Will Covid be a Game Changer for Organic Wines?

The demand for organic wine and other sustainably farmed products is increasing drastically as a result of the year-long Corona crisis, with consumers becoming increasingly aware of the relationship between nutrition and health. According to Johan Gerber, general manager at Org de Rac, an organic wine farm in South Africa’s Swartland wine region, the international demand for organic wine has grown substantially since the outbreak of Covid-19 at the beginning of 2020.

“We are seeing something quite extraordinary in the growth of organic wine sales in the United Kingdom, traditionally South Africa’s largest export market,” says Gerber. “The true indicators of wine market trends in Britain are to be found in the British supermarkets where all the action is. Over the past year, Waitrose has realised organic wine sales growth of 56%, Aldi is up 45% and Sainsbury’s 41%. This is arguably the largest surge in organic wine growth in Britain to date and shows no sign of abating.”

In a recent study done by London-based analysts Ecovia Intelligence, retailers across the globe are experiencing hefty sales increases for organic products, and it expects this rise in sales to continue in the coming years. Online retailers are reporting the highest sales growth. Whole Foods Market, the world’s largest natural food and wine retailer, has started limiting the number of its online grocery customers because of unprecedented demand.

In the UK, veg box specialist Abel & Cole reported a 25% increase in sales orders, whilst national rival Riverford is seeing a demand surge.

On the bricks and mortar front, Ecovia Intelligence says organic and health food shops have remained open in many countries, attracting new shoppers, whilst existing customers are spending more. In France, some organic food shops are reporting sales increases of over 40% for food and wine.

Covid-19 is also raising consumer awareness of the relationship between nutrition and health. Consumers are buying more organic and healthy foods as they look to boost their immunity. 

Writing in Forbes, Daphne Ewing-Chow said there is likely to be an increase in demand for organic food, vegan, vegetarian and other healthy foods as a result of the pandemic. The performance of organic food companies such as Nourish Organics, which experienced an increase in sales of approximately 30 per cent and the surge in demand for organic vegetable box delivery in the United Kingdom are evidence of this trend.

Gerber says that the increased global demand for organic wines is one sign that Covid-19 has changed the face of wine and wine marketing forever. “Besides the logistical revolutions in terms of on-line orders and deliveries, the intrinsics of wine are changing, of which the move to organic wine is one,” he says. “Only 2% of the South African vineyard is currently organic, but with this ever-changing situation this stands to change, too.”

According to Dr Morné Mostert, head of the Institute for Future Research at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, any crisis leads to an immediate exacerbated reaction. “9-11 is probably the best example to date,” says Mostert. “That crisis caused an immediate reaction in terms of increased safety for the air-travel industry. What Corona has done, is to very suddenly raise huge concerns about personal health among the world’s population, resulting in people revisiting their eating and drinking habits. This concern will see a growing demand for products seen as healthy, such as organic food and drink. There is thus going to be a window wherein producers of organic products can capture the interest of this experimental consumer seeking avenues whereby his or her health can be improved.

“The window does not last forever, as humans have proven to drop their initial concerns and go back to their former habits. But what is definite is the current existence of this experimental consumer looking at ways to improve health through, inter alia, organic products. And thereby a unique opportunity has opened up to garner new consumers.”

The Whole Fruit and nothing but the Fruit

The lithe brunette, giggling after having downed half-a-bottle of unwooded Chardonnay, pointed at the pea-size yellow item on her plate with a mauve-nailed forefinger. “What is that?” she asked of the little round fruit that had been halved and settled happily on a sliver of smoked rainbow trout the colour a slow, fiery sunset over Zanzibar.

I thought the woman was kidding. But as she was using the passing seconds to have another gulp of wine, I knew she was awaiting an answer. “It’s a gooseberry,” I said. “A Cape gooseberry.”

Relieved, she stuck her fork into the fruit, sending a spurt of sap splashing onto her bejewelled wrist. “Oh,” she said. “Is that what it looks like.” She popped half a gooseberry into her mouth. “Tastes nice, too.”

The whole thing came as a bit of a surprise. For said brunette and fond friend uses the word “gooseberry” at least 12 times a month in the copious wine-marketing collateral she turns out. The “gooseberry notes of Sauvignon Blanc” and “hint of Cape gooseberry in cool-climate Chenin Blanc” of which she has been – and continues – writing, was penned without her knowing what an actual gooseberry looks nor taste like.

After the meal, gooseberries eaten and digested, we sipped on a Vin de Constance 2015, which she instantly described as having a “chunk of apricot on the mid-palate”. I considered ordering a couple of chilled apricots to see whether they would raise another query but let the thought slide.

The use of fruits as a basis for wine descriptors is a non-negotiable part of wine jargon for purposes of marketing or reviewing or just plain wise-arse talking. But are the bearers of wine wisdom truly up to speed with the taste and flavours of the fruits they deploy to describe certain wines?

