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  • Writer's pictureCarla

Restoring Nature's Magic - biological winemaking trends in South Africa

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

In South Africa wine growers and producers who practice organic and biodynamic winemaking need to apply to European and American certification agencies for official recognition. Our Swartland Syrah grapes have EU and US organic certification and are grown by Billy Hughes, undoubtedly one of South Africa’s leaders in biodynamic and organic farming.

Beyond those who follow the official route it is, however, wonderful to witness a slow revolution in the South African wine industry towards biologically friendly and ecologically sustainable practices. As a whole the industry still has a long way to go, but many farmers are changing their ways in a piecemeal fashion, not seeking formal recognition but out of conviction and respect for their soils.

Overlooking the Breede River Valley between Robertson and Bonnievale
Fritz Breytenbach has grown grapes in the Breede River valley near Bonnievale for over 65 years

Our MCC vineyards, particularly the Chardonnay (on the Breede River south bank between Robertson and Bonnievale) is farmed with a holistic approach by Fritz Breytenbach. A remarkable person with 65 years of experience in ‘reading his vines’, Fritz has learned to understand soil as a living thing with all the complex interactions between micro-organisms, minerals, oxygen, nitrogen and plants. The outcome, two decades after venturing away from conventional farming, is incredible enhancement in grape quality, volume and consistency.

Conventional practices usually kill off these micro-processes and basically force feed the vines with manufactured nutrients. This has detrimental effects on soil health and ultimately to the health of the entire ecosystem. In contrast, ‘Oom Fritz’ (Uncle Fritz), as we call him, has sought to understand more about the complex interactions in a soil and plant system. By replacing chemical control with biological support (through the addition of elements already occurring in the soil) he strengthens the ecosystem’s resilience. He is still learning, at well over 80, as his handwritten farming records attest!

Indigenous grass growing between vineyard rows
Indigenous grass species between the vineyards

One result has been the return of Indigenous grass species between the vineyard rows. These plants replenish nitrogen in the soil and over several seasons have formed a bed of mulch over the soil, which helps to lock in moisture and keeps soil temperatures down in the summer heat. This, in turn, decreases the need for irrigation. Nature’s magic restored!

For a more technical report on Fritz Breytenbach's farming practices, read this article:

Going biological rewards wine farmer
Download PDF • 519KB

As for wine making, I use various biodynamic practices including harvesting, pressing, bottling, and disgorging according to the biodynamic calendar of Southern Africa.

My approach to fermentation is for minimal impact, for example using only piseage (punch-down) for our reds and fermenting them whole-berry. Our Chenin blanc and Syrah ferment in barrels with wild yeasts only. When wines need to be moved or racked, gravity does the job rather than pumps. Finally, all our wines and Cap Classique contain very low levels of sulphur - and in the case of the Brut Nature, zero dosage.

To make wine like this requires grapes of exceptional health and quality, which means going back to the health of our soil so that nature can do what it does so well. To Oom Fritz and the other farmers and their teams that I work with - Scholtz Rossouw, Nicky de Beer, Billy Hughes, and others - salut et merci!

Farmer Fritz Breytenbach and winemaker Carla Pauw walk and discuss viticulture

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