Sipping at a sustainable, growing trend
Why, when we’ve been quick to cotton on to other global food and wine trends, have we not hopped onto the organic wine train with the same enthusiasm with which we’ve embraced global trends like veganism?
Organic and biodynamic wines have been growing apace in popularity globally, but South Africa – despite massive development in winemaking in the past decade – lags far behind other vibrant wine-producing and -consuming countries in producing and consuming so-called “natural” wines. Why, when we’ve been quick to cotton on to other global food and wine trends, have we not hopped onto the organic wine train with the same enthusiasm with which we’ve embraced global trends like veganism, for example?
“Organic wine in South Africa just hasn’t got the same pull as it has in the rest of the world,” says Rob Gower, a wine buyer for Woolworths. One reason for this, Gower says, is a misperception that equates “organic” with “inferior”, with some organic wines (that happen to be not very good) having tarnished the reputation of all them.
“Often what we’ve seen is that the issue – and it is a major issue – is that ‘organic’ was an excuse for poor quality. You can’t use ‘organic’ as a justification for that.” Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine and veteran Financial Times’ wine columnist, said in 2016, “When natural wines burst on the scene a few years ago, it seemed as though some producers thought it was enough to be natural, rather than natural and good.”
Stellenbosch winemaker Johan Reyneke can attest to that, having removed “organic” from his label because it was associated with inferior quality, he told TGIFood. For Reyneke, owner of Reyneke Wines, one of South Africa’s more mainstream organic wine labels, Pick n Pay’s listing of his label in 2019 was a sign that organic wines are entering the mainstream. “It’s been unreal to see the growth for the products,” he says of the South African market. “It’s phenomenal – I haven’t seen it before.” (Reyneke’s Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot and Chenin Blanc are also now being sold by Waitrose, the high-end British supermarket chain that has a highly-rated wine department.)
“People confuse ‘organic’ with lazy farming,” says Marion Smith, a Brit who practises organic and biodynamic farming and wine-making in Elgin. “It’s not. You need to be more meticulous, more observant.” And, she says, “SA consumers are not very knowledgeable about organic and sadly a lot of producers just use ‘organic’ as a marketing expression.”
Which brings us to the second reason for organic wines’ low profile in this country: “There are no organic standards for South Africa as a country,” Johan Reyneke explains, “so people can call their product organic and no one can stop them. But the moment you want to export wine – and most people do – you have to certify for those specific markets.”
Getting certified for different export markets is not so easy. There are EU-specific standards and a certification valid for European countries (Ceres and Ecocert are the main ones), and a different certification for America and Canada (Natural Organic Program). And then, if you are making biodynamic wine, a separate certification is needed for that, from the Germany-based Demeter.
“It is also hugely expensive to get organic certification as we have to rely on overseas auditors to conduct the audits,” Rob Gower says, raising the spectre of our ever-plummeting rand. “To further cloud the issue, there are winemakers who do everything organically but they’re not certified because they’re not going to spend the money on the foreign registration. The upside of this,” he points out, “is that if something goes wrong during wine-making, they can use a chemical to fix things,” which is standard practice among conventional winemakers.
The rock-and-a-hard place necessity for international certification is “a bit unfair”, Reyneke says. “If you’re farming in Europe, you get subsidies, for a start,” he says, so certification is more affordable, to begin with. And, he points out, organic farmers also contribute to the common good in ways that are recognised in Europe but not in South Africa. First, if you’re farming in what is called “regenerative agriculture”, you sequestrate carbon on behalf of everyone else, Reyneke says. “EU governments appreciate that.” They also appreciate “that organic farming is more labour-intensive and creates more jobs,” he goes on, “so they get a tax break or a subsidy, which we definitely don’t get”.
This partly explains why only 18 South African wineries are certified as organic, and only three as biodynamic. “For a country that has an abundance of labour, and fantastic weather, it doesn’t make sense why more people are not,” says Smith, who three years ago realised there was no one tracking who was actually organic, and founded a website to do just that.
The lack of local certification is an anomaly, because other aspects of the wine industry here are highly regulated and the standards strictly enforced (the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems organisation [SAWIS] administers the Wine of Origin certification process). “We’re very, very controlled,” Gower says. “It’s frustrating sometimes but it gives you a structure to work within.”
That structure could be put to use to create standardised certifications for organic wine and for ethical business practices – something that Gower has been thinking about a lot, for Woolworth’s “Future of Farming” initiative, which focuses on sustainable farming practices. “It’s already there [in SAWIS] so rather than having to go to a different body to certify it, if we could have [organic standards and general wine regulations] in one entity, that would be first prize.”
