Great wine with a clear conscience – Graham Beck Wines

Mossie Basson, conservation manager at Graham Beck Wines in Robertson, has developed a conservation plan that has rehabilitated poor soils and decreased chemical and water use, while increasing the natural resilience of vineyards. All this is helping the vines to produce better quality grapes. Denene Erasmus reports.

If it were not for the giant South African flag marking the entrance to the Graham Beck farm, Madeba, in Robertson, one could easily fail to notice the green-domed cellar and winery, so effectively does it blend into the surrounding Klein Karoo veld. But at Graham Beck Wines, winner of many international awards, respect for nature does not start and end with a cleverly designed building. It is at the heart of everything this winemaker does.

Conservation comes first
After spending 27 years working for the government’s department of conservation, Mossie Basson was appointed as Graham Beck Wines’ conservation manager. In the 10 years that he has occupied this post, nothing on the farm has escaped the reach of his green fingers. The renowned Graham Beck, who died in 2010, employed Mossie to develop a conservation philosophy for the farm. In collaboration with the management team, Mossie developed a plan based on the following principles:

  • Find the best, proven environmental option;
  • Establish the most economical way of applying that option;
  • Create incentives to inspire neighbours and the wider community to implement more environmentally friendly practices.

“Our top priorities are to rehabiliate where necessary and to restrict any impact that our farming operations have on the ecology,” stresses Mossie. Under his spirited guidance, Graham Beck Wines became an early forerunner in an initiative to conserve the biodiversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom. It remains one of only 28 wineries in South Africa to be awarded champion status by the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative.

Mossie did much of the rehabilitation work to revive the Graham Beck Private Nature Reserve on Madeba farm, which is situated in the succulent Karoo ecosystem. He turned part of this land, which had been an overgrazed livestock farm, into an almost pristine conservancy. He also led the way for the establishment of the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy. Mossie’s efforts did not stop there. He launched a massive on-site recycling and waste management programme, which handles not only Madeba farm’s waste on-site but that of neighbouring farms too.

Conserving the Cape Floral Kingdom
“About 90% of South Africa’s wine is produced on land that falls within the Cape Floral Kingdom area – one of the most threatened floral kingdoms in the world,” explains Mossie. “Some 80% of this land is in private ownership, so it’s up to landowners to conserve this rare and fragile eco-system.” The rehabilitation work that he and his team have done in the Graham Beck Private Game Reserve includes clearing alien vegetation, stabilising eroded areas and re-establishing indigenous plants.

“The loss of indigenous biomass on the property had caused severe erosion over the years,” recalls Mossie. “To reverse the effect of erosion and revive the veld, we re-seeded the area with seeds harvested from indigenous plants. “Badly eroded and sensitive areas had to be fenced off and filled in with soil. We then strategically stacked dried branches sourced from the farm to protect the barren areas from eroding still further. This also created areas where the sown seeds were more likely to germinate and grow successfully.”

By implementing these interventions consistently over 10 years, Mossie and his team have increased the indigenous biomass by 46%, while decreasing soil erosion by 42%. In May 2006, the 1 885ha of the Graham Beck Private Game Reserve was registered with CapeNature as a voluntary conservation site. Just over a year later, 27 neighbouring landholders joined the conservation effort by establishing the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy, which comprises 13 500ha of natural vegetation.

“On Madeba, for every one hectare of land used for producing wine or for stud horse farming, we conserve 4,5ha,” says Mossie. He firmly believes, though, that farmers should not limit conservation to a conservancy, but apply conservation principles to their farming operations.

Better farming for better wine
When Mossie arrived at Graham Beck Wines, he found that decades of conventional farming practice had caused severe degradation of soil in the vineyards. To rectify this, he and his team launched an extensive vine renewal programme. “The soils in some of the vineyards were so degraded that we had to rip out the vineyards and start from scratch,” explains Mossie.

“After taking out the vines, we planted lucerne and eragrostis tef, an annual grass, both of which we harvest to make hay for the horses on the Beck family’s Highlands Stud farm here in Robertson.” For three years in a row, they have grown lucerne and eragrostis tef in a seasonal rotation cycle. Plant rests have been retained on the land to increase the soil’s organic matter content.

Mossie takes great care to match the unique micro-climates and diverse soil types to the most suitable wine grape varieties. “Before we plant a single shoot, soil transitions are mapped on a grid using infra-red technology. Soil samples are taken from inspection pits dug within the grid, and mapped into a geographical information system. This helps us to choose grape varieties that match the soil type and geology.”

To keep soils healthy and rich in nutrients, the team adds rich, organic carbon compost and mulch produced on the farm. Cover crops planted between the rows are then worked into the soil. “We prepare our compost from cuttings of alien plants, grape skins, stalks, straw and horse manure from the Highlands Stud,” says Mossie. Nutritional deficiencies are investigated using leafstalk analyses. Where needed, nitrogen fertiliser is applied. Herbicides are used with care and the types changed regularly to prevent weed-resistance.

“Our pest and disease control strategies are based on science and a balanced-population philosophy,” explains Mossie. “We use our automated weather stations to gauge expected spore generation for the main disease types. In this way, we’re able to use fungicides preventatively and sparingly.”

He adds that pesticides are used only in winter to spot-control mealy bug. For the rest, they rely entirely on wild flocks of guinea fowl and other birds to keep pest populations under control. “We’ve decreased the amount of chemicals used in the vineyards by 78% over the last five years and the vineyards are now far more resistant to certain diseases than they were before. Recent soil analysis shows that at least the top 5cm to 7cm of the soil is free of chemical build-up.”

In harmony with nature
“If we humans hope to undo some of the damage done to our natural resources and environment, we need to act now,” Mossie says with passion. He walks the talk, constantly looking for new and better ways to farm in greater harmony with nature. Most recently, in a bid to increase yields without using more natural resources, he and his team started experimenting with an innovative trellising system. The V-shaped trellises allow two rows of vines to be planted in the place of one, doubling the number of vines on the same land.

Mossie believes it is crucial to write down conservation goals and plan accordingly. “This doesn’t mean that you need big fancy schemes. The key is simply to be more mindful of the impact of everything you do. Make certain that at the end of the day, you give back to nature as much as you take from it. Better still, give back more.”

The Game Reserve wines
A portion of the income generated through sales of Graham Beck Wines’ latest conservation initiative, The Game Reserve range of wines, is used for the benefit of ongoing conservation. One unit of the local currency where the wine is sold – for example, one US dollar or one rand – is invested in the Graham Beck Private Game Reserve for every bottle of wine sold.

The labels on the bottles depict animals or plants endemic to the region and the nature reserve. The Chenin Blanc label, for instance, features the critically endangered riverine rabbit, while the Sauvignon Blanc label has an illustration of a fish eagle. A rare, new succulent species, the Esterhuysenia grahambeckii, discovered on the estate in 2010, appears on the label of The Game Reserve Rosé.

Contact Mossie Basson on 023 626 1214 or visit www.grahambeckwines.co.za.