What next for sustainability?

By Jamie Goode | 2nd December 2020

Some of the most interesting discussions in the world of wine at the moment are centred around what people do in vineyards. It’s one of the areas of wine that has changed the most over the last two decades. Sustainability is now being seen not as an added extra, but as essential. I recently led a Wines of South Africa ‘Insider Session’ focusing on this topic, along with Simon Back from Backsberg, Nadia Langenegger from Waterkloof, Brian Smith of Elgin Ridge, Johan Reyneke of Reyneke and Gary Jordan from Jordan.

What next for sustainability?

Back in the mid-1990s when I first started visiting vineyards, good viticulture was thought to be bare earth, with nothing growing apart from vines. Since then, we have seen a massive mind shift, where many now realise the whole ecosystem of the vineyard is important. South Africa is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its sustainability seal, which was an industry first when it launched. It remains an important subject for the South African wine industry.

But is sustainability enough on its own? There is currently a lot of interest in regenerative farming. This is where people farm in such a way as to improve the quality of the soil. ‘When you look at sustainable, that’s what it is: sustainable is keeping things where they are,’ says Gary Jordan. ‘If you look at world statistics, soils have probably 60 harvests left. If we don’t do something about changing this, it is only going to get worse.’ Jordan says that it took a move to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in England, that enabled him to find out that it’s possible to go much further than being sustainable. ‘The holistic nature of regenerative farming leverages the photosynthetic power of plants, both of cover crops and of the vines, within this carbon cycle, to build up soil health, and also crop resilience. You end up with vines that are more resilient to pests and diseases. And also nutrients are just so much more easily accessible to the vines.’

‘As a farmer one must take a short-term and long-term view of your farm,’ says Johan Reyneke, who is a pioneer of biodynamic farming in South Africa. ‘Sustainability is a three-legged chair. You have to look after nature. You also have to look after people, and you have to look after money. If you don’t look after all three legs, the chair will topple over. It just happens to be that we can exploit nature the longest, and people the second longest, and as soon as we run out of money we stop. So there is always this emphasis to look after money first.’

‘I’ll give you a practical example. If people grow plants or flowers or vines at home, the first thing they will do is remove all the weeds,’ he says. ‘Obviously, you want those beautiful plants to have access to nutrients and water in your soil. But if you go for a walk in the wilderness, you never find bare soil. For soil to live, it needs to be covered. What does a farmer do? Do we remove the plants for the sake of profitability and our crops? Or do we leave them and build our soils?

There are financial implications. ‘In the short-term, if you don’t remove the weeds or manage them your yields will suffer significantly. Where I am in Stellenbosch, if you farm conventionally you can get yields of 8-10 tons/hectare. With organics, you are probably in for 6-7 tons/hectare, if you are lucky. If you don’t manage your weeds at all, your yields will drop down to 2-3 tons/hectare. That would mean that you would be sustainable from an ecological point of view, but not from an economic one. If you take a long-term view, science tells us that as the humus levels and the organic matter of the soils increases, so does the resilience of the plants that live there. If you can get your organic matter to 5% through regenerative farming, your vines improve in terms of robustness up to 300%. It is always a balancing act of farming the soils and farming the plants. In the short term you do this in a careful way so that you don’t run out of money, but it definitely pays to exploit as little as possible and farm as regeneratively as possible, and it becomes easier and more sustainable in the long run. I believe we farm some of the oldest and most extensively weathered soils in the world. If you were going to a conventional vineyard in Europe or the USA, 2-3% of that soil would be humus. But here where we farm we are lucky if we get 0.5 or 0.7%. Combined with the harsh sun and climatic conditions, we really have to work hard with our soils, but I think in time it will pay off.’

Nadia Langenegger thinks that one of the obstacles to farming sustainably is that it costs more, but people aren’t prepared to pay more for sustainable wines. ‘Do consumers care that much?’ she asks. ‘If you look at statistics in the 1950s people were spending 50% of their salaries on food and beverages. Now it has gone down to 11%.’

‘We create our message by saying that we are farming naturally and organically, and biodynamically. It might be a good idea to simplify it for the consumer. This is our everyday jargon, but your average Joe going to a supermarket and looking at the wine doesn’t understand the difference. Maybe we are overcomplicating it at the moment. Is one of the problems that we have all these different ways of farming, and we are looking for the best way to farm, but when it comes to getting more money to farm that way, people aren’t going to pay extra? They aren’t picking up a bottle, looking on the back and saying look this is farmed sustainably, and then are willing to pay more for it.’

Simon Back agrees that this is an issue. ‘We’ve always tried to farm and act sustainably just because it is the right thing to do,’ he says. ‘If we knew how hard carbon neutral was to explain, then maybe we shouldn’t have gone after it at all. As Nadia mentioned, we operate in this bubble; there are still a lot of people for whom organic, biodynamic and carbon neutral are phrases and ideas that are quite complex and there is a lot of education that has to happen. Organics is old and many people know what it is, but all these other ways of farming are fairly high brow discussions that don’t resonate with the majority of consumers.’

But things are changing. ‘Historically, if there was a patch of fynbos, or a tree, we would use the bulldozer technique and that would be history,’ he says. ‘More and more, farmers are seeing themselves as custodians of the land, more than saying we get to do whatever we want. Backsberg is a four-generation business, and if we want to continue we have to act in a particular way. Having this timeline, we have to have a longer vision.’

Brian Smith has experience of turning a badly managed piece of land into a biodynamic vineyard. ‘It was a very interesting journey,’ he says. ‘We purchased an old apple farm in Elgin, and the poisons that are sprayed on apples on a regular basis through the season are quite amazing. When you were a kid and your mother said wash the apple before eating it, there was a good reason why. We bought land and planted from scratch, and there were residues of chemicals on there. Way back, some really nasty stuff was used to kill pests on the apple farm. My wife Marion is passionate about organics and biodynamics, and she decided that from day one we would use no herbicides or pesticides or anything like that. The result has been that our vines are now coming up to 14 years old, and they are incredibly robust and healthy. They have never had any of these chemicals sprayed on. They have wonderful disease resistance.’

‘Farming today cannot afford to be production-driven any more,’ says Reyneke. ‘Everyone harps on about the yields of organics and biodynamics not being enough, but the reality is that a third of the food we produce on the planet is actually discarded. The solution is not to up yields even more. Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, if you want to know what the right thing to do is, you must ask the young people. Older people have money and power and vested interests, but young people are still idealistic and they go for it. If I look at myself, and my dad and my kids, the thing I notice that my children do more than I do or my dad does, is the respect for the natural environment. I think the future market is going to be rewarding those who farm in a more sustainable, organic, regenerative way.’

‘In the western Cape we get 400-800 mm of rain in most areas,’ says Jordan. You are looking at the same kind of rainfall as in London or Amsterdam, but it is when it falls that makes a massive difference to us. You only get about 30% in spring and early summer. This gives us an ability to do other things. To improve soil and look after the soil in the rest of the year by planting cover crops and increasing organic matter.’ There are significant benefits obtained by farming this way. ‘By increasing organic material by 1% in Cape Wineland soils, you can store a million litres of water that can be useful for the rest of the summer. The wine industry has the unique ability to be able to sequester carbon and store it in our soils, and actually reverse climate change. It is not rocket science. We should all be able to do it.’