[singlepic id=104 w=260 h=194 float=left]Recently, I was invited, along with a number of other ‘green’ journos and bloggers, to Backsberg Estate near Paarl to see in action all the eco-friendly initiatives that have earned the winery not only carbon-neutral status (a first among South African wineries, and one of only three in the world), but also ‘champion’ ranking within the BWI (Biodiversity and Wine Initiative).

And so, one misty morning, about two weeks ago, I hitched a ride with the greenies from Urban Sprout and headed for hills, curious to see what innovations Backsberg had in store.

Once gathered, we all sat down for coffee and listened as owner/winemaker Michael Back described his vision for the estate, and the various measures they have taken to reduce their carbon footprint and become ever more eco-friendly, whilst managing to be just as productive, if not more so.

[singlepic id=99 w=260 h=194 float=right]What was unusual, and thought-provoking, was that some of the methods employed would at first seem to fly in the face of traditional ‘greening’.  Planting a forest of invasive water-sucking trees like bluegums, for instance, seems peculiar, as does allowing alien Port Jackson to grow instead of uprooting it all like most people are doing.

And it is peculiar – I’m still getting my head around the idea – but Michael Back’s view is that these trees are only invasive if you don’t control their spread, and that their value as renewable energy crops (bluegums grow fast and burn well) and biomass (port jackson grows fast and can be chipped and turned into compost) far outweighs their overall impact on the environment.

In addition, the bluegums are irrigated with waste water from the winery, so hopefully won’t be draining the water table, and the Port Jackson grows on the poor soils of what would otherwise be unused, unfarmable land – so both crops, though alien and traditionally spurned by environmentalists, are put to good and carefully monitored use.

Other, less unconventional ways in which the estate is lowering its environmental impact include the following:

  • Allowing more natural light into farm buildings by creating skylights.  A simple low-tech and low-cost solution which instantly reduces the amount of artificial lighting required (and therefore cuts down on electricity, obviously).
  • Introducing the Lyre system layout to new vineyards.  This shift away from the standard narrow width of vineyard spacing to wider rows with V-shaped vines (it’s quite something to see) is just as productive, or more so, whilst requiring fewer resources (installation is simpler and less resource-intensive, and maintenance involves fewer tractors).  There’s a detailed explanation here.
  • Increasing the space between fruit tree trellises from 6m to 7m.  This means fewer poles are required overall, which in turn means less transport, labour and fewer other raw materials.  That’s a saving not only environmentally, but in terms of cost, as well.  
  • Downsizing from fuel-heavy farm vehicles (cars, bakkies, tractors) to smaller, more efficient versions, when they need to be replaced.
  • Encouraging rootstock to grow wild below the vines, covering the soil.  Not only does this hinder weeds from growing (which then have to be eliminated, usually in a not so eco-friendly way), it also cools the soil naturally, lowering the irrigation required and saving water.
  • Using a Varispeed controller to control the volume and pressure of irrigation water (maximum output at lowest amount of power possible).
  • Changing harvesting hours from 7.30am to a much earlier 3.30am.  Because most of the harvesting (done with headlamps) is done in the cool of early morning, grape temperatures are lower, and less refrigeration is required during processing.
  • Converting from heavy weight to light weight glass bottles means Backsberg will bring in and ship out about 75 tonnes less glass per year.  
  • Utilising straw bale insulation around their two main water tanks means the estate uses virtually no daytime (peak) power for the cooling of their cellar buildings (easier on the power grid, and more cost effective, because of the reduced rate for off-peak power)
  • Using dam water to cool their red wines during fermentation.  Instead of having to rely on electricity-powered refrigeration, the estate circulates cool water from the dam (water temperature remains a constant 15 degrees below 3-4 metres) into cooling plates and then back out to the dam.

The list of green initiatives goes on, including carbon-offsetting by planting of nearly 1000 trees in neighbouring Klapmuts, setting aside 10% of their land for biodiversity conservation, devoting an additional 10% of their land to renewable energy crop-planting (like the bluegums), propagating their own trees in an onsite nursery and creating their own compost (instead of trucking it in).

[singlepic id=106 w=260 h=194 float=left]Impressive indeed, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, especially riding on the back of a bakkie, around the estate!

Best of all, for me, though, was the realisation that ‘going green’ doesn’t have to cost more, as seems to be the general perception.  Sure, if you’re going to do it all at once, and replace everything without using up what you already have… then it’s likely to require a substantial outlay. 

But, implement those changes as things come up for expiry (vines that need replanting, vehicles needing replacing), and it starts making a lot of sense.

Here’s a winery that has managed to become carbon neutral, be more productive and cut costs – without compromising the quality of its wines…

Where moral and environmental pressures might not budge a wine farm owner to be more eco-friendly, I’ll bet the cost-saving and increased productivity aspects just might, and even if that’s all that motivates other wineries to follow in Backsberg’s green footsteps, it’s still all the better for the planet, so hats off to them for setting what I hope will become a trend!

PS.  Read Urban Sprout’s great article on the outing: ‘no holy cows for Backsberg


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