Saving the Fynbos, making good wine 24 march 2005

Vergelegen gets a biodiversity pat on the back
To the romantically-inclined (and that would include bird-watchers and fanatics of the Cape's wondrous indigenous plantlife), wine has never just been a cold-hearted economic affair. Recently the buzz word ‘biodiversity’ has been jumping up in wine PR bumf. (For a sensible ‘put-down’ of that silliness, read Leonie Joubert’s article on the winecoza website.)

There are wine producers who take the life of their land seriously. In Elgin, Paul Cluver has been working with CapeNature to rehabilitate those glorious peaks. At Cordoba, Chris Keet’s chaps chop out the alien vegetation when not in the cellar. And at Fredericksburg, the winemaking is as environmentally sensitive as money can pay for.

Now prime Stellenbosch estate Vergelegen has earned itself a well-deserved, rather fancy title: ‘South Africa’s first biodiversity and wine champion’.

While the exact ways and means and significance of this are a little obscure to most of us, the boast sends out a serious and strong message about nature conservation (and destruction!) in the Cape winelands. Anglo American’s Vergelegen is genuinely putting its money where its mouth is.

Vergelegen’s MD Don Tooth says the Helderberg winery over the past ten years has put R3.9 million from its sales into the initial conservation project. ‘We hope that this accolade Vergelegen has received from the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative will encourage others in the industry to take a new look at their farms and invest in conserving the unique and special environment in their hands.

The Vergelegen Environmental Trust was established to ‘ensure that at least one third of the 3 000 hectare estate be transformed into a pristine example of the Cape’s natural heritage’. It is the second-largest conservation project in the Western Cape at the moment, according to Tooth.

Tony Hansen, project co-ordinator of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI), says the BWI’s champion programme honours wine estates and wine farms that are playing exemplary roles in conservation. ‘Environment champions such as Vergelegen benefit the image and standing of our wine industry.’

At the award ceremony Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, pointed out the uniqueness of the inter-relationship between the wine industry Cape Floral Kingdom (the smallest and richest of the world's six floral kingdoms). WOSA has adopted the biodiversity of the Cape Foral Kingdom as Brand South Africa’s positioning. But it is a much deeper matter than just marketing. Already serious research is under way to look at the correlation between the broader habitat and natural terroir units for wine.

Ms Birch announced that the first Wine Biodiversity Conference will take place during Cape Wine 2006 (due to be held from 4th – 6th April 2006).