By Irina von Holdt
Photography supplied by Bouchard Finalyson | Graham Beck | Fernkloof Nature Reserve
“Quick! Come quick, meneer! There’s a funny looking rabbit in the vineyard!” The worker is agitated and excited and when the farm’s conservationist sees the little rabbit, he too is excited. There, as plain as day, is one of the most rare and endangered of the country’s animals—a Riverine rabbit, busily going about its business.
This happened on one of the Graham Beck wine farms in the Robertson district and is the culmination of hard work and planning—endless sessions of educating workers, demonstrations and night drives. It’s important for the farm, for conservation generally, for our international standing, but most of all for the rabbit. Normally found in the Great Karoo, this is the furthest south it has ever been seen.
Forget red and white, our wine is green—as green as the blood of the Bokke. Not green as in unripe, but a fresh, healthy green, meaning it is made according to environmentally-sound principles. Not quite all of our wine yet, but more and more of it as time goes by.
There are many success stories. At Bouchard Finlayson, in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, healthy plants of the striking bokmakierieriet (Witsenia Maura)—first described by Carl Thunberg on his visit to the Cape in 1772—have been found after being thought to be extinct in the Greater Hermanus area. Three other rare plants, a single plant of the African daisy, gerbera linnaei; another lone plant of salvia granitica, also thought extinct; and a tall protea sceptrum-gustavianus, or King Gustav’s sceptre, have been found. All on a single property. Then there are the geometric tortoises of Badsberg, the porcupine research being undertaken at Boekenhoutskloof, and the Western Leopard Toad, whose breeding grounds are on Steenberg and Cape Point Vineyards. Van Loveren Private Cellar has made their biodiversity accessible by opening a Fish Eagle Hiking Trail to the public. On this 8,5 km circular trail visitors can try to spot some of the 92 bird species that have been recorded en route—among them the Fish Eagle, Black Eagle, Paradise Flycatcher, Tambourine Dove and a variety of Kingfishers.
Now, about that leopard. The remains of a little duiker were found at Vergelegen, identified as a leopard kill. Not high in the mountains, or in a vineyard, but found right there on the lawn of the octagonal garden behind the historic homestead. Probably a female with cubs, they think, as paw prints and prints of two cubs had been seen at the dam at about the same time. Wary British visitors were too timid to walk in the garden after hearing the story, not understanding that leopards are very shy and nocturnal and pose no threat.
As farms increasingly fence properties, animals are cut off from their habitat, and one of the aims of the Biodiversity in Wine Initiative (BWI) is to keep corridors open, allowing them to roam freely. The male partner of the Vergelegen female may well have come from the Cederberg mountains, hundreds of kilometres away, as they range widely—up to 2 000 kilometres.
The really interesting philosophy that is slowly gaining ground here and internationally is BD.Biodynamics is a practical agricultural guide created by philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, and is the world’s first attempt at environmentally-sensitive farming.
Many years ago I stayed on the first biodynamic farm in the Cape, Bloublommetjieskloof farm, owned by doyenne of biodynamics in SA, Jeanne Malherbe. Eyeing the rows of bottled grape juice, a friend muttered, “A shot of yeast would do those no end of good!” So what would Rudolph think of making wine? Jeanne replies, “Oh yes, I have been posed this question often. Rudolph says that the preparations should be spread as far and as wide and as soon as possible. Wine farmers use preps, so the earth will benefit. Personally, I find wine farmers to be thinkers; they don’t necessarily follow what tradition dictates.” So we have the great man’s blessing.
Basically it requires bringing the soil into harmony (that magic word again) through the use of composts and manures—nine fundamental preparations are used in homeopathic quantities—a teaspoonful to 7–10 tons of compost, in conjunction with sensible crop rotation, cover crops and herbal teas, which amounts to pretty sound agriculture.
She laughs when she thinks of a thief at her home who took what he thought was boerewors from the fridge. “Little did he know that it was prep 503, a sausage stuffed with chamomile flowers. I bet he was surprised!”
There’s more to it. Rudolph also believed in harnessing the energy of the cosmos, and this is where the doubters scoff. In biodynamic farming there is recognition of celestial influences on plant growth, and that these subtle energies affect biological systems. Lunar and astrological cycles play a key role in the timing of biodynamic practices. This is difficult to defend because in a scientific and materialistic age, how do you measure something you can’t see, smell or feel?
The most important question is, do any or all of these strategies affect the taste of the wine? Evidence is anecdotal, with each proponent fiercely in support. In the Cape it is still early days, but producers like Vergelegen and Graham Beck—where they claim to be using over 70 per cent less chemical spraying and, as a result, see more birds, more owls and more scurrying little creatures in vineyards—say it will surely affect the quality of the grapes. Gerald Wright of Vergelegen mentions the fynbos; as it is restored and in close proximity to vineyards it may, too, impart distinctive aromas or flavours. Now we’re talking terroir.
For us consumers, knowing that a farmer is looking after his rare flowers or geometric tortoises makes the wine taste sweeter and altogether better. At least I think so.
‘Diversity Is in Our Nature’
Why Our Wine Biodiversity Initiative Is Tops in the World
When it comes to protecting the environment not only are we green but, like the Springboks, we’re also world champions, so to speak. South Africa leads the world in protecting biodiversity in the winelands. In this regard we have a thick duck soup of acronyms, from IPW to BWI and BD. What do they stand for? IPW is the Integrated Production of Wine programme, BWI is the Biodiversity in Wine Initiative, and BD is Biodynamic farming, each with a set of rules—all are voluntary—which are being willingly embraced by wine farmers. Now other countries are following suit, using our plans as blueprints. Some quite hurriedly, too, it must be said.
IPW is a system that prescribes every process, from planting vines through to the cardboard packaging and working in an environmentally-sensitive way. The IPW’s guiding principle is that ‘production should proceed in harmony with nature’. A huge section is devoted to directions for disposal of waste water. It’s comforting to know that cellar water must be purified before it is either disposed of or used for irrigation.
Members of BWI are focused on the conservation of natural habitats, thus contributing to sustainable wine production. Important to them is that it is entirely independent of the industry. Funding has come from the World Wildlife Fund, which has its headquarters in Stellenbosch. Already there are 137 members and 15 champion members, independently audited bi-annually to ensure compliance. This ties in with the biodiversity marketing message used internationally by Wines of South Africa—‘Diversity is in our Nature’. BWI project co-ordinator, Inge Kotze is enthusiastic. “We’ve had to do virtually no marketing. These farmers are so switched on. Instead of us going to them, they’re coming to us with all sorts of wonderful finds.”