The rich and diverse indigenous fynbos of South Africa’s winelands has become a welcome ally to the region’s wine producers. It provides natural ecosystems between and alongside vineyards. The fynbos functions as natural pest control, energises soil and creates a hardy crop cover that helps retain moisture in the soil.

The symbiotic relationship between viticulture and the world-famous Cape Floral Kingdom is illustrated on various wine farms that are members of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Conservation Champions programme. This conservation programme fosters a unique working relationship between Cape wine producers and the WWF.

It is aimed at conserving the natural environment of the Cape Winelands. Together the 45 producers who are WWF Conservation Champions own some 45 000ha of land. Of this land, 22 000ha is conserved as a pristine part of the world-famous Cape Floral Kingdom comprising fynbos and succulent Karoo plants.

These members work closely with the WWF in their conservation endeavours, undertaking annual assessments to ensure they meet the specifications required of a Conservation Champion. South Africa’s Integrated Production of Wine certification (IPW) also underscores all champions’ credentials. In addition, these wineries have achieved 70% or more in their IPW audit.

Vygies bloom at De Wetshof Estate

On De Wetshof Estate, one of Robertson’s premier wine farms that is especially known for pioneering Chardonnay in the Cape, wild fynbos is left to grow between the vines. This offers various viticulture benefits and contributes to De Wetshof’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

“With our famous fynbos plant kingdom, Cape wine producers might just be sitting with the most unique cover crops in the world,” says Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof. “The Cape fynbos incorporates a mass of wild shrubs, bushes and flowers – over 9 000 different species, each divided into various categories throughout the Western Cape.

“At De Wetshof we are committed to conserving this majestic natural occurrence – not only by putting an area of our farm aside as wild, uncultivated veld to conserve the natural environment, but to make the fynbos plants a part of our viticulture.”

This natural integration between vine and veld is evident on the steep slopes of De Wetshof where young Chardonnay vineyards are planted alongside several fynbos shrubs, including the famous vygie flowering shrub.

“The vygies and other indigenous plants play two roles in our viticulture,” says De Wet. “These plants extract carbon dioxide from the air and put it into the soil through their roots, which is beneficial to soil health.”

Higher soil organic carbon promotes soil structure or tilth, meaning there is greater physical stability. This improves soil aeration (oxygen in the soil) and water drainage and retention. Furthermore, it reduces the risk of erosion and nutrient leaching.

“The other benefit of fynbos among your vines has to do with pest control,” says De Wet. “Unwanted critters, such as nematodes, prefer living in the fynbos instead of attacking and chewing on our vines. This reduces the need for spraying insecticide. Due to the hardiness of the fynbos, insects are unable to inflict the kind of damage they do on the more delicate vine.”

An old hand at conservation

In the world-renowned Stellenbosch wine region, WWF Conservation Champion Delheim Estate has been a pioneer in conservation practices on the slopes of the Simonsberg in Stellenbosch. Today Delheim constitutes 375ha of land, of which 89ha has been set aside for conservation.

Victor Sperling, operations director at Delheim, says the ethos of conservation has always existed on Delheim. This allowed the estate to play a major role when the wine industry began to formalise the benefits and needs of protecting the winelands’ natural habitat through the WWF Conservation Champions.

“At first the focus was aimed at the ‘wild’ parts of our farm, ensuring the magnificent habitat for fauna and flora remains pristine,” says Sperling. “But as a wine producer and viticulturist, conservation and sustainability have led us to look at ways to use the benefits of the natural environment to improve the health of our vines and soils and farm more sustainably.”

Having worked in the Delheim vineyards with his father – the legendary wine pioneer and Delheim patriarch Spatz Sperling – for most of his life, Sperling grew up understanding the symbioses between wine and nature. “Everyone says wine is made in the vineyard, but what happens in that vineyard depends on the environment in which it grows. The more natural the vineyard environment, the healthier and more expressive the grapes for the making of wine.”

Benefits of fynbos in vineyards

By planting corridors of fynbos alongside the vineyards, natural pests are kept away from the vineyards. They find the thick indigenous vegetation more habitable than the vines where they would have to be removed through spraying.

“Furthermore, on Delheim we use parasitic insects to neutralise the more harmful bugs, while the planting of cover crops inhibits weed growth, curbing the need for chemical spraying,” says Sperling. “The result is life in the vineyards, creating an energetically natural environment for vines to grow and grapes to ripen. With wine being a living product, this kind of sustainable farming is not only essential for the Cape Winelands, but it also contributes to the quality of the wines.

“In today’s international wine environment where sustainability is at the forefront of any conversation, the commitment of wine producers through the WWF Conservation Champions initiative provides a unique selling point for South African wine.”

De Wet agrees that wine producers worldwide recognise the importance of sustainable farming and winemaking practices. “South African wine producers are in a good position here,” he says. “As custodians of the land for generations, most of us have nature in our DNA, and conserving the environment as part of our winemaking endeavours is non-negotiable.”

Bartinney Wine Estate creates fynbos art

On the Bartinney Wine Estate in the Banghoek Valley outside Stellenbosch, the commitment to biodiversity is dramatically illustrated with a piece of two-hectare ‘land art’ established by artist Strijdom van der Merwe as a tribute to this renowned estate’s ethos of sustainability. The art comprises a large-scale copy of the Bartinney brand’s winged figure. When it is in bloom, the fynbos land art is visible from afar.

This illustrates the farm’s commitment to bringing the fynbos directly into the winemaking and marketing of the brand. The farm also offers a unique fynbos and wine tasting experience using the aromatic leaves to experiment with wine lovers’ senses.

Across the farm, more than 7 000 trees have been planted and fynbos endemic to the area was re-established on 17ha of rehabilitated land from what was previously a pine and gum plantation. Owner Rose Jordaan also started her own nursery growing indigenous water-wise fynbos to restore the neglected slopes and provide a habitat for a wide array of organisms.

Biological pest control is preferred and no herbicide has been sprayed in eight years. A buffer zone of proteas between the vineyards and the mountain discourages local baboons from raiding the grapes. 

According to Shelly Fuller, WWF South Africa’s sustainable programme manager for fruit and wine, Conservation Champions are truly trailblazers in their innovative ways of managing farming practices while proactively conserving the natural environment.

“With every visit, our field officers find new approaches to environmental management practices on the wine farms,” she says. “This spirit of innovation and respect of their land is a truly unique feature of the Cape Winelands. It has the potential of positioning South Africa as one of the leading wine countries in the world as far as sustainability and conservation is concerned.” – Press release, WWF

Click here to read more about the fynbos Conservation Champions.