I have been pondering over this for a few years. Spending loads of time with wine writers, marketers and communication specialists, I can count on half a hand the times I have ever seen any of them eat from the fruit-platters laid out at harvest tables and other spreads. Yet were you to read the sentences and paragraphs following a wine tasting, you would swear they spend half their days in fruit orchards, bramble bushes and berry fields tasting, smelling and taking notes as the purple sap runs down their chins.

This is why I find summer such a season of major importance for a wine person. Because it is now that I, as a wine communicator, have access to a broad spectrum of in-season fruit with which one can sharpen the palate, hone the taste-buds and reboot the hard-drive of flavour and taste. So that when the next Merlot or Chardonnay comes around, you actually do know what a plum or a nectarine tastes like when penning that brilliant sentence of wine critique. At the Wine Tasting Boot Camp I present the class spends as much time tasting, smelling and sensing fruit than they do any one wine variety. It is one thing having a knowledge of wine and an ability to identify grape varieties, terroir origin and maturity. But to describe and communicate the taste experience of the wine, to pass-over the pleasure and personality it evokes, is another skill all together. Here a firm handle on the texture, aroma and flavours of fruit is a helpful and enjoyable bonus.

Dark fruits, obviously, bear various similarities to red wines. And with the stacks of plums, blueberries, strawberries and mulberries to be found, it is a great time to analyse these fruits and to taste the similarities they share with certain red wines – with which the wine-lover is obviously well-acquainted.

A ripe, juicy plum, for example, just screams “Merlot”. Succulent fructose-driven juice overwhelms the senses when biting into a weighty purple-red plum. Once the sweetness has subsided, the clip of tannin from the skin and the acidic centre near the pip joins the dense fruit flavour to offer a taste of what is undeniably Merlot wine.

Experience a strawberry bursting between your teeth, and there is a lot of Pinot Noir going on. Especially if the berry is ripe and tender, and the Pinot Noir vines from which the wine is made are young. The bright, sunny note of strawberry with a firm wad of acid and a slightly earthy cusp immediately has one thinking Pinot. And if you missed cherry season, your Pinot Noir knowledge just reversed a year. No descriptor of Pinot Noir is possible without having chewed, sucked and swallowed copious amounts of succulent cherries.

Stuff a handful of mulberries into the mouth. Let them settle before asserting pressure with the tongue to crush said mulberries against the roof of that eating and talking instrument of yours. I mean, if this does not have you nodding “Shiraz” those are either not mulberries or you’ve been glugging counterfeit Shiraz for the past few years. Mulberries have a vegetal spiciness to them that blend with the ultra-sweet nectar to truly evoke memories of Shiraz wines from Barossa to Wellington, Rhône to Swartland.

For white wine comparisons, the relevant fruits are now just heading into ripeness. Early pears are around which, thinly sliced and judiciously sucked, will have one thinking of a wooded Chenin Blanc as the pear harbours a spicy edge. Just like a ripe apple of the yellow variety.

A crisply racy green apple, well, munch on that and Cap Classique sparkling wine has to be top of mind. One way to determine whether a wine is bottle-fermented to true tradition is to look for a bit of apple flavour. If it ain’t there, the wine did not go through the lees-aging in bottle.

Lemons and limes are just coming into season, and these are truly vital fruits for the wine-taster. First-up, biting into a wedge of lemon or lime every day pretty much does to the tasting faculty what a brisk set of free-weight training does for the body. The acidic citrus wakes the palate, like pronto, and calls all the taste-buds into action, training and conditioning them to be alert and sharp so as to taste with forceful decency and superior fitness.

As the palate adjusts to the invasive sourness of lemon or lime, the true beauty of citrus can be sensed. Riveting freshness. Complexity of sugars suppressed by natural acids alive and well. That life-affirming bracing sense of well-being a chomp of fat ripe lemon passes across. Now, if this is not Chardonnay it is time to give-up wine-tasting and start knitting, pruning roses or collecting Empire-dated postage stamps.

Oh, and then there is the metallic-sweet zip of the Cape Gooseberry. It speaks Sauvignon Blanc. To blondes, brunettes and anybody willing to listen and taste.

You’re welcome.

A Storm in a Pinot Cup

No other grape variety brings out the inferiority complex harboured by South African wine people like Pinot Noir does. Even the most cynical wine maker, critic or afficionado will proudly state Cape wines made from grapes of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Shiraz can compete with the best in the world. But just mention local Pinot Noir and the pouty wet mouths “tutt-tutt”, the sweaty foreheads are lowered solemnly. Never, no. “We can’t make Pinot like Burgundy does.”

This reverence for the magnificent red wine grape is understandable, sort of. Pinot Noir made well – from grapes grown on a suitable patch of earth – is a truly delicious and multi-faceted wine. Its diverse charms and willingness to please also make it a cerebrally satisfying drink. Throw in Burgundy’s 2 000 year-old PR machine with stories of Cisterian monks tending to vines in-between hours of chanting and meditating in gloomy old abbeys, and Pinot Noir is wrapped in a veil of superior expectations. And with every wine-maker or critic with access to a youtube channel preaching his or her reverence for Burgundy’s terroir pedigree, this part of south-eastern France is elevated to some kind of vinous Xanadu presided over by those having the first and final say in the making of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir suffers by this comparison to Burgundy far more than the region’s famous white grape, of which far less is grown in South Africa. This has given local critics and such the guts to keenly praise the quality of Cape Chardonnay. But they fear to truly credit Pinot Noir, horrified by the prospects of being laughed at or dissed by their peers for daring to compare the qualities of Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde to that of Corton or Musigny.

