Do Sustainable Practices Make Better Wine?

You’re reading this because you have some interest in eating and drinking better. Better means healthier for you, and healthier for the planet and other people. I founded a company that is based on triple-bottom-line principles; profit, people, and planet. I believe we can make good profits while also taking care of people and our planet.

But the question I’ve been thinking about for the last few days is this – does making a product while considering the planet and people, actually make the product better? For wine at least, I think the answer lies in a broader understanding of the idea of terroir.

What is Terroir?

Terrior is often defined as the “place” a wine comes from, and usually means soil and weather. But I think it should also include the people and plants and animals that share this space.

Traditionally defined terroir is identifiable within the glass of wine: certain aromas and flavors that come from the soil, sun, wind, etc. A more broad view of terroir includes aspects of “place” that cannot easily be identified within wine. The broader view includes the passion, dedication, emotions, and shared experiences of the people who tend the vines and wines. It includes the health of the soil and the degree to which the vineyard is in balance and harmony with surrounding nature.

Granted, it is easier to identify and label the specific flavors and aromas that can be tied back to the soil or weather. But, it is undeniable that wine also expresses elements, experiences, senses, and emotions which, while harder to quantify, are a part of the best and most worthwhile wine experiences we have all had. I’m talking about an expression of terroir with special richness beyond characteristics identified by the palate, and includes those elements in a glass of wine that are sensed by the heart and the soul.

In South Africa, there are amazing ancient, diverse soils, and incredible wine-growing weather. But it is the nature within which wine is made, and the people who work together to make it – it is those expressions of the place, that, to me, make South African wines really unique and special. 

Three Wines That Reflect South Africa

1. Muratie Estate
Rijk Melck, of Muratie Estate has a relatively new assistant winemaker, Simon Zeeman. Simon is a young black South African who started working on the estate as a laborer just four years ago. He showed interest and capability in winemaking. After Rijk paid for Simon to go to get a diploma in Cellar Studies where he earned top marks, Simon earned a scholarship to do an internship in Burgundy at Domaine Chevrot. Rijk paid his salary for the year he was there studying.

Last week Rijk and Simon were talking to banks trying to help arrange a loan for Simon to buy his first house, something still all too rare in South Africa despite much progress. Simon, Rijk, and winemaker Francois now bring this shared life experience to the cellar every day, and put the special teamwork and human chemistry into every bottle of Muratie wine. These human experiences and bonds are just as surely a part of terroir as the soil, and they impart things into the wine that can only be created in a place with those interactions. Not surprisingly, in their first year in the US, Muratie wines have already received two ratings of more than 91 points.

2. Cederberg
David Nieuwoudt grows grapes and makes wine in one of the most unique places in the world. For five generations his family farmed a space that now sits directly between a UN World Heritage Site and a National Wilderness Area. He farms the land with utmost care for the delicacy of this place, despite already dealing with some of the most demanding conditions in winemaking.

But his family went beyond that. They signed a long-term agreement promising to forgo commercial use of a large majority of their property. And, they aggressively remove non-native species of plants, limits pesticides and herbicides that harm the Cederberg area, and tear down fences on their property to allow for a more natural migration of animals between the two pristine nature areas. This includes the movement of baboons, which love to eat nearly ripe grapes… It always struck me as odd when grape growers use a level of pesticides that destroy just about every living thing in the soil, then refer to the influence of terroir. Cederberg wines REALLY reflect terroir as it should be; part of, and in harmony with nature. And the wines are now among the most highly acclaimed in South Africa and in the world.

3. Solms Delta
Mark Solms purchased the Solms Delta winery near the end of Apartheid so he could make great wines and try to help make a great new country. He saw the two things as inextricably linked, and set to undo the centuries of life lived with strictly predetermined destinies.

From Mark’s perspective, it not only was the right thing to do, it is the best way to make great wine; people in harmony with each other, who work together with a shared passion and sense of common vision are bound to do better work, deliver better quality, and go the extra step to ensure the wine they create is great. Solms Delta is a BEE (Black Enterprise Empowerment) winery, with black workers owning equity, and being empowered to manage major portions of the operation.  This year, Solms-Delta wines have received two 90+ ratings, and have a long string of other accolades like being named as one of the “1,000 Wines To Try Before You Die.”

These are the type of worthy wines the uniquely South African “place” is creating. I encourage you to ask your local wine merchant to suggest a great, sustainably made South African wine, go home and read a bit about it online, then pull the cork and experience a new idea of terroir. Drink better, indeed.

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4 thoughts on “Do Sustainable Practices Make Better Wine?”

  1. At the member wineries have already declared themselves in harmony with your point of view: sustainability matters. It matters enough, in fact, that many put the SIP certified seal right on their labels, so people who care can make an informed choice. Congratulations on what looks to be a great effort.

  2. What a great story to tell, especially when sipping great wine that was grown and made sustainably. I applaud you and your daughter’s efforts to not only help others, but help the planet as well. My family and I at are trying to do the same thing here in the San Francisco bay area of California. I too left my engineering job of 30 years, to do something more worthwhile, so I joined Engineers without borders, support Habitat for humanity and many other charities, employ people that life had dealt a bad hand to and so far I am much healthier for it. We are the first winery in Contra Costa County to be certified GREEN BUSINESS, we have been training our vines over the past 5 years to live of the rains from the previous winters (ie: dry farming) we compost all our vineyard and winery organic products back into the vineyard and so on. The most important thing that I completely agree with you on is the non tangible aspect of satisfaction that comes from inner peace that you are doing something for yourself, your community (locally and globally) and the planet in summary the TERROIR. I drink to that

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