Apr 06, 2021
Over the past few decades, consumers have become increasingly aware of the impact their purchases have on their own wellbeing and that of the environment. This has led to a growing need for products that have been sourced, made, packaged and delivered as sustainably as possible.
In the South African wine industry, we’ve seen this trend manifesting in a number of interesting ways, including the adoption of organic and biodynamic farming practises and the production of organic and natural wines.
The terms and categorisations of these practices and the certification of these products can, however, be somewhat confusing for the consumer. Furthermore, natural wine is a nebulous topic that requires an open mind and a willingness to question our own scientific and philosophical prejudices.
In an effort to untangle the threads that connect wine to a burgeoning market of sustainability-conscious consumers, we recently gathered a panel of local and global leaders in the areas of wine science, natural winemaking and biodynamic farming for the latest edition of our Vinimark Webinar series.
Chaired by wine journalist and creator of HanDrinksSolo, Jono Le Feuvre, the panel included Christina Rasmussen, co-founder and head of content at LITTLEWINE; David Clarke, founder of Ex Animo Wine Distributors; Jamie Goode, scientist, author and wine journalist; Johan Reyneke, cellar owner & viticulturist at Reyneke Wines; and Rudiger Gretschel, head of production for Vinimark.
Before delving into the scientific and philosophical depths of natural winemaking, it’s essential to define two of the terms closely associated with it: organic and biodynamic.
An important thing to understand about both, Gretschel points out, is that they refer to specific methods of agriculture that focus on sustainable practices.
“With organic agriculture, the idea is that you refrain from using chemical pesticides and herbicides and don’t use any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or synthetic fertilisers,” he explains. “Instead, you use ecological or biological-based pest controls and biological fertilisers, that have the ability to bind atmospheric nitrogen. So, in essence, it’s a holistic way of farming.”
Based on a series of agricultural lectures given by Austrian philosopher and social reformer, Rudolf Steiner in 1924, biodynamics takes things a step further, moving away from sustainability towards self-sufficiency. It also touches on the slightly more esoteric nature of a farmer’s relationship with her/his land.
Gretschel explains that the founding concept was based on four key principles:
Natural wine, on the other hand, is not so much an agricultural method as a philosophical revolution by winemakers who want to break out of the box and produce wines with minimal intervention to express themselves and the place of origin as purely as possible.
“The idea with natural winemaking, as I see it, is no rules at all, but also no intervention,” says Gretschel. “You’re trying to get away from using any kind of additives in the cellar, you’re trying to avoid the use sulphur as a preservative or an antioxidant in the wine entirely.”
Of course, one of the dangers of attempting anything without guiding principles to go by or regulations to follow, is that not everyone’s intentions are pure.
In an era where health and wellness sells, ‘greenwashing’ is commonplace. This basically means products are marketed to deceive people into thinking that they are more eco-friendly/sustainable or healthier than they truly are.
Sadly, this also occurs in the wine industry, as illustrated by Reyneke in the following anecdote:
“I remember walking in New York a while ago seeing organic/biodynamic labels on South African wines that I knew for a fact use herbicides and all kinds of things in their vineyards. When I asked the guy at the shop what was going on, he said that he had visited the producers and been told that they are biodynamic and organic.”
While certification is a contentious issue and an expensive pain in the neck for many organic and biodynamic winemakers, Reyneke believes it serves an important purpose in ensuring that standards are upheld and consumers are able to buy what they’re paying for.
He adds that certification has also played an important role in educating him on how to further improve the biodynamic farming practices employed at Reyneke.
While creating products that appeal to an ever-growing market segment of conscious consumers may be one of the driving forces behind the surge in natural wine, the work being done by most organic and biodynamic farmers is underpinned by a far greater ‘WHY?’.
In her work as a wine journalist, Rasmussen has interviewed scores of organic and biodynamic farmers, gaining invaluable insight into the driving forces behind their work.
From her point of view, those who have made a success of their agricultural activities are those who farm more intuitively, rather than by following the textbook stipulations and seek to create an abundance of life on their property – especially in the soil. This is in stark contrast to the tendency of much modern agriculture to control nature with the sole aim to increase yields.
“I think the key thing is really figuring out a way to introduce more microbiological activity to the soil through composting as a key example of that,” she says.
“Basically, it’s principles of good farming,” adds Goode. “What we’re dealing with is an agro-ecosystem where all the parts, all the life in the vineyard is interrelated in some way. You’re not just farming grapes, you’re not just farming the crop plants, but the vine exists in an agro-ecosystem where there are many players.”
Reyneke agrees, saying: “There’s a correlation between soil health and plant health. If you build the humus levels in your soil, you will increase the resilience of your plants.”
This has been the practice at Reyneke Wines for the past twenty years and they have slowly but surely managed to increase their humus levels.
“This was a very tall order, because we farm on of the oldest and most extensively weathered soils in the world,” he says. “When we started and we analysed, we were at about 0.4 – 0.7% (humus in soil). Today, if we’re really lucky we can find pockets with about 4.3%.”
While the farm initially went through something of a dip and yields dropped as low as two tons, the last two seasons have resulted in an unprecedented increase.
“Over the last two seasons I’ve been pulling off seven tons in some blocks, nine tons in other blocks, which is much higher than the five or six ton target that I set myself.”
Of course, farming in a way that also seeks to protect the environment is all good and well, but not if it comes at the cost of human wellbeing.
In a country like South Africa where the gap between rich and poor seems to grow larger by the day, the organics movement may seem like a solution to an elitist first-world problem that has no regard for the poor. How does one bridge the gap of this lack with the ideals of agricultural systems that have deep reverence for an abundance of life in all its forms?
Both Rasmussen and Reyneke highlight the importance of starting with fair pay and fair labour practices.
“What does sustainability mean? It can’t just be about nature. In my view, it’s a three-legged chair,” says Reyneke. “You have to look after nature, people and money. If you don’t take care of all three, the chair falls over.”
Circling back to the WHY underpinning biodynamic and organic farming, he adds:
“In most cases it comes from a kind of empathy for the natural environment in which one lives. That same type of person will also have respect or empathy for the people they work with on a daily basis.”
Currently, biodynamics and organics are still considered niche agricultural practices that are frankly too time-consuming, labour-intensive and financially-risky to be considered for large-scale farms.
However, when taking into account the fact that agriculture is one of the five biggest contributors to climate change, it’s clear that something has to change.
“I do think this [biodynamic/organic farming] is possible for all of us,” says Reyneke. “I don’t think that the world will run out of food if people farm in a regenerative way.”
He explains this point of view by relating the fact that, currently, a third of the food produced on the planet is thrown away as waste.
“The idea that agricultural production must be high is misplaced. I think it’s a distribution and logistical problem as well. To neglect those parts, and to put pressure on farmers to exploit nature further to increase their yields is looking for answers in the wrong place,” he says.
Nonetheless, as someone who has done the hard work himself, Reyneke knows that it’s something that simply cannot happen overnight, that it requires going a few steps backwards before being able to move forward and that you need to start small to minimise the impact of mistakes.
“It can be done, it just takes time,” concludes Gretschel. “It’s more than just doing it, you need to believe it first and foremost. If your heart and soul isn’t in it, you’ve got no chance.
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