In early January my daughter and I set off on a trip to visit some of the Western Cape organic wine farms for a book I’m co-authoring.
I have been passionate about these superb South African wines for a long time. As a student I lived on wine farms on all sides of Stellenbosch.
There I was exposed to the health problems experienced by labourers and their families who work and live in the vicinity of chemicals and sprays on regular wine farms.
Even today I still know many folk who suffer daily. Their children spend too many days at clinics, missing school and opportunities for a better life. I have tried to bring organic wines to organic markets, wondering why they’re not more readily available to us locals who love to drink wine free from pesticides, herbicides and excessive sulphites – wine with a social and environmental conscience.
Organic wine is defined as wine made from organically grown grapes and according to special organic wine making processes and storage conditions.
The different farms I visited were as varied as the biodiversity they treasure. As every farm is a unique ecosystem, each one demands its own interpretations and application of organic principles. This in spite of religiously sticking to a particular set of rules, depending on their certification body. I never knew what to expect next. Just when I thought I had seen it all, I was in for another surprise. No two farmers or wine makers managed their vineyards or wine making processes similarly.
Even in their attitude towards me they were as different as wine and vinegar. Some welcomed me with open arms. Speaking the ‘taal’ was helpful. One farmer was downright rude and just about kicked me off his farm, claiming he didn’t want to be associated with the ‘rubbish’ organic wines produced in this country. Shattered were my rose- tinted glasses through which I had viewed organic farmers, though that was only one incident.
What interested me most was what I regard to be the saving grace of the human race: creativity and intuition. Each one had learnt to follow his gut and read his land. Perhaps it’s even a blessing that they don’t seem to be in much contact with each other. (Except maybe in the Stellenbosch area, where the great biodynamic pioneer, Johan Reyneke, had set the trend to openly chat to his neighbours and help all those enquiring about natural farming practices.)
I do believe there’s a gift in everything: here we now have a wide selection of green pioneers doing their thing in virtual isolation. No doubt the geographical distance between these farms assisted this interesting phenomenon. Imagine the powerful discussions that could ensue if these chaps were to get together. My old dream of an organic farming training college bubbled up – one of the best possible ways of ensuring healthy food for the future and especially for emerging farmers.
I am no wine connoisseur, even though my best friend at school was a daughter from the Overgaauw stable and I spent many fun weekends there. I was more interested in the horses. So I share my story with you from a personal, humanitarian and ecological perspective.
A warm reception
I couldn’t have had a warmer reception than at Waverley Hills at the foothills of the Witzenberg mountains on the R46 between Tulbagh and Ceres. Farm owner, Kobus du Toit, told the story of the Waverley factory across the road, where woollen blankets were made and dyed during the Anglo-Boer and First World wars.
Today the original old buildings are still used for their small family business, Brenn-o-Kem that adds value to wine industry by-products. His dad worked for a big wine consortium in Stellenbosch, where he became aware of the vast quantities of grape skins being discarded and started the business. Processing grape skins into compost eventually lead to the start of the organic grape vineyard and wines.
The farm and the wine cellar are certified and audited by Société Générale de Surveillance – based in France. Unannounced audits take place on a regular basis and plant, soil and water samples are tested to ensure no harmful residues are present. This means: NO pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilisers during grape production and limited amounts of sulphites during wine making processes – below 80 parts/million.
The spray dilemma
Many consumers don’t know that grapes are of the most heavily sprayed crops in the country. According to conservative estimates 17 insecticides, fumigants, and herbicides are currently used in conventional wine grape production. Pesticides spayed on the grapes end up as residue in the wine, by being washed from the grapes. In addition to contact pesticides, there are also systemic pesticides, which penetrate the plant and end up in the grape pulp, and inevitably in the wine residue.
Luckily there’s a high demand for organic wines from Europe, simply because wine drinkers are more informed about the risks. This is why most of our local organic wines end up overseas, while locals happily consume what they’re not aware of. Since our shops keep what we demand, it’s up to us to become more conscious consumers. Demand what you want, repeatedly, and ask your friends to do the same, then watch what happens. Discerning shoppers is what this country needs to grow more sustainable.
The key objective in organic farming is alive and vibrant, biologically active soil, which nurtures strong, pest and disease resistant plants. Much like a strong human body with an active immune system is better able to resist infections.
This is why the compost business so easily developed into an organic farm. Healthy soil is stimulated into developing a greater diversity of life forms by the addition of decaying plant matter, manures, organically certified compost, compost tea, composted grape skins and natural fertilizers like guano. Organically treated soil may be resistant to phylloxera and other pests and diseases, because multiplied soil life have colonized almost all ecological niches, leaving no room for pathogens to take hold and multiply.
Organic farmers plant cover crops, which vary according to the specific needs of every specific ecosystem. So the farmer learns to listen to his land and respond appropriately, always remaining open and receptive to what needs express themselves through their plants. At Waverley Hills they plant vetch and legumes for soil improvement and as host plants for beneficial insects. All work is done by hand. Farm workers know no other than the organic way, as this farm embraced nature from the start. Natural predators, like wasps to control mealie bugs, are released into the vineyards.
Diversity is king
Parcels of land nearby the vines are allowed to grow wild. Natural patches of bramble and forest provide food and habitat for indigenous fauna, including beneficial insects and birds, which add a healthy diversity to the vineyard’s ecosystem. As a member of the Biodiversity in Wine Initiative, Waverley protects all indigenous flora and fauna on the farm and removes alien plants. Here small animals like antelopes, hares, guinea fowls, wild pheasants, porcupines, eagles, falcons, ducks, wild geese and mountain leopards are all safe.
Naturally I found in this gentle and caring environment, where man and mouse are respected, excellent, soft and delicious wines – internationally acclaimed with a special garrique character, due to the terroir and the spiciness of the fynbos. Perfect for the health conscious wine lover, who cares about the earth and her people. But don’t take my word for it, read more on their website and head for the Hills.
Visit their modern winery and organic restaurant overlooking the valley and spend the night in their romantic thatched guest cottage built over the Wolseley canal. Returning home stocked up for the winter will surely put a different spin on the cold months ahead.