Why the Overberg Dominates

Why the Overberg Dominates.jpg

By Neil Pendock

Looking at the cast list of BWI—the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative that allows part of a wine estate to revert back to the natural environment—the casual web surfer is gobsmacked by the dominance of the Overberg. Elgin, Hemel en Aarde and Stanford estates proliferate rather than traditional wine areas such as Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. Why is this? In three letters: BMX.

Back in 1982 when Elliot was flying over the moon on his BMX bicycle with E.T. on the handlebars in the Steven Spielberg classic, the men now running Paul Cluver, Almenkerk and Oak Valleywere impressionable boys. BMX was the Red Bull of the eighties, giving youngsters wings.

BMX bikes changed western society to such an extent that today mountain biking has replaced golf as the recreational pastime of plutocrats.

Dads such as Johann Rupert, Christo Wiese and Hein Kogelenberg still play golf in plaid pants at Leopard Creek and Arabella, while their sons save the planet by transforming part of the family farms to mountain bike experiences. They get feel-good kudos too, as they call those tracks ‘fynbos reserves’. Tax breaks and a handy argument to fight off calls for land redistribution add to their popularity.

Dealing with Alien Invader 

Mother Nature has a sense of humour, as grape vines are alien invaders—a bit like E.T., but they don’t go home at the end of the movie—and are the biggest threat to biodiversity in general and fynbos in particular. Many vineyards are monotonous monocultures, mostly managed with insect- and parasite-destroying chemicals and a reallocation of water resources to feed the vines. This profoundly changes the natural environment. It’s called progress.

Locals recount how the use of sulphur in Franschhoek vineyards has affected the number and species of birdlife in the valley. And when it rains, it’s the Yellow River as chemical residues wash off the vines.

Two years after E.T. cycled home, biologist Edward O Wilson coined the term biophilia in his 1984 book of the same name. Ed’s big idea was that humans are hard-wired to associate with other forms of life. It manifests as an impulse towards environmentalism and conservation: we need Gaia to survive and therefore we need to protect her.

The concept of biophilia is thirty years old this year and so it makes sense that an impulse towards conservation runs strong in the veins of the 30-somethings now running estates such as Paul Cluver, Joris Almenkerk and Chris Rawbone-Viljoen. For Ed had sampled the zeitgeist of his time. Biophilia is a concept whose time has come as the ravages of rapid climate change become unmissable and the plague of weird cancers makes everyone question their diets and talk about going organic.

For practical organic farming, vineyards need to be quarantined from those of commercial farmers who insist on spraying, as the wind has no respect for farm ownership or management practise. Surrounding your vineyards with fynbos is prophylactic protection.

 A Little Bit of History: Hedgerows

SA was established as a market garden for Dutch merchants on their way to the East, and for centuries was regarded as a vast open quarry and vegetable patch-cum-vineyard for Europe. When British wine imports were interrupted by regular wars with France, there was always a reliable supply available from the trusty Cape. For the longest time, SA has produced vastly more wine and brandy than it can consume and was for generations seen as a low-cost producer for colonial masters.

When the original vineyards were laid out in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek by imported slaves under Huguenot management, European farming practices of establishing hedgerows were blithely ignored. Over 190 000km of the 450 000km of hedges in England date back over 1 000 years and some are relics from the Bronze Age. It is precisely these hedgerows that maintain biodiversity on the green and sceptred isle.

Hedgerows are far more than field boundaries. As the Financial Times noted in a feature on historic hedgerows in June, “[t]hey are part of the historical fabric of the countryside, defining the shape of the land as readily as the streets of an ancient city. And they are vital to maintain biodiversity. Hedgerows connect disparate habitats like railway lines between stations. In areas where woodland has been squeezed out of the landscape and the land intensively managed with chemical feeds and pesticides, the hedge acts as a surrogate, linear wood, providing a bastion for woodland animal species.

“The plants within them provide food and shelter for the animals and a safe haven from predators, so when a hedge is removed, the effects are more than aesthetic. The demise of once common bird species such as the hedge sparrow, linnet and song thrush is at least in part attributable to the decline of hedges. There are bat species, such as the greater horseshoe, that use them to get to their feeding grounds, and when these navigational aids are removed bats can become disorientated and starve to death.

“The diversity of plant species usually increases with age, as does the complexity of the habitat they offer wildlife. The generally agreed field method for dating a hedge—put forward by Dr Max Hooper in his 1974 book Hedges—is to count the number of species within 30 yards, the result being roughly equivalent to the age of the hedge in centuries”.

The fynbos operates on a larger scale than the patchwork nature of the English countryside. When the first SA vineyards were established four centuries ago, little care was taken of the delineations between eco-zones. Efficiency was the mantra, and as cost-effective mechanical farming methods became popular, huge tracts of contiguous vineyards became the norm.

Which is seriously bad news for terroir. For as Cape Legends marketing maven Ross Sleet noted inBusiness Day in June “some farms of less than 100ha have nine soil types and seven slope aspects—we should focus on these extraordinary narratives and circumstances and let the commodities take care of themselves. Supermarkets can only gain from our enhanced stories and value offerings as this will drive up prices and profits over time. No-one seriously thinks they are winning by over-promoting cheap and cheerful wines; they clog up valuable shelf space, and generate significantly lower margins than higher priced wines”.

The Next Generation

Many of the Overberg next generation winemakers and wine marketers have learnt this lesson of using geography to carve out a defensible space on the supermarket shelf, and BWI allows oases of terroir to be defined. More established Stellenbosch and Paarl brands don’t try as hard.

Another factor is that Overberg farms are often so large and the wines so difficult to sell, it would be financial suicide to develop all of the many thousands of hectares some of these properties run to. In Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia the business model is totally different. It’s called property development and capital appreciation.

The strategy is to hold on for as long as possible and then sell off parcels of land for housing development. Sterilising part of your farm back to nature may look like financial suicide. But it does promote a back-to-nature environment, which will boost selling prices of plots aimed squarely at yuppies. The kind of folk who might have been hippies a generation ago.

Durbanville is a good example as Cape Town creeps ever closer. The politicians who approve planning permission are elected by voters aspiring to owning homes. You don’t need to be Milton Friedman to forecast the endgame of suburbs of houses dotted with urban vineyards, each boasting a restaurant and bespoke wine experience.

For Overberg owners, returning part of your farm to nature attracts yuppie weekenders on Banting diets wishing to burn off residual love handles on their mountain bikes that are too dangerous to ride on congested city streets. Unless you can take off like E.T. to avoid traffic.

It’s a Manichean model for the winelands: compact urban estates bristling with boutique wineries surrounded by larger outlying farms with huge swathes of difficult-to-farm mountain proclaimed wilderness areas. While not ideal, at least it leaves the birds and the bees with a fighting chance.