The lack of South Africa’s own organic standards is confusing, Gower says, because the consumer is adrift in the presence of some organic products but in the absence of information. “If you ask someone the difference between ‘biodynamic’, ‘organic’ and ‘no sulphur added’, they will think they’re interchangeable,” he says. If you want consumers to understand (and buy) organic, he says, “you’ve got to have simple rules that people can follow – explain it to customers, build an understanding about what organic means, then build that brand.” He believes passionately that there is a need for this to happen locally, so that “one unifying body” can construct a consistent understanding of what it means, and then support it. “There’s no local presence,” he says, “no customer care number you can call.”
Others, like Marion Smith, agree that the lack of certification is the biggest issue facing organic wine (and produce more generally) – but she says the foreign-only certification is a good thing, as it allows consumers and producers anywhere to make grapes-to-grapes comparisons of wines and wine-making. “I always try and explain to people that a genuine organic bottle of wine has the EU logo, with a green leaf and a certification number,” Smith says, referring to the current regulations that have been in place since 2012. “Anybody who is certified organic has that. It’s tried and trusted, it’s credible, and it’s been recognised.” And, as mainly an exporter of her high-end Elgin Ridge wines, Smith is undeterred by the cost of the certification processes.
There are discussions about developing local certification, Smith says, “but I think we need to remember that South Africa is seen as ‘Africa’ internationally and it doesn’t always have the best reputation for credibility.”
Certified or not, what does proper organic wine-making actually look like? It involves much more than swearing off sulphur – add to that a prohibition on the use of all fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, or any man-made (“industrial”) compounds, including any product that has been genetically modified.
“The reason herbicides are used is to get rid of weeds that compete for food and moisture with the vines,” Reyneke explains. “Farmers are farming with their crops – but in the long term, they’re farming with their soil. Looking after the two can be quite different from a sustainability perspective. There is no such thing as ‘bare soil’ in nature – for the life of the soil to flourish, it must be covered. So, as an organic farmer, the solution is to try and cover the soil with plants but ones that are more beneficial to the vines, unlike the weeds.”
In addition to maintaining healthy soil, a technique called “canopy management” (management of the foliage and fruit) seeks to prevent rather than cure diseases or harmful bugs. There are persuasive arguments for this, both in the short term, for the vines, and in the longer term, for our fragile environment.
Biodynamic farming, which is probably even more misunderstood than organic, seeks to address this, and features the use of nine biodynamic “preparations” along with agricultural practices that are driven by the lunar calendar. The most storied of these is the cow horn filled with a certain preparation (“500”) which is buried for five to six months before being dug up, its contents mixed in rainwater, and the solution then used to irrigate the vines. The hocus-pocus factor is high.
“This is what gives ‘biodynamic’ a bad reputation,” Reyneke concedes – but he defends it persuasively. “People must understand that biodynamic farming is the oldest form of organic agriculture that comes from the time when our ancestors lived with a spiritual understanding of farming. Today we live in an era of scientific understanding of farming.” Reyneke emphasizes the huge environmental payoff: “The human animal comes with a ‘waste’ product, which is the bane of the industrialisation of our world,” he says. “It’s expensive economically but also from an ecological perspective. Waste is a cultural concept – it doesn’t exist in nature. What biodynamics tries to do is find a way around this and move to a more self-sufficient farming setup, farming with multiple systems in synergistic ways.
“If you farm with grapes and you make wine, you have waste product at the cellar door – pips, skins, stems leftover. And if you’re farming with cows you’d have a waste product in urine and manure. But if you farm with both you take the waste from one to feed the other.”
Reyneke, who has practised organic farming for 20 years, says he didn’t bother with certification until 2006, when consumer demand for organic wine started to grow. “Overnight a lot of people claimed to be ‘organic and not certified’,” he says, which looked suspicious, “but it’s not enforceable because we have no standards. The reason we pay for certification is to get a bit of cred in this age of greenwashing.”
Roland Peens, the director of winecellar.co.za, believes that farming organically will soon become the new standard of fine wine production, codified or not. “But if you are going organic for marketing sake, you are missing the point. Johan has converted to biodynamics and organics because he believes in it wholeheartedly. The desire should be to farm more sustainably in order to save the planet as well as to produce wines with less or no additives.”
This raises again the pesky subject of sulphites, which these days they are used in much lower doses than in the 1970s and 80s, Gower says. Decades ago, winemakers didn’t necessarily know the concentration of the sulphur formulations they were using, he says, and heavy dosing – and your mother complaining of sulphite-induced headaches – was the result.
