Ethical practices at South African wine estates

Environmental sustainably and embracing ethical community practices have featured in South Africa’s wine industry in recent years

Backsberg Estate was the first carbon-neutral vineyard in South Africa, and remains one of only three in the world. Carbon neutral means the total amount of carbon dioxide or carbon compounds the estate releases into the atmosphere is either reduced to zero or balanced by actions to reduce those emissions.

In April owner Michael Back, who instigated the carbon neutral project in 2006, received recognition for sustainable winemaking at the annual Green Awards organized by the drinks business magazine (Subs: lower case title for magazine). Back joined the family estate in 1976 after graduating in viticulture and winemaking at Stellenbosch University. Backsberg Estate celebrates is centenary next year.

Back has supervised the planting of thousands of trees on the estate and in the nearby Klapmuts community. Since 2013 Back has organised annual plantings of poplar trees around the property. These act as windbreaks – strong winds are a problem in South Africa’s vineyards – and poles from the trees are used as supports in the vineyard.

Projects to reduce electricity and fuel also contribute to lower carbon emissions. Three years ago Back planted prickly pear cacti from which to make bio-diesel and says soon he will not need to buy any fuel for farm vehicles. Despite being entitled to have an expensive modern car because of his position with the company, Back chooses to drive a battered truck. “Life is about figuring out what you need, not what you want,” he said.

In collaboration with the German government, he has installed a bio-mass boiler fuelled by wood chips, connected to a heat exchange chiller. This clever device provides all the cooling, refrigeration and air-conditioning for his vineyard, further reducing the carbon footprint. In 2001 the winery was the first in South Africa to adopt the use of lightweight bottles made of a special plastic known as PET.

In recent years Backsberg wines have received a slew of accolades including gold medals at the International Wine and Spirit awards and the Vitis Vinifera awards this year.

In the late 1990s Backsberg instigated one of the first “empowerment” projects in the Cape region. Traditionally farm workers rent houses on the vineyards, but this project saw workers moved into their own homes nearby.

The Simonsig Estate, in the Stellenbosch winelands about 45km east of Cape Town, has embraced a unique form of corporate responsibility, though it does not publicise this action. Simonsig has built a crèche and school on the estate for farm workers’ children, as well as providing houses for 260 people.

In South Africa two thirds of vineyard workers are seasonal, moving from property to property as they follow work; providing permanent accommodation is rare. About two thirds of the Simonsig workforce live permanently on the farm, and Simonsig employs five teachers at the crèche and school.

Simonsig also provides free healthcare for all staff, which is a major contribution given that healthcare beyond government hospitals is very expensive in South Africa. To put costs into perspective, a farm worker typically earns about 35,000 Rand a year. Private healthcare costs 7,000 Rand a month for an average family. Simonsig also pays above the national day rate of 132 Rand for agricultural workers, and the estate has allowed a unionised workforce since 1998 which negotiates annual pay rises.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch produce the lowest yields of all of South Africa’s seven wine regions, yet have the highest labour costs. Simonsig’s generous approach confirms its commitment to community social responsibility.

Francois Malan, the company’s managing director, said this approach was second nature to a family that has lived in the area since the late seventeenth century. “We do this because we live here; we are all part of the same community. It is who we are.”

Each week workers from the farm attend two classes at Stellenbosch University as part of a program called ABET, or adult-based education and training. Simonsig pays for these classes.

Frans Malan, the founder of Simonsig, was the first producer of méthode champenoise in South Africa when he pioneered Cap Classique in 1971, known as Kaapse Vonkel. The company’s sparkling wines continue to win prestigious awards.

In the past decade more than a third of South Africa’s 600 wine farms have created 143,000 hectares of conservation areas on their farms, more than the 99,463 hectares currently under vine.

Villiera, another family-owned estate in Stellenbosch, has created a 220-hectare conservation area alongside their 200 hectares of vines and reintroduced many of the original animals such as hippos, giraffe, Burchell’s zebras, steenbuck and kudu. Visitors can tour the area in four-wheel drives with a guide.

The estate pioneered the use of solar for generating electricity and currently has 920 square metres of panels, the largest privately-owned site in the country. Like Simonsig, Villiera provides free medical for all staff and a crèche and school for farm workers’ children. Villiera was an early supporter of the Pebbles Project, the charity Sophia Warner founded to improve the lives of disadvantaged children in rural areas.

More than 1,000 Peking duck roam the property, eating insects and snails. Villiera stopped using insecticides in 2000, winemaker Jeff Grier said. About 100,000 indigenous trees have been planted in the past three years, Grier added. His family purchased the estate in 1983.

The family has focused on re-cycling land, in the sense that vineyards planted on inappropriate terroir have been allowed to revert to native bushland. Claypits in the conservation area from which bricks were made have been turned into dams for thousands of native birdlife. These birds scare away other birds that could eat ripe grapes.

Villiera wines have notched up considerable success in the past decade. South African Airlines serves the estate’s traditional brut non-vintage in its first class cabins, and the 2008 Monro brut won the trophy for best méthode champenoise at last year’s Bacchus Wine event.

In 2004 David Trafford, one of South Africa’s best winemakers, established a new vineyard in a pristine area 230km east of Cape Town near the hamlet of Malagas. The vineyard, Sijnn, is named after the original Khoisan word for the Breede River and is sited in one of the most natural locations in South Africa. Sijnn produces exceptional wines, recognised by a slew of awards.

Constant sea breezes mean the vines produce small yields of concentrated fruit. Trafford focuses on Mediterranean varieties such as Mouvedre and Touriga Nacional, along with Viognier and Rousanne. His wines are exceptional and are worth seeking. The labels feature beautiful art work by his wife Rita.

Sustainable vineyard practices in South Africa

Words: 1,097

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of Wines of South Africa at CapeWine 2015.

Categories: ethics, Not home, wine

7 replies »

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