All eyes on SA as equivalent of half the national vineyard is set aside for conservation

Established in 2004, the BWI is being lauded for succeeding in having 50,000 hectares of land set aside for conservation. This is roughly half the equivalent of South Africa’s total national vineyard, an achievement that has taken just two-and-a-half years.

Representatives of the organisation will be talking to the wine industry and to conservation-interest groups in London this week at the London International Wine & Spirits Fair (May 22 to 24), as well as at celebrations to mark International Biodiversity Day on May 22. Their focus will be on its imaginative environmental management strategies that have also been turned into marketing opportunities. Then, next month (June), the BWI will be co-hosting an international conference on biodiversity in vineyard management, in the Cape.

Although South Africa is the eighth biggest wine producer in the world with just 102,000 hectares cultivated to vine, representing 3,5% of global output, many of the bigger players are now looking to the country for solutions, given its impressive success rate achieved through the BWI.

Seeking wherever possible to protect natural habitat and minimize further loss, to re-introduce indigenous flora and fauna and adopt sustainable wine-growing practices across South Africa’s wine-growing areas, the BWI is striving for an additional 50,000 hectares to be set aside before the end of the decade. This will mean that 100,000 hectares - equal to the entire national vineyard - can never be cultivated, will have to be cleared of water-thieving alien plants and restored to its pristine state.

Much of the country’s wine-growing – almost 95% - takes place in the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK), the richest and also the smallest plant kingdom on the planet. Home to more than 9,600 plant species, more than found in the Northern Hemisphere, the CFK is recognized both as a global biodiversity hotspot and a World Heritage site. However, it has come under increasing threat from agriculture, urban development and invasive alien species.

In 2004, faced with just 9% of its unique renosterveld remaining and much of its lowland fynbos ecosystems under threat, the wine industry’s response was the establishment of the BWI, with key input from the Botanical Society of South Africa, Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund. Widely praised as a pioneering partnership between the country’s wine industry and conservation sector, its mandate is not confined to protecting natural habitat. It also encourages wine producers to express the Cape’s abundant biodiversity in their wines.

The BWI has succeeded in bringing together the heavyweight corporates, many of the co-operative wineries as well as boutique and garagiste producers, in a unified thrust to protect what is considered the country’s most compelling competitive advantage. The abundant biodiversity makes it possible to create a wide variety of wine styles.

Underscoring this positioning, South Africa’s generic wine marketing body, Wines of South Africa (WOSA), is running a campaign entitled 'Variety is in our Nature', highlighted in above- and below-the-line marketing campaigns, particularly in the UK, the country’s biggest export destination.

Says BWI’s project co-ordinator Inge Kotzé: "We are enormously encouraged by the backing from the industry. There is a widespread commitment to preserving the land, which forms a central part of South African culture and identity."

She adds that the engagement of co-operative cellars that represent multiple producers is accelerating significantly the conservation process. "By working with co-operative structures instead of their individual members we are reaching farmers more efficiently and effectively and could potentially achieve our goals quicker than at first envisaged."

"At the same time, the initiative is striking a chord with consumers who are electing to show their concern for the planet by choosing eco-friendly products in their everyday purchases."

The BWI has a total of 86 members, of whom five have been accorded championship status for exceeding the demands set out in the BWI guidelines. Both groups include some of the country’s most respected producers who have earned international acclaim for their wines on leading shows and amongst prominent critics. Vergelegen, Graham Beck, Cloof/Burgherspost, and Wedderwill are champions, while members include Bouchard Finlayson, Paul Cluver Wines, Plaisir de Merle and Steenberg Winery.

She says many producers have made biodiversity a core feature of their marketing campaigns and are embracing the advantages it offers to promote wine tourism. "Several producers have opened up biodiversity trails on their farms while neighbouring wineries collaborate to create regional biodiversity trails. The emphasis on natural habitat has also lead to individual research projects with the result that new plant species are continually being identified. One of our members, De Grendel, boasts the discovery of a bulb previously thought to be extinct."

Kotzé says that sustainable wine-growing is critical to the long-term health of the industry. "Climate change makes sustainable wine-growing an absolute essential and best-practice strategies are being employed to use our natural resources as judiciously as possible."

Strong interest from other wine-producing countries has now prompted the BWI and the Integrated Production of Wine scheme to share its experience. The organisation will be hosting a conference entitled Vinecology: Understanding the management of biodiversity within vineyard landscapes. To be held at the end of June in the Cape Winelands, it will be attended by delegates from Australia, New Zealand, and California and takes place ahead of the International Society of Conservation Biology Workshop in the city of Port Elizabeth.

Please contact Inge Kotzé, Project C0-ordinator on (021) 886-8428 or 083 712 1452 or visit

Issued by: De Kock Communications (DKC)