The South African wine industry has always been among the most forward-thinking industries in the country. Long before formal Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programmes were adopted by the government, farmers in the Western Cape were already launching schemes whereby farm labourers were trained in the art of winemaking and went on to make their own wines from grapes grown on sections of their employers’ estates. Many of these wines are now bottled and proudly sold alongside the estates’ premier labels, and fare exceptionally well at blind tastings. Which is socially extremely commendable – but what about the green credentials of the wine industry?
We are all familiar with the trend in food marketing to emphasise the product or the producer’s ethical credentials. Coffee and bananas need to be Fair Trade. Food needs to be grown locally as opposed to being flown halfway around the planet. We demand that our produce is organic, biodynamic and preferably carbon-neutral. But how many of us actually ask those questions when we are standing in a supermarket trying to decide between two bottles of wine? Growing numbers of us, according to a pioneering South African winemaker.
Michael Back, proprietor of the Backsberg Estate winery in Paarl is another winemaker who feels that profitable wine farming and environmental conscience are not mutually exclusive concepts. He firmly believes that customer demand is moving in the direction of his ecological concerns, and that a whole new wine market sector with emphasis on care for the environment is about to open. If it does, Backsberg will be on the forefront of the trend: it was the first South African wine producer (and only the third worldwide) to gain Carbon Neutral status for its wines.
So what exactly does “carbon neutral” mean? One of the main causes of climate change has been identified as man-made (so-called greenhouse) gases, primarily carbon dioxide, and amost everything we do or use releases harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The idea of carbon neutrality involves trying to neutralise your carbon dioxide emissions by increasing carbon dioxide absorption (called sequestration), so that the two balance each other out.
Over a year ago, Michael Back initiated a full year-long carbon audit at Backsberg that assessed all emissions by both the estate’s farming and winemaking activities. The audit was done in conjunction with Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA), a non-profit organisation started 17 years ago and which promotes tree planting as a way of offsetting carbon emissions in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. The audit reviewed activities ranging from energy inputs (both electricity and fuel) on site, to the carbon dioxide released by the wine during fermentation, to the consequences of delivery of materials from suppliers and the delivery of Backsberg wine throughout the world.
The audit allowed Backsberg to understand the scope of the sequestration solutions which it needs to seek and develop to achieve and maintain carbon neutral status. The primary sequestration solution consists of a greening programme within the nearby village of Klapmuts, managed by FTFA – nearly 1000 indigenous trees have already been planted. Trees are an efficient and simple means of storing the carbon dioxide which we emit, as well as improving the quality of life of the impoverished community. Even before the audit was done, Backsberg has already been a proponent of tree-planting and FTFA estimates that some 3,442 trees have been planted on the estate over the past 10 years. This tree planting on the estate will continue in tandem with the greening project under the supervision of FTFA.
Although tree planting is important in neutralising greenhouse gases, it is equally important to develop conservation-oriented practices and becoming more energy efficient for long-term sustainability. For this reason, Backsberg employs a full-time environmentalist on the estate and strives to apply stringent conservation practices in every facet of farming and wine production. The estate’s other initiatives include the use of biodiesel (made from recycled vegetable oil) in all their vehicles; the generation of renewable energy on the farm (sloar and wind power); reduction of the estate’s total energy demand (timers, energy efficient bulbs and the use of skylights for natural light; burning waste wood to heat a “hot water donkey” system for washing the barrels; a review of their packaging (especially in terms of glass weight); and development of methane digester technology which will use waste from the farm’s poultry sheds as fuel.
According to Back, the estate has learnt a lot over the period of the Carbon Neutral project, particularly that changing their practices to become more environmentally careful has cost little to date. In fact, they see opportunities to achieve substantial savings over time. For now, though, all Backberg’s wines proudly display their Carbon Neutral certification on the label and the estate provides a viable model for how a proactive business can go greener without forfeiting profitability. And if, as Back predicts, consumers are increasingly going to demand carbon neutral wines, then Backsberg will be their logical choice.
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