There’s no doubt the topic of organic wine divides opinion – among winemakers as much as among consumers. But what’s true regardless is that there’s a healthy market worldwide for wines that reflect the environmental concerns of the next generation of consumers. Johannes Richter speaks to Sonop’s executive manager Sophie Germanier about the feasibility of organic wines in South Africa.
According to bowsa.co.za, Sonop wine farm (under the name of its late owner Jacques Germanier) has the most certified organic vineyards in the country at 75.22 ha – that’s slightly more than other organic farms such as Avondale or Reyneke Wines. Sonop has been fully organic since 2005 but until recently has focused mainly on wines for export.
Q: When it comes to the feasibility of producing organic wine in South Africa, is it a growth market driven by export or is there also interest from local consumers?
SG: Producing wine in South Africa is becoming less feasible year on year and organic is no exception to the rule. We rely fairly heavily on global exports to allow us to achieve sales targets and growth. However, we’re working on strategy to develop our organic sales in the local market. South Africa has not quite embraced the organic wine trend as much as Europe, America and even China. We know SA consumers are very focused on price at the moment and producing a cheap and cheerful certified organic wine to cater to this price-sensitive consumer is awfully difficult.
Q: What does it take to set yourself up as a viable organic producer in South Africa?
SG: Apart from time and money, it takes passion! To become viable, you need to create a wine that can compete with conventional wines. You can’t expect to be judged differently because you’re organic. For example, an organic Shiraz needs to hold its own against a conventional Shiraz, and once this is achieved you can start focusing on the organic side of the wine. It takes at least three years to transition from conventional farming to becoming a certified organic producer.
Q: What are the main economic challenges when going organic?
SG: Organic is not just about farming without chemicals. It’s a holistic approach that’s about fair labour practices, reducing your carbon footprint, minimal intervention in wine production, and not using synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Producing wine in this way comes with high overheads, thus once a bottle reaches the shelves, it’s naturally priced higher than others. Another challenge is grape yields. Organic producers often harvest far less than conventional vineyards which means less wine to take to market.
Q: How would you advise producers who want to tap into the organic market?
SG: Producing organic wine is more a lifestyle than anything else whereby your actions have a direct influence on the environment and the people around you. This means taking ownership of the whole process. Organic is a movement to preserve wellbeing while still creating something beautiful to interact with. To tap into this space just takes someone with a different mindset and the sheer willpower to succeed.