A new guided tour of the wine farms, focusing on those wine estates that are ‘green’, organic, support biodiversity and generally care for nature, has been launched. Eco Wine Tours is a joint venture between Charles Lourens of BottlePillowPlate and Pieter Geldenhuys of PG TOPS, and drives to the Winelands every Wednesday. The tour raised the question amongst its participants as to how each one of us can make a difference too, and recycling is the first obvious step.
The tour highlighted how much work is being done by individual wine estates to give something back to nature, and how each of them do something (often more than one action) to ensure that their farming practices do not add to the carbon overload the world already faces. It is clear that this good work is being done out of a genuine interest in and love for the environment, rather than for marketing purposes. It also indicated what diversity there is in being a ‘green’ wine estate, with the wide range of different actions wine estates undertake to be environmentally friendly, each following their own way. The highlights of our tour, on a grey wintry day yesterday, were the following:
Avondale is outside Paarl, and attracted attention with its ads featuring naked persons in the vineyards, as well as their famous ducks. Due to a fire in 1999, the wine farming practices of the estate were turned on their head, and the new cellar that was built, the grape farming as well as all aspects of production were changed to meet an environmentally friendly and non-mass production philosophy. The welcome we received from Jonathan, the warm crackling fireplace in the tasting room, and the enthusiasm shown to our group was impressive. Avondale focuses on the natural balance of the environment, and believes in feeding the soil, and not the vines. No herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are used at all, and its workforce of more than 100 ducks is employed to eat snails and other pests, to maintain the ecological balance. They apply natural farming methods, and focus on premium quality wine production, of which organic wine is an end-result, and not the other way round.
They have branded their work as “BioLogic”, reflecting that they use organic and biodynamic farming methods and with that want to restore the land to what it would have been centuries ago, and want to keep in balance what nature has given the wine estate. We drank their wonderful spring water, tasting as fresh as water can. Using gravity, Avondale irrigates its vines from its six natural dams. Grey water is re-used, not by adding chemicals but by adding yeast. A minimum 40mm of sulphur is added to the wine just before bottling. Weeds are used positively, to control the soil. They indicate what is needed to improve the quality of the soil. Wasps are hooked up in the vineyards, where they hatch, and they take care of the mieliebugs. Special owl houses have been made from wine barrels to house the collection of owls, who take care of rodents and snakes on the estate. Increasingly, Avondale is seeing small buck and lynx coming back to the estate. Gravity is used in the cellar to reduce the usage of electricity as much as possible. A natural riverbed runs alongside the cellar, and its clay bottom ensures that the cellar is naturally cold without any airconditioning, even on 45 C days in Paarl. Avondale only uses pumps for its bottling. Salt water is brought in, and the salt extracted from it, to add to the soil, salt containing 90 nutrients. Cover-crops, such as lupins, are planted to create an eco-system, adding nitrogen to the soil. On good weather days guests are driven into the vineyard, and one tastes the wine in the vineyard block from which it is made.
The Avondale MCC Brut is the only organic sparking wine in South Africa. Other wines in the Avondale range are Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc (organic), The Weir Chardonnay, RosÃ© (organic), Jonty’s Ducks (organic), Julia, Camissa Syrah, The Owl House Cabernet Sauvignon, Graham, Muscat Blanc, Les Pleurs Chenin Blanc and Les Pleurs Merlot. Prices start at R58 for the RosÃ© and Chenin Blanc, up to over R 200 for the Les Pleurs range. A new advertising campaign is to be launched, and the naked ladies will no longer feature, but the ducks will. The wine estate impressed in being the only one to provide a folder of information, summarising its wine farming philosophy (“Wines approved by Mother Nature”), combining natural farming with 21st century science, technology and research. The organic certification comes from the Dutch Control Union, and is accredited by Bio Nach EG-Ã–ko Verordnung( Germany), Soil Association (UK) and USDA (USA).
The Avondale building is mock Cape Dutch and its interior is too. It is a very spacious building, and its interior is functional but not as attractive as that of many other wine estates. It probably demonstrates that the wines, the farming methods and wine production are the heroes at Avondale. A most impressively green wine estate.
Backsberg is well-known for its work in enhancing its carbon footprint, but until my visit I was not sure what it was doing, other than that it had recently launched its “Tread Lightly” range of wines in a plastic bottle. Simon Back traced the history of the farm, to 1916, when his grandfather CL Back had bought the farm, first farming fruit before switching to grapes. All grapes were sent to the KWV in early days, and it was Simon’s grandfather Sydney who made the first wines at Backsberg in the Sixties. Michael Back, Simon’s father, studied viticulture and winemaking, and is the passionate owner who is driving the environmentally friendly approach of Backsberg. He is currently attending a conference in Rio de Janeiro on renewable energy. Backsberg became so passionate about being environmentally responsible about its wine farming, production and sales that it started by measuring the impact its operation has on the environment, in terms of fuel usage, water and electricity, and many more factors that they could quantify. The CO2 emissions caused by their operation is offset by a dedicated program to restore their carbon footprint by tree planting, and by changing how they do things. Energy-saving light bulbs are used; holes were cut in the roof to let in natural light; Michael drives a Ford Bantam bakkie because it is less environmentally damaging and lighter on fuel than a heavy-weight one; fresh dam water is used to cut out on refrigeration costs; smaller tractors are used; barrelwood is re-used and furniture made from it, which is for sale; a massive counter was made from barrelwood; light-weight glass bottles are used, now weighing 450g compared to the previous 650g; the 50g plastic bottle is a huge step forward, and all indications are that the market is accepting the new ‘Tread Lightly’ range, the first wine brand to use plastic bottles in South Africa, and follows France and Australia as countries that are using such bottles with success. The long-term goal is to become completely energy self-sufficient in future. Simon says that the debate that may have been generated about the advisability of using plastic bottles is similar to the one five years ago of using screw caps on wine bottles. The plastic bottles can be recycled. A glass-blowing pair of brothers re-uses Backsberg bottles in its glass art.
