Biodynamic wine farming and biodiversity – a perfect partnership
I recently joined the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) of South Africa on an outing to Waterkloof Winery. WWF donors were invited to witness a biodynamic winery at work, followed by a cellar tour and lunch at the estate restaurant. The purpose of the outing was to reward donors for their contributions, whilst showcasing WWF’s Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) in the context of a BWI Champion biodynamic wine farm.
We set off on a grey and wintery Cape morning from the WWF offices in Newlands. We were driven by Paul from Green Cab – a carbon-neutral transport service that uses biodiesel to power their vehicles. The clouds pressed down, barely distinguishable from the shrouds of smoke above the red glows of fires in the outskirts of Langa, alongside the N2.
As we approached Somerset West, the clouds began lifting. By the time we drove up the long, snaking approach road to Waterkloof the weather prospects looked encouraging. The winery is housed in a modern, striking building perched on one of the Schapenberg hills. Designed by an Australian company called Castle Rock Design, the winery won the Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism Award for Architecture and Landscapes in 2012.
Upon arrival at Waterkloof, we were greeted warmly by the Waterkloof tasting lounge manager, Sonja Du Plessis, and other staff members and ushered to our seats around a welcoming fireplace in the tasting room area.
Dr Andrew Baxter, the head of WWF business development and fundraising, welcomed us and provided context for the presentations and activities planned for the day. He started with the sobering fact that the people on the planet currently use one-and-a-half planet’s worth of resources, and this is forecast to soon be two planet’s worth. Clearly this is unsustainable, and as humans we have to start giving something back in order to prevent a situation of cataclysmic environmental disaster. He explained that his sombre news would be offset by some good news, which was to be provided by Martin Albertus, Programme Manager of BWI.
Martin then gave a presentation on the work of BWI, and outlined some of their achievements to date.
Martin explained that almost 95 % of South Africa’s viticulture takes place within the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK). The CFK is one of the smallest and richest biodiversity areas in the world. Within the South African winelands, there are more species of plants than in the entire Northern hemisphere. 80% of these species occur on privately owned land, and are coming under increasing threat from agriculture and urbanisation.
In response to the problem, in 2004 the wine industry developed a partnership with the Botanical Society of South Africa, Conservation International and the Green Trust. This partnership led to the establishment of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI). In 2009 the BWI was formally incorporated into WWF South Africa, and is now known as the WWF Biodiversity and Wine Initiative.
In under five years, 126 000 hectares have been set aside for conservation purposes through the efforts of the BWI. This area now exceeds the total area under vine, which is 102 000 hectares.
To become a BWI member wineries have to have a minimum of two hectares of natural land set aside for conservation, amongst other criteria. To become BWI champions, they need to have 10% of their land set aside for conservation.
The WWF states that:
“Our vision is to protect and conserve our unique natural heritage within the Cape winelands – an outstanding place with iconic species whilst maintaining living, productive landscapes.”
To achieve their vision, they have defined two main goals:
• Conserving natural areas of outstanding conservation value
• Promoting sustainable agricultural practices to maintain living and productive landscapes
Biodiversity refers to the ecosystems, species and processes that form the basis of life. When biodiversity exists, species and ecosystems are strong and able to adapt to environmental challenges. When biodiversity does not exist, nature becomes unpredictable, and the survival of species and sound functioning of ecosystems comes increasingly under threat.
People talk about marriage as ‘tying the knot’. BWI is the knot tying the wine industry and biodiversity together.
The BWI works together with the wine industry’s environmental certification scheme, the Scheme for Integrated Production of Wine (IPW). Compliance with the IPW framework is the minimum criterion for participating in the BWI.
South Africa launched the Sustainable Wines South Africa seal 2010 and is a world frontrunner in this regard. This together with the BWI has earned South Africa international acclaim, and biodiversity is fast becoming part of the unique South African tourism and marketing brand.
Biodynamic farming is based on the agricultural philosophies of Rudolph Steiner (1861–1925), which combine ecological farming principles with ethics and spirituality. Biodynamic wine farmers see their farms as interconnected living systems.
