A Delheim Wines vineyard at Klapmutskop Hill in South Africa’s Stellenbosch region. Delheim has committed all its acreage to the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative.
A new biodiversity program is helping South Africa’s wine grape growers improve vineyard management and could ultimately help them distinguish their wines on international markets.
South Africa has 9,600 native plant species adapted to thrive in the nutrient-poor soils of the Cape wine region, an area in the country’s southwest that’s home to 90 percent of South Africa’s 250,000 acres of vineyards. Many of the species here occur nowhere else in the country, winning the area a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But a new wave of vineyard development spurred by South Africa’s resurgent wine industry places many of the species and their habitats at risk.
To address the ecological challenges growers face in expanding their vineyards, a consortium of 11 organizations led by the South Africa Wine Industry Council and the Botanical Society of South Africa launched the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative www.bwi.co.za in early 2004.
An Integrated Production of Wine program www.ipw.co.za had been promoting sustainable farming practices since 1998, but the new initiative focuses entirely on the preservation of endangered species and habitats.
Participating grape growers typically provide a copy of their IPW certificate, outline initiatives on their properties that have contributed to biodiversity (measures that are taken into account as part of the IPW scoring), and commit to preserving no less than three hectares (7.4 acres). There is no registration fee for growers in the program, which is funded by the Green Trust, a partnership that has raised nearly $95 million for conservation projects in South Africa.
The program does mean higher management costs for participating vineyards, however.
For Delheim Wines near Koelenhof in the Stellenbosch region, participation in the IPW and biodiversity programs has increased vineyard management costs by approximately 450 rand a hectare (about $24.65 an acre).
The biggest cost was in training workers to understand and embrace the management practices required, said Victor Sperling, general manager and viticulturist for Delheim.
Delheim committed its entire acreage of 890 acres to the program, ensuring protection for various types of endangered fynbos, a type of scrubland that dominates the Cape. The most notable species protected at Delheim is the Breede River yellowwood tree, some examples of which are approximately 300 years old.
Delheim had a headstart on other producers, however.
IPW prompted Delheim to examine the chemical pest controls it was using and identify potential biological alternatives. And, a year before the biodiversity initiative launched, Delheim owner Spatz Sperling established the 54-hectare Klapmutskop Conservancy. Participating landowners committed to eliminate alien species and restore native vegetation in the protected area. It has since become a thriving showcase for local species, and a bustling agritourism destination.
The potential of the biodiversity program to create agritourism opportunities and define a winery in unique ways is a major reason the initiative has attracted commitments from 66 growers with just over 85,325 acres in total, Wines of South Africa CEO Su Birch said.
The number of participants may not sound stunning given that South Africa has 4,300 grape growers, 90 percent of whom participate in the IPW program, but the biodiversity initiative boasts 34 percent of the Cape’s 245,000 acres of vineyard.
“Producers are really buying into this,” Birch said.
While integrated wine production is popular in Europe, and often rewarded with government subsidies, South Africa is betting that its efforts at sustainable viticulture will reap a market benefit.
By 2009, Wines of South Africa hopes that all wines produced for export will be made from IPW-certified grapes. South Africa exported 280 million litres of wine in 2005.
The requirement promises to help reposition South Africa’s wine industry on the international stage as it continues to recover from the boycott of the apartheid years. Current promotional material plays up South Africa’s natural beauty, linking its preservation to sustainable wine production practices.
With no more than 160,000 acres remaining for vineyard development in South Africa, the biodiversity initiative will help ensure new acreage respects existing ecosystems, Birch said. Some properties may have few vestiges of the native ecosystem left, but the biodiversity program can encourage growers to consider how they can protect and even re-establish small tracts of native vegetation during an expansion project.
“There are farms where they have nothing left,” Birch said. “But [BWI] is encouraging them to take a second look.”