WWF Conservation Champion wine farmers find an ally in fynbos

by | Oct 27, 2020 | News

The rich and diverse indigenous fynbos of South Africa’s Cape Winelands has become a welcome ally to the region’s wine farmers, providing natural ecosystems between and alongside vineyards where the fynbos plants act as a natural pest controller, energising soil and creating a hardy crop-cover that helps retain moisture in the soil.

The symbiotic relationship between viticulture and the Cape Floral Kingdom is illustrated on various of the wine-farms that are members of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Conservation Champions programme, the unique working relationship between Cape wine farmers and WWF aimed at conserving the natural environment of the Cape Winelands. The 45 farmers who are WWF Conservation Champions own some 45 000 ha of land between them, of which 22 000 ha is conserved as a pristine part of the Cape Floral Kingdom comprising fynbos and succulent Karoo plants.

These members work closely with the WWF in their conservation endeavours, undertaking annual assessments to ensure they meet the specifications required of a Conservation Champion. All Champions’ credentials are also underscored by South Africa’s Integrated Production of Wine certification (IPW), with these wineries having achieved 70% or more in their IPW audit.

At De Wetshof Estate, one of Robertson’s premier wine farms especially known for pioneering Chardonnay in the Cape, wild fynbos plants are left to grow between the vines, offering various viticulture benefits as well as contributing to De Wetshof’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

“With our famous fynbos plant kingdom, we Cape wine farmers might just be sitting with the most unique cover-crops in the world,” says Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof. “The Cape fynbos incorporates a mass of wild shrubs, bushes and flowers – over 9 000 different species, each divided into various categories throughout the geography of the Western Cape. On De Wetshof we are committed to conserving this majestic natural occurrence – not only by putting an area of our farm aside as wild, uncultivated veld to conserve the natural environment, but to make the fynbos plants a part of our viticulture.”

This natural integration between vine and veld is evident on the steep slopes of De Wetshof where young Chardonnay vineyards are planted alongside a number of fynbos shrubs, including the famous vygie flowering shrub.

“The vygies and other indigenous plants play two roles in our viticulture,” says Johann. “First, these plants extract carbon dioxide from the air and through their roots they put the carbon dioxide into the soil, which is beneficial to soil health.”

Higher soil organic carbon promotes soil structure or tilth, meaning there is greater physical stability. This improves soil aeration (oxygen in the soil) and water drainage and retention, as well as reducing the risk of erosion and nutrient leaching.

“The other benefit of fynbos between your vines has to do with pest control,” says De Wet.  “Unwanted critters, such as nematodes, tend to prefer shacking-up in the fynbos instead of attacking and chewing on our vines. This lessens the need for spraying insecticide, and due to the hardiness of the fynbos, the insects are unable to inflict the kind of damage they do on the more delicate vine.”

In the world-renowned Stellenbosch wine region, WWF Conservation Champion Delheim Estate has been a pioneer in conservation practices on the slopes of Simonsberg. Today Delheim constitutes 375ha of land in the Simonsberg of Stellenbosch, of which 89ha has been set aside for conservation.

Victor Sperling, Operations Director at Delheim, says the ethos of conservation has always existed on Delheim, allowing the estate to have played a major role when the wine industry began to formalise the benefits and needs of protecting the winelands’ natural habitat through the WWF Conservation Champions. “At first the focus was aimed at the ‘wild’ parts of our farm, ensuring the magnificent habitat for fauna and flora remains pristine,” says Sperling. “But as a wine-farmer and viticulturist, conservation and sustainability has led us looking at ways to use the benefits of the natural environment to improve the health of our vines and soils as well as to – in general – farm more sustainably.”

Having worked in the Delheim vineyards with his father – the legendary wine pioneer and Delheim patriarch Spatz Sperling – for most of his life, Victor grew-up understanding the symbioses between wine and nature. “Everyone says wine is made in the vineyard, but what happens in that vineyard is dependent on the environment in which it grows,” he says. “The more natural the vineyard environment, the healthier and more expressive the grapes for the making of wine.”

By planting corridors of fynbos alongside the vineyards, natural pests are kept away from the vineyards, finding the thick indigenous vegetation more habitable than the vines where they would have to be removed through spraying.

“Furthermore, on Delheim we use parasitic insects to neutralise the more harmful bugs, while the planting of cover-crops inhibits weed growth, curbing the need for chemical spraying,” says Sperling. “The result is life in the vineyards, creating an energetically natural environment for vines to grow and grapes to ripen. With wine being a living product, this kind of sustainable farming is not only essential for the Cape winelands environment, but also contributing to the quality of the wines.

“In today’s international wine environment where sustainability is at the forefront of any conversation, the commitment of wine-farmers through the WWF Conservation Champions initiative provides a unique selling-point for South African wine.”

De Wet agrees, saying that wine-producers worldwide recognise the importance of sustainable farming and winemaking practices. “South African wine-farmers are here in a good position,” he says. “As custodians of the land for generations, most of us have nature in our DNA, and conserving the environment as part of our wine-making endeavours is non-negotiable.”

On the Bartinney Wine Estate in the Banghoek Valley outside Stellenbosch the commitment to biodiversity is dramatically illustrated with a piece of two-hectare “land art” established by artist Strijdom van der Merwe as a tribute to this renowned estate’s ethos of sustainability. A large scale copy of the Bartinney brand’s winged figure – or elevage – when flowering the fynbos land art is visible from afar, illustrating the farm’s commitment to bringing the fynbos directly in to the wine making and marketing of the brand as a whole. The farm also offers a unique fynbos and wine tasting experience using the aromatic leaves to experiment with wine lovers’ senses.

Across the farm more than 7 000 trees have been planted and fynbos endemic to the area re-established on 17 hectares of rehabilitated land from what was previously a pine and gum plantation.

Owner Rose Jordaan also started her own nursery growing indigenous water-wise fynbos to restore the neglected slopes and provide habitats for a wide array of organisms.

Biological pest control rather than pesticides is used, and no herbicide has been sprayed in eight years. A buffer zone of proteas between the vineyards and the mountain discourages local baboons from raiding the grapes.

According to Shelly Fuller, WWF South Africa’s sustainable programme manager for fruit and wine, Conservation Champions are truly ground-breaking in their innovative ways of managing farming practices while proactively conserving the natural environment.

“With every visit our field officers find new approaches to environmental management practices shown by the wine farms,” she says. “This spirit of innovation and respect of their land is a truly unique feature of the Cape winelands and has the potential of positioning Brand South Africa as one of the leading wine countries in the world as far as sustainability and conservation is concerned.”

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