From sustainability to regeneration: The wine industry’s revitalising journey

By: Food Focus on 18 January 2023

From sustainability to regeneration: The wine industry’s revitalising journey

Regenerative business is the new sustainability. Wine farms across the globe, from Troon in the USA and Domaine Bousquet in Argentina to Spier here at home, are practising regenerative farming, which looks after the soil in which the vines grow. Here's why.

In a world of instant gratification and disposable culture, restoring and building rather than simply maintaining is becoming new best practice in viticulture. Conventional farming methods, which typically use herbicides to eliminate weeds, add fertilizers to replace what plants have taken out of the soil, and deal with pests and diseases with systemic fungicides and insecticides, are being replaced with a closed-loop system of nurturing and care that not only looks after the planet but also produces superior crops.

UK plant biologist and wine blogger Jamie Goode, who last year published his book Regenerative Viticulture, explains that vines are simply part of a more complex below-ground ecosystem ‘encompassing fungi, bacteria, insects, nematodes, arthropods and worms, as well as plant roots’. Regenerative farming looks to support and nourish this ecology.

Spier is one South African farm that is a long way down the road of transitioning from sustainability to regeneration, an achievement that was recognised in 2019 when it won the Biodiversity Award at the international Drinks Business Green Awards for its ambitious indigenous replanting programme, and more recently last year, when it took home the Ethical Award, which is given to a business that is committed to improving and benefiting surrounding communities, and that carries out best ethical practices in its day-to-day operations.

‘The concept of sustainability was useful in that it allowed us to understand the environmental and social challenges we were facing, but a preservation mentality does not take one into the future,’ says co-owner Mariota Enthoven. ‘Investing in a circular economy makes sense, as it creates a vital, generous, abundant space that supports both ecosystems and communities.’

Or, as Heidi Newton-King, Spier’s sustainability and human resources director puts it, referring to Spier’s pioneering journey into regenerative farming, ‘It’s not just about managing risk, or cutting down on emissions, but changing what we want the future to look like.’


What does it entail?

‘Everything starts with the soil, as we tell the viticulture and oenology students who visit the winery,’ says Spier’s managing director, