Water-wise farming for sustainable wine production

National Water Week commences on 19 March 2016. Water and using it wisely are hot topics in South Africa, especially in light of increasingly drier conditions and the recent drought with its ensuing water restrictions.

Fortunately, South African wine producers, who farm according to independently audited Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) guidelines, are an innovative and resourceful bunch. Water-wise systems, from specially constructed wetlands to floating islands in dams, form a key part of the solution to the management of cellar effluent by many wineries.

Spier, which is a WWF-SA Conservation Champion, has significantly reduced its water footprint by both reducing water usage and by recycling. In 2007, Spier installed a pioneering centralised wastewater treatment plant that recycles 100 percent of their wastewater and treats it using only environmentally friendly methodology. The treatment plant, which includes an oval-shaped reed bed for cleaning the water, was the first of its kind in the country. The resultant clean water is then used to irrigate both the gardens and the grounds. All of Spier’s waste water and 80 percent of its solid waste is recycled.

Spier’s water treatment plant (image: www.spier.co.za)

Spier was the deserving winner of the Getaway Award for Leadership in Water Conservation at the latest Nedbank Green Wine Awards, held on 15 October 2015. “Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in the winelands,” said Spier’s sustainability director, Heidi Newton-King. “This award highlights our efforts in working towards a water-secure future, as we aim to minimise our consumption of water from external sources such as the Theewaterskloof dam and the municipality.”

A quick bit of research among the other WWF-SA Conservation Champions revealed some stand-out examples of various approaches to managing water. At Bartinney near Stellenbosch they have used only endemic plants to create a wetland to help purify the water used in their winemaking process. They also grow only fynbos cover crops between their vineyard rows. Cover crops enrich the soil, inhibit weed growth, and help control pests and manage soil erosion.

Fynbos and vineyards on Boschendal (image: www.boschendal.com)

Boschendal Wines near Franschhoek has many indigenous trees, including ironwood, stinkwood, yellowwood and wild olive. Clearing of more than 500 hectares of alien vegetation, including acacias, hakeas and pines, has had a hugely positive impact on birdlife, free movement of wildlife and, in particular, on the flow of small rivers that are fed from the nearby mountains. Four big streams that were dry for most of the summer now flow all year round. Other water-saving strategies at Boschendal include investing in conservation-efficient irrigation systems and growing cover crops in the vineyards.

At Lourensford on the slopes of the Helderberg, a massive alien vegetation clearing project was started in the mid-2000s to rehabilitate the upper reaches of the Lourens River, as well as restore wetlands and indigenous Afromontane forest. At nearby Wedderwill, the river that runs through the centre of the reserve has been rehabilitated and the alien vegetation cleared. A follow-up programme ensures maintenance of these cleared sites.

Elgin Orchards has made a considerable financial investment into the restoration, protection and maintenance of buffer zones, natural water courses and other ecosystems on the farm. The natural vegetation is thriving along the banks of the 6.6 kilometres of Palmiet River flowing through the property and this natural river system is steadily recovering, ensuring a future supply of good quality water.

Further afield, the fertile soils and flood plains of the Breede River Valley near Rawsonville are home to Merwida Winery, where 600 hectares of wetland have been conserved by the sixth generation to farm these lands. Extensive clearing of alien invasive plants took place to allow the palmiet, which play an important role in stabilising the river banks and slowing down flood waters, to flourish. This plant also provides a source of food and shelter – this healthy wetland, the largest along the Breede River system, supports a unique collection of aquatic insects, as well as many water-dependent birds and animals.

Our wine producers also like to think out of the box. An inventive example is Fryer’s Cove Vineyards in Doringbaai, which utilises the Atlantic Ocean’s icy water for cooling in the cellar. At Virgin Earth in the Klein Karoo red wines are matured in barrels contained in cargo nets in a dam, a cooling technique initially developed due to a lack of suitable facilities. Taking the concept of maritime terroir to another level, Hidden Valley and Springfield have both experimented with maturing wines in the ocean at Cape Agulhas. Further down the south coast, Hamilton Russell Wines in the Hemel-en-Aarde also tried maturing cases of Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc in the harbour at nearby Hermanus.

– Lindsaye Mc Gregor