From Cork to Compost: True Sustainability in Winemaking

Sustainable wine farming isn’t just about the grapes; it’s about all elements involved in making wine, from lighter bottles and composting to protecting air quality and giving back to the community.

We spoke to Roland Peens, Director of Wine Cellar fine wine merchants and winemaker Johan Reyneke of Reyneke wines about the true meaning of sustainability in winemaking.

Q: Roland, what constitutes true sustainability in winemaking for you? 

A: I  believe  that  true  sustainability  in  winemaking  includes a  whole  range  of more natural  practices  in  the  vineyard, winery, environment and ecosystem. I think there is certainly a shift; wine drinkers are increasingly interested in real stories, environmentally sound practices and understanding how their wine is made. Of course the wines need to taste good too! Sustainability does however mean a long-term view and few wineries are able to undertake this.

Q: Roland,  can  you  give  us  an  example  of  an SA  winery  making  waves  in  terms  of sustainability? 

A: I think Reyneke wines are an interesting example of a winery that  implements  sustainability efficiently,  so  I’ve  brought  Johan  with  me  to answer some of your more detailed questions. Johan Reyneke has been a leader in this field for more than a decade. Not only do his wines receive critical international and local acclaim, but Johan has gone a step beyond organic and created South Africa’s  very  first  biodynamic  vineyard  and winery.

Q: Johan, What are some of the practices you implement at Reyneke to keep land and community healthy for generations of wine lovers to come?

A: The three key areas to focus on in terms of long term sustainability of any venture are nature, people and money. They’re almost like the legs of a three-legged chair … if one is absent the chair falls over. We believe our adherence to organic and biodynamic principles allows us to do just that: make good quality wines on a profitable basis without exploiting nature or labour in the process.

Q: It must be challenging to implement this efficiently – is it more challenging than conventional winemaking?

A: We face the same challenges as anyone does in conventional agriculture such as weeds, pests and fungal disease but remedy them in a different way. We don’t use herbicides, pesticides or fungicides to do so. This alternative approach to agriculture seems more risky and costly in the short term but plays out differently over time if done correctly. Doing things correctly is an important point as one can be organic or biodynamic by neglect or by design. Essentially, we’re moving away from a compromise situation where our gain comes at a cost to nature and people to a synergistic relationship where all three variables; nature, people and money support each other.

Q: We heard through the grapevine that you were honoured by news network CNN for your Cornerstone program to encourage home ownership and education for farm workers and their families?

A: My entry into the wonderful world of wine was as a farm labourer. I was astonished by how hard we had to work, how little we received in return, and how ironic it was given how crucial our contribution was to the making of fine wine. I dreamed of starting a wine company with my fellow workers but for very legitimate reasons they politely declined. This opened the door for other suggestions that started with home ownership and education and have now matured into on farm business ownership. Having said that it is, like everything else, a work in progress and part of a continuous process of refinement. Our business is growing and so is our labour force and this brings some interesting dynamics to the table.

Q: Johan, could you please explain the difference between an organic and a biodynamic farming?

A: All biodynamic farms are also organic but not all organic farms are biodynamic. Organics is about sustainability and biodynamics is about self-sufficiency. The organic farmer buys organic fertilizer to feed his vines. The biodynamic farmer buys a cow, collect her manure to feed the vines and in return feeds the pips, stems and skins from the winery back to the cow. This system has ecological benefits such as a lower carbon footprint and economic benefits such as control over production costs amongst others.

Q: What are further benefits of biodynamic farming?

A: Biodynamics puts a greater emphasis on the inherent value of things as opposed to just their material worth. Cows therefore have names, as opposed to just numbers in their ears, and are appreciated for all the additional benefits they bring to the farm as well, as opposed to just seeing them in terms of meat or milk production units. Biodynamics makes use of sets of herbal preparations and field sprays to foster plant and animal health and well-being. Biodynamics follows a specific planting calendar that suggests that certain parts of plants (fruits, flowers, leaves and roots) are affected by lunar cycles and phases. One would therefore harvest lettuce on a leaf day, carrots on a root day and grapes on a fruit day for example.

Q: So, could biodynamic farming be seen as a return to old farming practices?

A: Yes indeed. Both the use of herbal preparations and a planting calendar are often frowned upon by sceptics. The key to ‘softening the blow’ somewhat is indeed to understand than biodynamics is a very old form of organic farming. It originated at a time when people had a spiritual understanding of life in general and farming in particular; and today we live in an age where we prefer a scientific understanding of both. In this context, a lot of the biodynamic methodology can come across as being of an un-scientific or esoteric nature. While this can be the case, it doesn’t have to be the case and is often borne out of a superficial understanding of the biodynamic process.

Q: And of course, we’d love to know what’s next at Reyneke?

A: Probably a good surf this afternoon. There’s sure to be a good swell running.

On a more serious note our biggest current challenge is growth. Demand for the wines outstrip supply and we’re also inundated with neighbours and fellow farmers looking for assistance in converting their farms and vineyards to biodynamic agriculture. With all this going on its key that we keep our focus on what we set out to do: make good quality wines on a profitable basis without exploiting nature or labour in the process.

Q: Thanks so much Johan, this has been so insightful. Roland, to conclude – what excites you about SA’s wine industry? You mentioned that we may indeed be experiencing a ‘Fine Wine Revolution’? 

A: There is a huge excitement in the South African wine industry and what has happened over the last 5-10 years can be described as revolutionary. New and interesting wines are entering the market constantly and international press view South Africa as the most exciting wine producer of the moment. The new generation of wine makers is realising that great wine can’t be made in the winery, the focus needs to be in the vineyard. Therefore, there is a bigger appreciation for the farmer and wine grower. Not only are old vines now being farmed better and more sustainably, but new vineyards are being farmed better and therefore producing better wines.