The Monks of Burgundy

As ever, the proof is in the quality of the wines. And every six months I am once again startled by the terrific quality of South African Pinot Noir, which I personally deem to be one of the Cape’s success stories of the past decade-and-a-half. When the wine representing the great Pinot Noir grape is made from fruit accurately cultivated to permit the grapes to express vitis vinifera Pinot Noir, when the winemaker’s focus is on delivering a sense of what you are instead of what others want you to be, when the only expectations requiring managing are your own…..then justice is being done to this gorgeous grape. And this is all that counts.

The latest Cape Pinot Noir to rock my world is from Storm Wines, namely the Ignis Pinot Noir 2018. One of three site-specific Pinot Noirs in the range made by Hannes Storm, Ignis is from a northern slope in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Vineyard soil is decomposed granite, and the vineyard farmed organically. Yield is meagre – three tons a hectare. After pressing, the wine is fermented with native yeasts and aged for 11 months in a selection of French oak barrels, of which 20% is new.

What grabbed me about this wine, is the absolute purity of Pinot Noir expression. Not in a candied, coated New Zealand or Russian River kind of way, but in kind of tuning-fork precise display of what lies at the core of Pinot Noir’s appeal.

There is a whack of clove and red-berry on the nose, giving the wine a striking heady perfume – for me, one-third of the total pleasure derived at from Pinot Noir. The attack on the palate is both loud, graceful and muscular, pretty much like a Roger Federer backhand from the base-line in Set 2. Marvellously dapper flavours of sour cherry, crème de cassis and fennel ease onto the mid-palate, while a run of supple, bracing tannins ensures the mouth stays alert enough to absorb the total splendour that is being offered.

And on the finish, this is where the winemaker leaves his signature on Pinot Noir. The most controlled winemaking from grapes rooted to the best geography can be wasted on a disrupted finish. All the intense and riveting splendour of the wine’s initial impressiveness can fall flat with a clumsy finish. Here the Ignis closes brilliantly, a final brush of dry, aromatic fynbos steered down the hatch by rivulets of clean, tasty and harmonious red wine. Just that. And only that.

Harvest 2021 Keeps its Cool

It is time. As the South African wine industry heads into one of the most unique and disrupted harvest years in history, these things of nature determining any wine vintage appear to be, well, gorgeous.

And the word is cool. And steady. And even.

Grapes like to begin their lifecycle in cool weather conditions. Which was the case late in August, early September when the vines woke sprouting green buds. Waking was slow and sleepy, for the winter had been raw and wet, sending the bare vines into a deep and comatose slumber. Once awake with the advent of spring, the vines groggily shot the green buds, waiting for the sunny warmth of spring to energise, invigorate and thrust the plant into a lively growth cycle.

Chardonnay hanging on De Wetshof

Nothing doing.

Because spring remained cool, lots of rain and wind. And as summer truly set in in November, the characteristic fiercely hot 30°C-plus days were gone missing. Same for December. All this means that flowering and berry-set and canopy growth was retarded by a beautifully cool spring and early summer.

Come January, and some hot days dawned. But went. Grape-bunches formed, but – as we speak – are slow due to the conditions showing no urgency to develop sugars to the ripeness levels required for harvest. Farms from Robertson to the Swartland; Stellenbosch to Franschhoek are reporting a two-week later harvest date than in more typical Cape seasons.

This longer hang-time on the vine is a godsend, allowing grapes to develop balanced chemistries and the kind of phenolic ripe complexity leading to complete wines. The most brilliant aspect here, are the acids. The life-affirming heart of the grape, the zesty, joyful part of a wine announcing verve, vivaciousness and excitement. Warm conditions draw acidity away from the fruit. Due to this beautiful cool period, acids  are firm and crunchy.

Frank Meaker from Org de Rac.

I tasted some early Pinot Noir grapes this morning from one of Jan Boland Coetzee’s vineyards at Vriesenhof in Stellenbosch. When asking him what the grapes’ sugar levels are, he spat out a piece of purple grape-skin: “Can’t tell with these acids,” he said. “They are so great they mask the sugar.”

Out in Robertson where De Wetshof picked Chardonnay for its Cap Classique, the acids are also the talk of the town. “Fantastic,” said Johann de Wet, CEO. “Crushed, settled and fermented the acids are firm enough to remain in the wine and not drop-out, like they can do in warm years.”

Frank Meaker, the sage of organic estate Org de Rac on the northern rim of the Swartland, is not even thinking acids. I popped out there this week, expecting to feel the hot sweat of a Swartland summer running down my neck. “Acids, Frank?”

Pinot Noir 2021 on Vriesenhof.

