Green Wine Route – Every plant has its place on the planet, but what counts is how well they share. In the Cape Winelands, vines and fynbos are a living example…
Words: Nancy Richards
Call me a heathen, but I’ve always chosen wine by the label – it usually tells you something, although maybe not much more than the quality of the brief and skill of the designer. Ultimately I guess you get what you pay for – though if you live in South Africa how are you not blasé about the availability of good, affordable wines? But then a little map came across my desk – the Green Wine Route.
A bit of a greenie, if no oenophile, am I and it immediately got my attention – andI narrowed down the field. Listed on the route are 34 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Conservation Champions in the Cape Winelands, whose estates are not just sustainable, Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) compliant, but who have significantly upped their biodiversity-conservation game.
So here was a mind-shift opportunity – better to buy a wine for its enviro creds than its label appeal. But it seems there’s been a mind shift among wineries too. Since the WWF Biodiversity and Wine Initiative was founded in 2004, suggesting to the wine industry that it takes a long hard look at how business was impacting the sensitive Cape Floral Kingdom in which most of it sits, there’s been a marked move towards clearing alien vegetation, and committing to land conservation.
There have also been incremental steps towards better energy and water management and more sustainable farming but, in some cases, the biodiversity concept has been taken to new levels. Bonus spin-offs are that blocked-up rivers have started to flow, water quality has improved, birds have returned, Cape mountain leopards, caracal and honey badgers have been caught on camera traps, chemical bills are reduced and people working on the farms are in a healthier, happier environment. And a visitor bonus is the growing number of walking, hiking, cycling and birdwatching trails.
Lest you think it sounds easy, it’s no quick or cheap job to green a winery. It’s taken some estates up to five years to clear the alien vegetation – an ongoing process. Necessarily, there’s an economic impact and factor in fickle climate change and drought and, for me, it adds up to a rocketed appreciation of land-respectful wine.
So notwithstanding the carbon footprint, we took to the route to check out some of the champs and their uniquely green selling points…
1. Flowering Vondeling
“We’re a bit off the beaten track,” says Julian Johnsen with a grin when we finally get there. He wasn’t wrong. Vondeling wine estate, on the Voor Paardeberg section of the Paarl Wine Route, is somewhere between Wellington and Malmesbury, uncharted territory for us. Julian and his partners Anthony Ward and Richard Gower have 120ha under vine and 280ha fynbos spread over the Paardeberg mountain.
As he drives us around the land, Julian describes their minimum-intervention strategy, and strict waste- and water-management systems. “Over the last year, water levels dropped by nearly 50 per cent so we reuse every drop.”
They also co-exist with boomerang porcupines – “They just keep coming back no matter how far we take them!” – and wild peacock and baboons. More benign is their herd of suckling, black Angus cattle.
Julian shows us around the gracious 18th-century guest house, the barn converted into a rustic thatch chapel with steeple and stained glass. “St Clement’s, where Pastor Benny Roberts comes to shepherd the staff, and Bridget to give lectures.” Julian’s wife Bridget, a former vet, is the green heart of the estate. Some years ago, in response to Al Gore’s call to combat climate change, she founded the Paardeberg Sustainability Institute (PSI) to protect both the land and its people.
Projects include the regional Fire Protection Association and the creation of “sustainable jobs in sustainable industries”. She talks passionately about teams busy with alien vegetation clearance, wood sales, chainsaw hire, honey farming, agritourism and fire management. But in the last few years, flowers also have been high on the agenda. “After the huge fire here in 2011, there was a phenomenal regeneration of fynbos which Anthony (Ward) suggested we record.”
So over a period of 18 months – two spring seasons – with botanists Greg Nicholson and Divan Roets and journalist Ruth Garland, the PSI collected, identified, photographed and pressed nearly 1 000 species. The result is a meticulously-filed collection in the farm’s field herbarium. A duplicate set was made for the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch and, hot off the press, Bridget proudly shows us the first proof of a fine coffee-table book Fire to Flower: A Chronology after a Wildfire in Fynbos.
Displaying her passion, the walls in Vondeling’s reception and wine-tasting room are lined with portraits of the team on one side, flowers on the other. Two of their flagship wines are named after two species endemic to the Paardeberg mountain: Babiana noctiflora and Erica hippuris.
- Drop by for a wine tasting or vintner’s platter – best to book if you are many. On a regular basis, chef Bertus Basson produces a special Sunday lunch.
- Special mountain tours are available by appointment for amateur and specialist botanists.
- The venue, guest house and church are available for weddings.
- Off R45 towards Wellington 021 869 8339, www.vondelingwines.co.za
2. Biodynamic Waterkloof
Ever since seeing pictures of the big white Percherons on the estate, I’d longed to go to Waterkloof wine estate outside Somerset West. The moment finally came with a booking for a Circle of Life Biodynamic tour guided by farm manager Christiaan Loots.