The Tread Lightly brand is exactly the same wine as is in the glass bottles, with a shelf life of two years. Its range consists of Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, and is only sold through Pick ‘n Pay, at R49,99 and R39,99, respectively. The Backsberg range is extensive, and consists of the Backsberg Family Reserve Range, a Kosher range, Sydney Back brandy range, Hanepoot, Port, a Mediterranean Range (Aldorina, Bella Rosa and Elbar), Black label Range (Sparkling Brut MCC, John Martin, Pumphouse Shiraz, Klein Babylonstoren) and the Premium Range (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, RosÃ©, Dry Red, Pinotage, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon). Wine prices start at R31 for the Chenin Blanc, RosÃ© and Dry Red, up to R 161 for the Backsberg Family Reserve Red Blend.
We were surprised at how old-fashioned things appear at Backsberg in terms of its building and interior, but perhaps it is environmentally friendly to leave the buildings in the way they have always been. The dedication to the environment is clear and they are saluted for this. No written information was supplied proactively, and the pricelist does not contain any contact details, should one wish to order or have queries.
Mooiplaas needs perseverance to get to in terms of its bumpy road, but again this may be a sign of the environmental orientation of this wine estate. Tielman Roos is a passionate co-owner of the farm, and says that there is a lot of confusion about environmentally-friendly farming. One can farm organically, follow the guidelines of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative launched by Wines of South Africa, and/or follow the Integrated Production of Wines of the University of Stellenbosch. The challenge is to use farming methods that harm the environment (like spraying) and then to offset this with environmentally friendly actions. He explained that there was no point in farming in a purely organic way and then lose one’s crop in not having sprayed. It is the carbon footprint that counts. Mooiplaas does this in having created a private nature reserve of Renosterveld on the farm, which can never be used for wine farming. He said: “We must be responsible to keep our business in business”. South Africa has the oldest soils in the world, and this makes its biodiversity so special. Tielman challenged every wine farmer to dedicate 5-10 % of the farm to indigenous plants, to so contribute to the environment. The Mooiplaas wines carry the ‘Integrity and Sustainability’ seal on the neck of its bottles, and gives traceability to that particular wine.
The wine estate has a beautiful historic manor house, built in 1833, hidden from the tasting room. The tasting room feels environmentally friendly, its floor made from rocks and cement (making for a very uneven walk) and walls that show the original building style, only partly plastered. It is a “plaas” winefarm, with little that shows modernity, except for a good brochure lying in the Tasting Room, and for Tielman’s dedication to the environment. He organises walks through the nature reserve. The Mooiplaas range consists of Langtafel Wit, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Langtafel RosÃ©, Pinotage, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Rosalind and Duel MCC, ranging in price from R32 – R 127.
Signal Hill Winery is in the middle of the city, in Heritage Square, and our guide Kyle Zulch clearly loves his job, demonstrated by his enthusiasm and generosity in the tasting. He took the group to the pavement, where he disgorged a bottle of their MCC, the process that bubbly producers use to take the lees off the MCC before labelling and corking the bottle. The grapes for their wines come from vines on pockets of land in Cape Town (Camps Bay, Kalk Bay and Oranjezicht), leading to a small quantity of only 6 barrels produced. In addition, grapes are bought in from Stellenbosch, Constantia and Somerset West. Kyle and Signal Hill Winery founder Jean-Vincent Ridon are passionate about ‘fighting urbanisation’, and are looking for more pockets of land in the city on which they can plant vines. The Premier’s residence Leeuwenhof may become a mini-wine farm soon too. They clean up weeds by hand, rather than the quick and easy spraying method, have an earthworm farm, and they plant lavender and basil in-between the vines.
The range of 25 Signal Hill wines consists of Tutuka Shiraz (R39), The Threesome, Petit Verdot, Grenache Noir, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz/Syrah Helderberg, Pinot Noir, Clos D’Oranje Shiraz/Syrah R750), Grenache Blanc, RosÃ© de SaignÃ©e (R38), Empereur Rouge, Vin de L’emperuer, Straw Wine, Creme de Tete, Eszencia (R2000), Red Le Signal, White Le Signal and Muscat de Rivesaltes.
It was a most impressive day, seeing wine estates from a completely different angle. The wine tastings were generous, and one must pace oneself and spit more than swallow, with an average of five wines tasted per wine estate, making about 20 in total! The wonderful lunch we had at Towerbosch on the Knorhoek wine estate will be featured in a restaurant review next week.
Eco Wine Tours: Charles Lourens, Bottle Plate Pillow Tel 082 375 2884 and Pieter Geldenhuys, PG Tops Tel 083 288 4944.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com