“Hey man, we gotta get the stuff ripe first,” he said walking between the vines, pulling at shoots and snarling at the under-ripe bunches of Merlot. “Where is the colour, man?” he asked the vines. “Normally we’ll be preparing to pick Merlot in a couple of weeks, but the stuff ain’t ripening.” The cool breeze flowed through the vineyard, and the grapes sighed with a mellow satisfaction. With no heat to rush them, they are loving the weather and the freshness of the air. They know their time will come, and for us wine-lovers the slow pace of vineyard life would have been waiting for.

VinPro Heads to Court in Bid to Save SA Wine

Media Statement from VinPro

As one of the oldest agricultural industries in the country, which supports the livelihoods of 269 000 employees, generates R55 billion in revenue for the economy and builds a strong brand reputation as a unique asset for the country, the South African wine industry has become part of our cultural and economic fabric.

During the past year our industry has worked tirelessly to be part of the solution when our country found itself in the grip of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. This included collaborating with government and proactively implementing preventative measures from farm to retail to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of the people working throughout our value-chain and the broader community.

Despite continuous engagement with government to curb the spread of the virus through the implementation of a risk-adjusted approach to re-opening the economy and addressing the social ills of alcohol abuse through a social compact, our proposals were not taken into account when the third ban was introduced on 28 December 2020. Government has also not been transparent with us on justifying the continued ban, nor did they give any explanation or clarity on the timeline for a review of this ban. This makes planning and contingency plans impossible.

Rico Basson, CEO of Vinpro

This proudly South African industry, which also strongly relies on tourism and hospitality, now finds itself in a dire position after a ban of 19 weeks since March 2020. This resulted in a loss of more than R8 billion in direct sales and the possible closure of cellars and producers, threatening 27 000 jobs and putting the most vulnerable in our communities in a poverty trap which will have far reaching socio-economic outcomes that will place an even greater strain on our healthcare system. 

Furthermore, with the 2021 harvest commencing this week, the industry now has more than 640 million litres of stock of which 300 million is uncontracted. This poses a material risk of insufficient processing and storage capacity for the new harvest and threatens the sustainability of the wine industry.

While we share government’s concern over the devastating effect of this pandemic and support meaningful measures to flatten the curve, we do not support the continued outright ban on the sale of wine while alternative interventions are available to mitigate risks.

Faced with the devastating impact that the third ban has had on the wine industry, Vinpro was left with no choice but to approach the Cape High Court.

Vinpro is not saying a liquor ban may not be justified when hospitals and particularly trauma units are under pressure. However, we believe that not only has the wrong level of government been dealing with the retail sale of liquor during the national state of disaster, but government has used and maintained nationwide bans which are overbroad, unnecessary, unjustified and, indeed, counter-productive.

A more flexible, nimble approach is needed, based on credible empirical data, where the provincial executive should be empowered to deal with the retail sale of liquor for the rest of the pandemic, because provincial authorities are normally responsible for regulating the sale of liquor and in charge of healthcare and provincial hospitals, thus they are better equipped to manage the delicate balance between lives and livelihoods.

Although the liquor ban is intended to ensure that hospitals have the capacity to treat those who become ill, the pandemic affects provinces differently at any given point in time and capacity requirements in hospitals will therefore differ across the country. Despite this, government has never differentiated between provinces when it comes to implementing or lifting of the liquor ban. Instead, a nationwide ban has been imposed and then again lifted, without regard for the circumstances in individual provinces.

Urgent interim relief will be sought which would afford the Premier of the Western Cape the power to adopt deviations to enable off- and on-consumption sale of liquor in the province. Ultimately similar relief will be sought in respect of other provinces. The matter is set down for hearing on 5 February 2021.

Vinpro is relieved that the numbers of new infections, active cases and hospital admissions are now dropping fast across the country, but particularly in the Western Cape. In these circumstances, the liquor ban is simply no longer justified in the Western Cape. Accordingly, to the extent that the situation does not change for the worse, and if the liquor ban is still in force in the Western Cape by 5 February, the Western Cape High Court will be asked to invalidate Minister Dlamini-Zuma’s ban in the Western Cape with immediate effect.

As honest brokers, we strongly believe in the power of a shared vision where we have the same objectives – a healthy and prosperous South Africa.

We will continue our support of government in the fight against Covid-19 while working for the economic survival of our sector and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods.

Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc lands at Diemersdal, South Africa

Imagine. You stroll through throngs of unmasked people mooching upon a waterside, the ocean shimmering in the soft gold-mauve shades of sunset. Folk are sitting outside crowded cafés and bars, a cacophony of social noise, life-affirming, buzzes along the quay, and you stop when your name is called.

You step into a wine-bar, packed with easy-going after-work throat-wetters drinking long cool beers and glasses of white wine. The crew of friends stand at a cocktail table, and greetings are done with hugs and cheek-kisses and contact, and when offered a slap-bang lip-kiss from your best friend’s fiancée, she even manages to slip you some tongue.

Drinks are ordered, glasses knocked together before natural close-contact socialising begins.

Sauvignon Blanc vines in Marlborough, New Zealand

No, this is not a dream of pre-Covid times. It is just the current situation in New Zealand, where life goes on, the Land of the Long White Cloud having knocked the virus out of the park, or back to China from where it came.

Reminiscing about times of normality and thinking about New Zealand was made starkly clear this week. Why, for purposes of marketing and consulting, I procured a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc made in Marlborough on the South Island of a country that has in only three decades built a wine industry of stratospheric success. Mainly on Sauvignon Blanc, and mainly from the 20 000ha of the stuff grown in the soils of silt and loam.

Marlborough is ground zero for Sauvignon Blanc in terms of sales volume and value. Big brand stuff. Even Cloudy Bay, the wine that put New Zealand on the map and continues to demand a premium price through portraying an image of rarified luxury, produces 12m bottles a year – ten times the volume of South Africa’s biggest wine brand.

The Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in my current sights falls under the label of Diemersdal, the Durbanville Estate that, apart from its extensive wine range, continues to focus on this variety thanks to the obsession owner-winemaker Thys Louw has with this cool white grape of Sancerre. It was this obsession that led to Thys in 2019 teaming-up with Marlborough producer Ben Glover from Glover Family Vineyards to have a wine made in New Zealand for Diemersdal.

Ben Glover, left, and Thys Louw.

The maiden Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was released at the end of 2019, a wine from that year’s vintage. It was an immediate success in the South African market, offering locals a world-class white wine made 11 000kms away at under R300 a bottle. And now the 2020 version has docked after its three-month voyage from the port of Nelson in New Zealand, and opening this bottle of undeniably Kiwi-driven exuberance and freshness has a lockdown wine-lover from the Cape thinking about things free, normal and unrestricted.

Diemersdal Marlborough 2020 follows the trend the Kiwis began six, seven years back of reigning in the pushy pyrazines that caused flavours of asparagus, pulped alfalfa and feline urine to jump out of any glass of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc like a Maori lock trying-out for the All Blacks. Opening of vine canopies during the long southern summers has allowed the beguiling tropical features to remain in the wine, while brisk reductive work in the cellars captures a flinty, rapier edge.

Ben Glover, who made the Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, says 2020 was a brilliant vintage on the South Island resulting in wines with a commanding presence. “That’s why we call this Diemersdal the ‘Danie Gerber’ wine, it reminds me of that powerful, yet graceful Springbok rugby-player.”

Like most New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, there is little messing around when it comes to the Diemersdal Marlborough. Machine-harvested. Cold-settled for 48 hours. Fermented with selected yeasts. Bob’s your uncle.

The result is a vivacious expression of simplicity in winemaking and complexity of climate and soil. Aromas of cut green apple and lime-peel hit the nostrils, resulting in the mouth beginning to water at the prospect of something exciting and pungent. On the palate a samurai sword of pure-fruited acidity alerts the senses and quickens the pulse. Awakened and supremely focussed, the tasting-tools can get to work in scrutinising and enjoying the wine. Meadow nettles and broad rivers racing over shallow beds of polished white pebbles. White flowers, arum lilies, blow gently in a fresh maritime breeze. And on the mid-palate, an offering of Sauvignon Blanc-flavoured generosity: Cape gooseberry, pitted and sliced. Ripe granadilla, picked from the vine and chomped through the cusp. Some Kiwi fruit, and a squirt of lemon.

Startlingly different to what South Africans are used to in their own Sauvignon Blancs. But with enough basic, attention-grabbing elements of a shared DNA to make you drink a toast to South Africa, New Zealand and the great southern lands of wine.

Cape Winefarmers’ Admirable Conservation Ethos

The spirit of innovation shown by wine-farmers in conserving the sensitive ecologies of the Western Cape winelands continues to play a major role in ensuring South Africa has one of the most conservation-conscious wine industries in the world. According to extension officers of the WWF Conservation Champions programme, Joan Isham and Jacques van Rensburg, the innovative approach to conservation shown by Conservation Champions has been one of the profound successes of this initiative aimed at creating a tangible culture of the importance of conserving the delicate wineland ecologies.

“As extension officers, we spend most of our time on the 40 farms who have applied for and been approved for WWF Conservation Champion status,” says Isham. “Since the programme began 15 years ago, then known as the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, it has captured the imagination of the wine community. This has led to practical successes achieved by Conservation Champion wine farmers in preserving some 22 000ha of the Cape Floral Kingdom situated on their properties, which has underscored the tangible success of this initiative. However, it must be said that together with the practical measures taken to protect these unique ecologies, the ethos of conservation shown by these farmers and their farming communities is one of the most successful and rewarding aspects of the programme. What is most satisfying is knowing that the foundations are now being laid for the future generations who will pick up the baton and follow the examples set by today’s generation of conservation-minded farmers and farm-workers.”

Farmers who are WWF Conservation Champions own some 45 000ha of land between them, of which 22 000ha is conserved as a pristine part of the world-famous Cape Floral Kingdom comprising fynbos and succulent Karoo plants. The 40 members work closely with the WWF in their conservation endeavours and are subjected to annual assessments to ensure they meet the specifications required of a Conservation Champion. All Champions’ credentials are also underscored by South Africa’s Integrated Production of Wine certification, with these wineries having achieved 70% of more in their IPW evaluation.