Here since 2004, Christiaan turned the 75ha estate organic in 2007, biodynamic in 2008, with certification since 2013. Luckily he and Paul Boutinot, owner of the estate, are on the same page in their commitment to enviro-ethics.
“When we started to farm biodynamically, grape tonnage plummeted. By the third year, once we’d put life back in the soil, things improved, and by the fifth year there was an explosion of earthworms and the soil was rich and penetrable so that horses could plough.”
Biodynamics, explains this patient land activist, is the culture of hand-in-glove farming with nature in all its symbiotic diversity – cows supply dung for compost, milk for cheese, whey for fertiliser; sheep and chickens help with weed and pest control and give more dung; horses have zero carbon-footprint energy; plant material from the veg garden goes back into the land and the moon delivers gravitational pull.
The tractor tour bounces us up to the horse-resting paddock – bless their peaceful presence – and from here we climb up to the peak overlooking False Bay and surrounding valleys. About half the estate is given over to fynbos, here in swathes beneath our feet. We zig-zag down past the cow-pat pit-manure and comfrey patches, through undulating blocks of spreading vines, finally coming to a stop at a shed full of fermenting barrels and bottles. This is Christiaan’s bio-lab where he produces super-efficient microbe preparations from anchovies, chillis, garlic and molasses.
With heads cleared by their pungent fragrance and the wind – for which the mountain estate is famous – but newly filled with information on permaculture, silica, sulphur, sandstone and fertility, it was time to try one of the products – an elegant red blend called, unsurprisingly, Circle of Life.
- The seasonal once-a-month Circle of Life Biodynamic tours start in September 2016, booking essential.
- There’s wine tasting or lunch in the glass-fronted restaurant that hovers over a breathtaking stretch of fecundity.
- Sir Lowry’s Pass Road, Somerset West 021 858 1491 www.waterkloofwines.co.za
3. Back to Bark
When I think Backsberg, I think trees – rightly as it turns out – because in the last decade, Michael Back, owner of the family estate between Paarl and Stellenbosch, has planted more than 1 500 trees. This has given them the distinction of being the first fully carbon-neutral estate in the country.
You don’t have to look far for the trees; the garden’s wood-chipped paths are lined with them and lunch is under the canopies. More are located in neighbouring Klapmuts where they ‘green’ the community. But the planting doesn’t stop, and they celebrate their centenary this year.
At the lunch for the relaunch of the Wine Club in June, each member was invited to bring a tree. “But green is more than trees and allocated hectares of fynbos,” says marketing manager Pierre Jordaan, an architect specialising in sustainable building.
“We’ve insulated the building against heat loss, cool the wine with an underground water pump, a biomass boiler runs our refrigeration, we do regular biodiversity surveys, we have water-conservation plans – we hope to be energy self-sufficient in a few years.”
- Do a wine tasting, enjoy lunch inside or out, take a winding garden walk, book a sustainability or birdwatching tour or join up as a member to keep the tree chain going.
- R45 to Franschhoek, 021 875 5141, www.backsberg.co.za
4. Fynbos Family Bartinney
There’s a row of bikes and some sleeping dogs outside the homestead at Bartinney wine estate on the outskirts of Stellenbosch – a clue to it being a family farm, one that returned to the family when grandson of the original owner, Michael Jordaan, bought it back in 2006.
With him and his wife Rose has come new-generation thinking and they’ve since cleared all the alien vegetation, started a nursery of indigenous species and, making them carbon neutral, installed more than 7 000 fynbos plants on the property, including landscaped a cluster in the form of their winged Dylan Lewis logo ‘Elevage’.
As founder members of the Banhoek Conservancy, 15ha of the Jordaan’s 40ha property is conservation land and they’ve created a wetland using endemic plants. As we stroll the property, it’s clear that fynbos is king. The tasting room table groans under pots of bonny specimens, and tasting itself is a sensory experience combined with the rubbed leaves of scented fynbos.
- Fynbos and wine-tasting experience. Sit on the balcony overlooking the dam and mountains and just relax.
- On the R310 outside Stellenbosch, 021 885 1013, www.bartinney.co.za
Biodiversity Wine Initiative
- The Cape Floral Kingdom covers about 90 000km² with about 9 000 species. Agriculture and development is the biggest threat to the kingdom. It’s also home to about 95 000ha of Cape Winelands.
- Since the BWI (Biodiversity Wine Initiative) started 10 years ago, for every ha under vine, almost 1.4 ha is under conservation. Now called the WWF Conservation Champions, there are 39 members and application is open to anyone meeting the criteria. Look for bottles with the Integrity and Sustainability label on the neck and WWF Champions protea and sunbird logo on the back.
- The annual Nedbank Green Wine Awards is a showcase for conservation-minded winemakers. www.greenwineawards.com
- Find the Green Wine Route on www.capetowngreenmap.co.za