Future proofing

Amidst gloomy pandemic headlines worldwide comes some good news: Cape Wine 2022 has been announced for October. It’s a scant 460 days (or so…) away. It’s also – roughly – the same amount of time that South Africans have spent under lockdown or the euphemistically termed “adjusted living”!

Sustainability is the name of the game – and that’s a term with extremely broad reach, from the financial viability of wine businesses, encompassing growers and producers to label firms, cork and bottle suppliers, logistics companies, suppliers and all across the spectrum – to the more easily recognisable environmental challenges farmers face.

So, it was opportune to have been invited to visit Stellenbosch producer Villiera as part of a small, socially distanced quartet a week ago. One almost forgets that this family-owned operation was pioneers of the South African sparkling wine category way back in the 90s. It also had a bush vine Sauvignon Blanc making waves and gaining critical acclaim before Chenin Blanc and Pinotage popularised bush vines!

And they’re not done innovating! The evidence is hard to miss with glass demijohns filled with hazy, honey-coloured sweet wine perched atop the tasting room roof: Jeff Grier revealed that this Dakwyn, a fortified Chenin dessert wine, is one of the innovations of the next generation of winemakers – nephew Xander Grier and Nathan Valentine. But it was his calm recitation of how the global pandemic had affected their business – and the plans that were now in place which was impressive.

The “green” side of Villiera is well known: their winery roof positively bristles with photovoltaic panels for off-grid energy, vineyard work is done by electric vehicles and Simon Grier was enthusing about mulches, cover crops and environmentally friendly pest control (ducks!) long before it became mainstream practice. There are social responsibility elements which put them at the head of the field – they were the first home for the Pebbles Project and have provided facilities not just for a crèche and after school care but the Pebbles head office and a medical clinic – another first for the winelands. Then there’s the game enclosure stocked with waterbuck, eland, giraffe, bontebok, springbok and more – as well as the more than 100 000 indigenous trees which have been planted over the years.

“Pre-Covid, bubbly was 50% of our business,” Grier said, “and it took a helluva knock because there was nothing to celebrate – and no events like weddings taking place either. But we’ve got some good ideas in the pipeline.” And that was the natural segue to allow Xander and Nathan to go through the extensive bubbly line up, from the “standard” Tradition cap classique, zero dosage Brut Natual, prestige cuvée Monro Brut to the lower alcohol Starlight Brut.

  Image caption: Innovative – but traditional…

One of the most interesting side discussions involved the influence of Bonang Matheba, TV and social media personality, who bottles her own branded bubbly in conjunction with Villiera. “It’s been amazing – both to see how professionally she operates, and the success of what she’s done. Her bubbly in can is just flying! The market can’t get enough of it.”

Villiera is a diverse operation, producing wine not just under its own label but for retail clients such as Woolworths too. Their price points vary widely as well – from the pocket-friendly and approachable Down To Earth White and Red to the ultra-premium red blend The Clan which should leave a bit of spare change when handing over R1 000! The wine spectrum ranges from the exotic Jasmine (Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat), Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and even a Gamay Noir.

“One thing Covid has done is give us the time to reflect and do certain things we would never have had time for,” said Cathy Brewer, Jeff’s sister. Her time was spent arranging digital video material, pack shots and information about each wine. “It’s made a massive difference! When agents call or email needing information about a particular wine, it only takes a minute to pop a mail with a video clip or refer them to the website where they can access the QR codes with all sorts of additional information.”

Those types of innovations are what will no doubt stand them in good stead going forward – and sustain its viability. Villiera has thought about succession with Xander and Nathan introducing some new ideas and Jeff providing the traditional wisdom and experience gained over decades. Great team work.

- Blog by Fiona McDonald