Bartinney Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, a true example of wineland conservation.

According to Van Rensburg, the commitment to conserving the natural habitat of their respective farms has resulted in benefits that were likely not foreseen when the programme began in 2005. “Having worked with the wine farming community for some time, I know that the spirit of innovation runs deep – including when it comes to conservation,” says Van Rensburg. “Initially, the main priority of the WWF Biodiversity Champions was to conserve the over 9 000 species of indigenous plants making-up the Cape Floral Kingdom as well as the insects, birds and mammals depending on this unique ecological system. But today this conservation mind-set has grown to conserving water and to ensure the responsible usage thereof. And then of course, with the global drive to decrease carbon emissions, WWF Conservation Champions are playing a leading role in the South African wine community in regulating and controlling the off-set of carbon on their farms.”

Water stewardship became an especially relevant topic during the extended drought experienced by the Western Cape between 2016 and 2018 and is one of the main criteria on which WWF Conservation Champions are monitored.

“No-one experienced the full extent of a drought the way a farmer did,” says Isham, “and those years definitely caused many to relook the way water is used.”

The drought showed the importance of water stewardship as some WWF Conservation Champions were able to avoid the worst effects of the dry years. “By already having systems in place to use up to 50% less water than they had become accustomed to through their water stewardship commitments, Conservation Champions were in a far better position to ward-off the potential destruction of drought than farms without similar water conservation programmes in place,” says Isham.

“Boschendal, one of the WWF Conservation Champions, in fact found themselves with access to more water during the drought than they did in years with normal rainfall, this the result of the farm having cleared their water catchment areas from alien vegetation,” she says. “Just by applying logical conservation strategies, such as removing water-guzzling alien plants and trees, a farm gets a new lease on life, waterwise.”

Flowers between the vines on Vondeling Wine Estate.

Van Rensburg says the use and conserving of energy has also rapidly leapt to the top of the list of priorities for WWF Conservation Champions, with carbon calculation being used to monitor members’ farming activities.

“World-wide this is currently the most talked-about aspect of wine-farming and production, so it is important that energy usage and carbon emissions receive top-priority within the realm of the WWF Conservation Champions programme,” he says. “Here we are seeing incredible innovation from our members, especially on the front of renewable energy with solar power rapidly becoming the norm for providing electricity for production as well as housing facilities on farms.

“Here we also see our members being tremendously innovative: La Motte Estate in Franschhoek, for example, uses water-pumps with variable speed-drives to ensure that as the elevation of the irrigated land lessens, the energy used to pump the water decreases, ensuring the optimal use of power. Then at Anthonij Rupert Wyn in Simondium one finds hydro-electricity used with a mountain waterfall generating power to complement the solar and other energy sources on which the farm operates. Hydro-electricity in a wine region that is just emerging from the effects of a drought might sound a bit ironical, but it shows the combination of human innovation and natural resources in this wonderful part of the world.”

Van Rensburg says that another role undertaken by the WWF Conservation Champions over the past few years is that of training and education among the wineland communities, especially among farmworkers and their families.

“For a true conservation mindset in the region, the hearts and minds of all people living and working in these ecologically sensitive areas have to support this ethos of looking after and embracing nature,” he says. “We are therefore not only aligning with wine producers and vineyard managers, but with the people who work the vines and tend the land. By educating them of the harm caused by pollution, alien vegetation and illegal snaring of animals – which is disturbingly rife – we are aiming to make the conservation of the Cape winelands a programme whose aspirations are shared by all who reside there. And to make them understand that their collective futures and that of their region depends on their interaction with the natural world.”

Boschendal: Water conservation at its best.

Isham says that the WWF Conservation Champions programme is unrivalled as far as conservation in wineland protection and wine production goes.

“Australian bodies have contacted us for advice on a similar programme, and are slowly adapting similar measure so ours,” she says. “Chile has shown interest but find it very hard to get traction for such initiatives due to the poor state of regulated conservation in that country. And the European winelands have become victims of urban sprawl, without any real natural ecologies remaining. The South African wine industry, thus, can truly lay claim to being a leader in conservation, which should be one of the unique selling points of our wines.”

The Useful Idiots of Prohibition

A sign of a state being successful in its striving towards totalitarianism lies not so much in its implementation of laws and regulations deemed important to control its population as it does in its duping the populace into believing that this enforcement is necessary. As Iranian-American academic and author Azar Nafisi wrote: “The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes.”

With this third stage of banning the sale of wine and other alcohol as part of its feeble Corona-strategy, the South African government has shown it is edging closer to the state of oppression and social control it so strongly desires by seemingly winning the hearts and minds of its people.

With a couple of exceptions, the majority of South Africans rejected the banning of alcohol and wine sales during last year’s shut-down. Hell, being new to this lockdown-thing, the country objected roundly to many of the government’s laws. This mostly unilateral moral revolt was, of course, made easier by a couple of uniquely brain-dead regulations laid-down by president Ramaphosa and his Covid Command Council. Such as it being illegal to buy warm pies for eating and open shoes for wearing.