“Before it was used in low doses it did give people a headache,” Gower says, “but nowadays there’s far more sulphur in dried fruit and fruit juice than in wine.” He’s close to evangelical on the subject: “Sulphur is one of the most incredible tools you’ve got in winemaking,” he told TGIFood. “It does a whole lot of things at a very low dosage, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-fungal, and stabilises colour as well. In a bottle of organic red the sulphur is very low – open it tonight, tomorrow it will taste like a different wine. Purely to do with the sulphur. You take sulphur out, you change the entire fabric of the industry.”
As enthusiastic as Gower is about sulphur, so is Reyneke about the bigger picture of organic and biodynamic wines, which turns the “conventional system of control and domination of the natural environment in the vineyard” and in the winery (with up to 60 different additives that can be added to wine in conventional winemaking) into a system where wines are “grown rather than controlled,” Reyneke says. “As in the vineyard, less becomes more.” The wine becomes “more terroir-driven, really speaks of what it naturally is,” he says, rather than the result of “gymnastics in the cellar”.
Reyneke also underscores Smith’s point about organic and biodynamic farming potentially having a particular benefit for a developing country like South Africa, especially if developed at scale, given their more labour-intensive methods. Plus, it would empower smaller farmers in self-sufficient enterprises, which could become less and less dependent on the industrial giants of farming such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta.
But more labour means higher costs, and there are already limits, it seems, in terms of how much people in South Africa are willing to pay for organic wine, especially when local wines are generally low-priced compared to the rest of the world’s.
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what proportion of South African wine sales is made up of organic wines (given the patchy data on organic wines in South), if you compare Woolworths-branded conventional and organic wines, in the lowest price range the split is around 70/30 conventional/organic. Above that, the proportion of organic drops dramatically. But Gower agrees with Johan Reyneke that there’s been “massive” unanticipated growth in organic wine sales – around 30% of Woolworths’ organic labels last year, he says – to the point where they ran out of their organic stocks for a couple of months. But this happened in the below-R60 category, in “own brand” wines, which the company had started to merchandise as “own brand” rather than “organic”.
The price point, for Roland Peens, is double-edged. “If you can afford it, why are you not buying organic and local? People don’t want to pay 20% more because they feel they’re being ripped off, but on the consumer side [if you don’t], it’s ripping off farmers, and you’re ripping off the planet. Do you really want to wreck your body by putting chemicals into it?”
Now, as we approach Level 3 lockdown’s relaxing of alcohol-sale restrictions, the distinction between conventional and organic wine is likely to be less of a priority for consumers who didn’t plan for a two-month lockdown. Obviously the wine industry as a whole has been hit hard, though the lifting of wine-export restrictions under Level 4 and Level 3’s hotly-anticipated off-sales from June 1 are going to bring some relief to producers and consumers. Alcohol sales under Level 3 will be allowed from Monday to Thursday, from 9am to 5pm, with off-sales and online sales permitted within the same parameters, for home consumption.
Peens is optimistic about the wine industry snapping back: “From a winery perspective, much of the two-month lockdown sales will be recovered,” he told TGIFood, “but I suspect the weaker wineries will lean heavily on discounting to survive. Once a brand is discounted, it’s very difficult to claw back to the original price.” But, he says, wineries are under a huge amount of pressure to get cash flow back into their businesses, and the way to stick out from the crowd is to discount. “The next while is probably going to be the best bargain time, especially in the R50-100 range.”
“The problem comes with the smaller producers, distributors and secondary suppliers,” Rob Gower says. “They don’t have the reserves nor diversity of a bigger business, and trade more hand to mouth.” Overall, the closure of restaurants will have the biggest damaging effect overall on the industry, he thinks. “As retailers, we rely on restaurants to expose new brands, varietals and styles to our customers. A restaurant has a major asset in their waiting staff as they can guide a purchase through recommendation. Retailers generally don’t have that ability, except for the few that have a full-time specialist manning the floor. A customer is also far more likely to try a new wine with a specific meal when they can buy it by the glass rather than having to buy a full bottle and need to figure out the ideal meal for themselves.”
“I hope the smaller distributors, importers and producers can survive this,” Gower says. “As an industry, we really need them.” DM/TGIFood
South African Wine Industry Information and Systems www.sawis.co.za
Marion Smith’s Biodynamic Organic Wine of South Africa www.biodynamicorganicwine.co.za