More and more viticulturists, wine farmers and makers are going organic, or even biodynamic. They’re putting in the hard yards to save the planet and make better wine.
Organic wine just tastes better; biodynamic is even better than this. This is the word from the experts: after farming for 23 years and making organic wine for 13 of those, Silvermist Vineyards owner and winemaker Gregory Louw says you can definitely pick up a difference in the wine. You might also be interested in the best wine routes in South Africa.
He can even explain why: ‘Organic bunches are fewer on vines, the bunches are smaller, the berries are smaller and the berry skin is much thicker. When you extend the skin contact, without the use of enzymes or filters or extraction, huge amounts of dissolved solids move from the skins into the juices. The result is a juice with more dissolved solids. Also, check out the top wine bars in Stellenbosch.
‘The skin-to-pulp ratio is much higher in organic farming and with extended skin contact and this incredible extraction into the juice, the wine begins on a strong playing field, which translates directly to the wine complexity.
‘The majority of flavour compounds in grapes is around and near the skin, so the organic berry has more skin and less pulp. The wine is more concentrated in flavour.’
Erica Armstrong from Haut Espoir in Franschhoek agrees. ‘Our experience is that it definitely tastes much more herbaceous, more fynbos-y. The flavours are much more concentrated because your berries tend to not be as massive and juicy.’
The Nuts and Bolts
✣ Organic farming use no chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers in the farming and winemaking practice.
✣ You have to certify every movement and you need special approval to do anything in vineyards.
✣ There are checks and balances throughout the process – vineyard, winemaking, storage, transport and sales, and even cleaning the cellar – each stage is monitored, assessed and recorded.
✣ Sustainable farming is looking to the future. Putting nutrients back into the soil, preserving the soil to maintain the farming unit into the future. But it’s not as rigorous and it’s not necessary to follow a rule book.
✣ Biodynamic views the farm as one unit, maintaining the farm from your farm, not buying manure from outside, for example.
Meerendal Wine Estate in Durbanville is busy going through the transition, necessarily in stages, but the whole farm will be certified organic by January 2028. Winemaker Wade Roger-Lund says they want ‘to leave the farm in a good state for generations to come’. And yes, there is a difference in the taste and aroma profiles, he says.
And then there are the studies. A 2016 study by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Kedge Business School in Bordeaux looked at 74 000 wines from California – critics scored the organic wines 4.1% higher than others.
In 2021, they did another study, this time looking at 128 000 wines in France. Again, those certified as organic or biodynamic were judged to just taste better – 6.2% higher for organic wines and 11.8% higher for biodynamic wines.
The proof, it seems, is in the eating, or in this case in the drinking. And the study authors predict that the global organic wine market will grow 43% by 2024.
It’s not without hard work and money, though. Organic wine farming is as much as 20% more expensive than mainstream farming, but it is better for the environment, and so ultimately for us.
FARMING FOR THE FUTURE
Over the past few years, winemakers have worked hard to get the message across that sulphide-rich wines from vineyards that spray their grapes are not the only way.
‘There’s an underlying philosophy to organic wine farming that has to do with sustainability and farming for the future,’ says Tania Kleintjes, organic winemaker at Spier. ‘It is an expensive way of farming, with a rigorous accreditation process, but when a winemaker chooses to go this route, consumers know that they are doing so with the environment in mind.’
THE SCIENCE BIT
Organic farming uses fertilisers of organic origin such as compost manure, green manure and bonemeal, and uses techniques such as crop rotation and companion planting.
Farmers can bring in organic fertilisers and pesticides; biodynamic, on the other hand, is a closed loop. The farm system itself produces its own fertility – compost and nutrients – through using livestock and crop rotation.
Conventional farming uses herbicides to eliminate weeds, adds fertilisers to replace what plants have taken out of the soil, and deals with pests and diseases with fungicides and insecticides. There are other ways to do this. Ladybirds, for example, are the natural enemies of the mealybug, one of the biggest pest problems threatening vineyards in South Africa. Ladybird Vineyards is named for just this reason.
Vines are part of a more complex below-ground ecosystem ‘encompassing fungi, bacteria, insects, nematodes, arthropods and worms, as well as plant roots’, says UK plant biologist and wine blogger Jamie Goode, author of Regenerative Viticulture. Regenerative farming looks to support and nourish this ecology.
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Cover cropping is essential, using endemic plants. Tilling is a definite no, as it disrupts soil structure and the delicate ecological balance of soil life. And probably most interestingly for water-stressed country like South Africa, healthy soils sequester carbon. This boosts the soil’s ability to hold water, which in turn increases resilience in hot conditions and means less water is needed to get the same result.
To be organic you need to be certified, though some farms follow organic or biodynamic practices, but don’t have the necessary certification, which is expensive and is a three-year conversion period. You get your certification in the fourth year.
THE VEGAN QUESTION
Wines need to be fined, which means getting rid of the cloudiness – insoluble matter – to leave a clear, polished drink. Traditionally, isinglass, a gelatine made from the air bladders of freshwater fish, or egg whites were used.
But these days, there are non-animal agents that can be used, such as clay-based bentonite. Silvermist wines are organic and vegan as no animal products are used in the vineyard and winemaking process, says owner and winemaker Gregory Louw.
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Spier also makes vegan wine – though not all of its wines are vegan – certified by the Control Union Vegan Standard. All of Mereendal’s wines are vegan, even the blocks not yet in conversion to organic. There are many others, from small, boutique farms such as Liepzig and M’hudi, to major wineries such as Creation and Klein Constantia. Vegan SA has a comprehensive list online.
THE WINEMAKERS HAVE SPOKEN
Local leaders in the field are Johan Reyneke from Reyneke Wines and Jasper Raats from Longridge Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. Both practise biodynamic farming. Both agree that converting a farm to biodynamic or organic carries risks in the short term, but long-term gains are better yields, fruit quality and soil quality.
Silvermist’s Louw has seen conventional agriculture on varying scales with the use of excessive quantities of chemicals. ‘Understanding science, chemistry and crop protection, it is not good for the environment to put chemicals into the vineyards,’ he says. Going organic ‘just makes sense’.
He gets the last word: ‘Farming organically means that the biodiversity in vineyards is greatly improved and the farm is much wilder … and I sleep well at night!’
Originally written by LORRAINE KEARNEY for the April issue of Woman&Home Magazine.
Feature image: Unsplash