A glass of wine and cold beer joined a list of consumables deemed illegal, their banning apparently necessary armaments in the fight against Covid-19.

The third liquor ban came flying in at the end of last year, and signs are here that the public is increasingly supporting the banning of the selling of wine, spirits and beer. Whether society’s sudden increase in support and tolerance of the liquor ban is the result of plain Corona fatigue, a generally greater moral vigilance caused by the undeniable concerning path of death and social tragedy of Covid-19 or an all-round increase in puritanical values due to this state of human vulnerability, this is open to question.

That the government is winning the moral high ground through the tagging of liquor as the evil that keeps dying people out of hospital wards, is a fact. Social media is full of this support. Media commentators and those who call into their talk-shows assertively state the need for a ban on liquor. Even the Western Cape government, home to the wine industry, uses each opportunity to underscore the necessity of this lock-down on wine sales.

Those of us who did military service in the army will remember that saying of the most important battle being winning the “hearts and minds” of the local populations among whom the enemy moved. Prohibition Ramaphosa has done exactly that. The minions are backing his message.

If alcohol is resulting in greater trauma-ward admissions due to drink-fuelled violence and motor vehicle accidents, the fault lies on the side of the South African authorities before the blame can be placed on the alcohol industry.

Through a lack of will to regulate and poor policing, the government has allowed the proliferation of illegal, unlicensed liquor-outlets. There are over 180 000 booze-sellers plying their trade – or waiting to do so once the ban is lifted – and these illegal sellers are going about their business with the apparent consent of the authorities. That 180 000 is double the number of the country’s legal liquor outlets. Suffice to say a large number of these trauma cases apparently choking hospitals are the result of this illicit liquor trading, which the government has a responsibility to shut-down. And is not doing.

Since anti-Corona measures were placed on society last year, the supposed contract stipulates that regulations would be enforced and policed in order to apply the measures deemed necessary to protect South Africans against the spread of Covid-19. Thus, when anti-liquor laws were relaxed last year to permit the sale of alcohol, where was the regulatory vigilance to ensure the safety of the population? Currently I can’t set foot on Clifton beach without being hauled-off in the sand-strewn cage of a police van. So, where were was all this concerned policing when society began drinking again? Had it been applied, surely a greater awareness of the need for responsible behaviour would have lessened the degree of booze-fuelled depravity.

This is how it works. Or is supposed to work.

What has now happened, is that the rights of a large number of South Africans have been assaulted. Responsible consumers of a legal product have no reason to have the right to do so taken from them. Irresponsible consumers and illegal liquor sellers do not have the same rights as responsible consumers. I have the right to own a dog. Once I begin mistreating that animal, I lose this right. What’s so difficult to understand?

Especially concerning is that the past 10 months has given the government a taste of the vast power it can wield on millions of people by means of a few sentences. If its action of banning liquor sales is not protested against and legally questioned, the door will gradually be opened for bans and lockdowns and restrictions in a post-Corona world. Anytime the social fabric is deemed disrupted, liquor could be made a potential scapegoat along with other elements that were – up until now – for many law-abiding people a daily way of life.

To be complicit to the liquor ban is admitting to having allowed the government to pull the wool over your eyes. And makes you an idiot, useful or otherwise.

SA Set to Face New Ban

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Corona Command Council are not quite finished with their array of restrictions, bans and prohibitions on hapless South Africans. According to a secret memo, leaked to this website by a mask-wearing informer, the government plans to ban poverty due to the debilitating effect it is having on the fight against Covid-19.

In a strongly worded warning expected to me made any day now, Ramaphosa writes in the memo that he and his government’s patience is wearing thin with the continued poverty in South Africa and that it is only a matter of days before South Africans can see poverty as being deemed illegal under the Corona Command Council’s Covid-19 restrictions.

“Alcohol is banned because it changes the behaviour of South Africans, leading them to eschew anti-Corona safety-measures and contribute to the filling of hospitals,” says Ramaphosa. “Well, alcohol is not the only culprit – poverty, which South Africans continue to embrace, is just as much responsible for changing the attitudes and actions of some of our fellow countrymen and women, causing them to act in an irresponsible manner not conducive to the fight against Covid-19.”

Cyril Ramaphosa

Ramaphosa says examples of the affect poverty has in hampering the government’s fight against the pandemic are rife.

“Poverty sees people drop their guard against Corona by continuing to live in cramped quarters in tin-shacks,” he says. “Being poor also makes South African feel that they do not have to buy a car to commute to work, opting instead to be transported in over-filled mini-bus taxis. And it has been proven that poverty leads to violent crime, which sees injured victims taking-up space in hospital trauma units. Not to mention the inconvenience of malnourished children in medical-care centres at this time when we should unilaterally be focusing on Corona virus.”

Ramaphosa says that although he and the ANC have remained patient until now, poverty is set to be made illegal as long as the Covid-19 pandemic persists, and longer if required.

“On advice of the Corona Command Council and with the support of government, we are setting-out motions to ban poverty in the near-foreseeable future,” he says. “South Africans can expect strong and decisive measures through which the occurrence of poverty will be policed, and anyone not adhering to the regulations by continuing to live in poverty will face the full brunt of the law. I suggest that we as a nation also use this period in which poverty is illegal to reflect on how poverty was able to gain such a strong and pervasive hold on the country.”

Ramaphosa writes that South Africans should look at the example set by their government. “Myself and the cabinet have not allowed poverty to enter our worlds,” he says, “so it is inexplicable that the rest of the country permit the ongoing poverty to prevail unabated.”

The date of this announcement is not known, but it is suggested that South Africans get rid of any signs of poverty as soon as possible as the ban is likely to be enforced as soon as it is communicated at the next family gather.

Middelvlei Celebrates 100 years with Pinotage brilliance

No chapter of Stellenbosch’s wine legacy is complete without the Momberg name making an appearance. When I arrived in the town of oaks in 1979, the Mombergs had been around for 60 years and the very mention of the name caused a ripple of excitement. There was talk of great wine made by the Momberg families (cousins) on Middelvlei and Neethlingshof, political ambitions and a pedigree of sporting achievements.

And – of great importance to a teenage-pupil at Paul Roos Gymnasium, like me – there was also the fact that any girl whose name preceded the Momberg surname was bound to be a dark-haired beauty guaranteed to make knees weak and turn your own attempts at conversing into incomprehensible and nervy stutters.

Full moon over Middelvlei.

While the Neethlingshof Momberg clan have long left the wine world, the Mombergs of Middelvlei continue the family’s wine ventures on the original farm acquired in 1919. Patriarch Jan (Stiljan) Momberg has handed the operations over to sons Tinnie (winemaker) and Ben (marketing), although Stiljan regularly regales tales of years yonder on the beloved Middelvlei when he is not holding court at Dias Tavern eatery in downtown Cape Town. (The Mombergs have always had good taste – they also like Dachshunds.)

No reason is needed to visit the hospitable Middelvlei Mombergs, but I recently did develop an eagerness upon ascertaining that Middelvlei’s new once-off premier Pinotage offering was being let loose. This is a variety the farm has been known to do especially well, the result of central Stellenbosch terroir and legacy of fine Pinotage-crafting in the cellar.

The limited-release wine is named Momberg Pinotage and this sole vintage is from 2018. Its appearance in 2020 coincided with 100 years of winemaking on Middelvlei. And despite the historical weight and provenance behind this marque, the wine is far from conventionally classic in what it offers.

Over the years Middelvlei has built a reputation for capturing the brighter, less stern and less earthy side of Pinotage. The farm’s Free Run Pinotage, which has gained a cult following with its animated presentation of red fruits held together by a liberated, loose ribbon of gently vibrating tannins, arguably led the way in the new generation of Pinotage-makers venturing to this variety’s fresher side. The statuesque Momberg Pinotage 2018 is of far firmer body and more authoritative person than the aforementioned wine. But its beauty lies in the way it straddles both its commanding presence and those more dashing, liberated attributes.

Mombergs: Tinnie, Jan, Jeanneret (CEO of Visit Stellenbosch) and Ben.

Tinnie Momberg can select great Pinotage grapes and manage fermentation and skin-contact with his eyes closed, so the intriguing aspect of this wine lies not in the basic foundations. The decision to age a whack of the wine in American oak makes for the wow-factor. Some 80% of the wine got new oak exposure, with 70% of the new stuff being sourced from the land of the unwashed Capitol Hill climbers.

This American oak is not that evident on the nose, where the Momberg Pinotage 2018 shows real dandy, with aromas of wet violets, potpourri and sun-dried hay, a nice juicy hit of ripe plum orchard lurking underneath it all. To the mouth, the wine is the kind of Pinotage underscoring my belief that 62 years since the release of the first bottling, the full potential of Pinotage still needs its surfaced scratched.

Yes, it is a big wine. Nothing to do with alcohol, which comes in at an accurate 14%. The formidable presence lies in the depth of character, the confident showing of a vivid spectrum of complexities of taste and aura, and the tangible excitement this Pinotage evokes. (Yes, I am excited, having trouble balancing the lap-top as I type this.)

On the attack the wine arouses the taste-buds through a sappiness filled with exploding red-currants, raspberry sorbet and diced crab-apple. Coating the palate with darts of pulsating liquid energy, the plushness takes over. Things calm down, lead-guitar turns to rhythm and bass. An expected mocha-like sense covers the mouth, like a cashmere scarf worn by a lady chocolatier mixing single-bean Uganda cocoa at midnight. There is the creak of Havana cigar-box, as well as darkness of flavour: black Moroccan honey, those prunes from Kazakhstan soaked in vintage Armagnac; the fatty nut-taste of a layer of Jámon Iberico Pata Negra.

The finish is, however, clear and discernibly clean, leaving memory, thought and a life-affirming satisfaction.

With half the bottle of Momberg Pinotage 2018 finished, the next part will toast the continued presence and importance of great family wines from this phenomenal wine region.

Long may they live, as in forever.