There are over 450 biodynamic wine producers in the world, including many of France’s top estates. For certification, biodynamic viticulturists need to follow prescribed principles and use specific biodynamic preparations for sprays and composting. The most often mentioned of these is called preparation 500 – a mixture of cow manure which is buried in cow horns over winter, mixed with water and then sprayed onto the soil.
Waterkloof Winery achieved Biodiversity Champion status in 2008 and follows the principles of biodynamic farming.
Waterkloof’s website defines biodynamic farming as: “Biodynamic farming is an imperfect, natural agricultural process of cultivation based on the ‘sensitive intelligence’ of an interconnected natural world. As Biodynamic farmers, we work to create a diverse, balanced ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself.”
Waterkloof adopted their biodynamic approach to farming as a result of observations of the practice on other estates made by the owner Paul Boutinot over decades. At Waterkloof they believe that not only does the practice of biodynamic farming help to preserve the environment, but it creates wines of character with a sense of place, as opposed to homogenous wines that are representative of their cultivar, regardless of where they are from.
After the presentation by the BWI, we were taken on a tour of the farm by Waterkloof marketing assistant Nadia Barnard, who showed us a fertiliser pit, worm farm and the cows, chickens and horses, all of which play a part in the biodynamic processes of the farm.
A feature of Waterkloof that is soon noticeable is the Percheron horses. These are large draft horses, well known for their strength, intelligence and patience. In the past they were used as war horses, but are now mostly used as work horses for forestry and agriculture. On Waterkloof most materials are transported around the farm on carriages pulled by Percherons in place of tractors and trucks. Using Percherons reduces carbon emissions, leads to less soil compaction, and the manure is used in the composts, fertiliser preparations and as food for the earthworms.
Nadia showed us the fertiliser pit, where fertilisers are made using a mixture of manure, volcanic ash and teas made from leaves such as comfrey, nettle, yarrow and dandelion. As well as feeding the vines, the fertilisers destroy pests such as nematodes.
The worms used for producing compost are Eisenua Fetida, or red wiggler worms. These are special composting worms which live in the top layers of the soil. The worms live in old wine barrels and are fed on a diet of kitchen waste, straw, cardboard and manure. When a barrel is full of worm castings, a mesh disk is place over the barrel with the food on top of it. The worms move through the mesh to the layer of food, and the mesh can then be transferred to another barrel, leaving behind the contents of rich worm castings. These castings are then used as worm teas for the vegetables, herbs and vineyards. These teas suppress nematodes and pathogens in the vineyards, and when used as a foliage spray they also prevent mildew.
The farm chickens range freely, and as well as providing a supply of fresh farm eggs to the restaurant, they keep the vines, vegetables and herbs fertilised and the vines free of vine weevils.
Waterkloof has seen their natural and conservation-based approach to farming result in the return of leopards, caracals, porcupines and many birds of prey to the area.
Nadia concluded her tour in the cellar where she explained that the cellar had been designed to make use of gravity when separating liquids from solids, negating the need for pumps and motors. Whole grape bunches are pressed with minimal intervention in the processes. At Waterkloof more time and effort is spent in the vineyards than in the cellar. By the time the grapes reach the cellar, they work for themselves.
We tasted wines from Waterkloof’s Peacock Ridge range – A Sauvignon Blanc and a Merlot, both of which were smooth, luscious and easy to drink. Their other ranges are Circumstance, Circle of Life and Waterkloof.
We had lunch in the restaurant, which is surrounded by high panes of glass, providing views of the farm, valley and mountains in the distance. The building is modern, elegantly decorated and beautiful – a luxury setting for a place which is patently eco-friendly and honest in its approach to wines and farming.
The day ended with one of the donors thanking WWF, BWI and Waterkloof for providing an enjoyable and informative day. Nadia and Sonya were presented with gifts by Denise Samson, WFF, to thank them for their efforts.
We set off home, full and satisfied. We had been able to indulge in the good food and wine without worry, secure in the knowledge than Paul would see us safely back to Cape Town. By the time we entered town, the rain started coming down in sheets, curtains on a perfect day out in the winelands.
WWF South Africa – Biodiversity & Wine Initiative
Waterkloof Wines | Sir Lowry’s Pass Road, Somerset West
Integrated Production of Wine (IPW)
The Green Cab