored – right down to the insects, weeds and soil microbes. This is in keeping with a spiritual recognition that every life form has a vital role to play, with the earth itself seen as part of a bigger picture, regulated by cosmic rhythms. Biodynamic farmers therefore follow a lunar-astronomical calendar to decide when to plant, prune and harvest – and when to boost soil life using a range of specially formulated herbal, mineral and organic ‘preps’.
The rather ‘esoteric’ aspects of biodynamics have attracted scepticism but many of the world’s great wine producers farm in this old-fashioned, pre-industrial, more spiritual way, firmly believing that it’s the only way to produce wines which accurately portray the uniqueness of a particularly vineyard and vintage.
In addition to farming organically or organically, natural winemakers add nothing that could inhibit the normal processes of nature during the winemaking process (from commercial yeasts to sulphur dioxide). Critics says the wines are all too often ‘funky’; proponents insist their wines are naturally more stable and true to their origins.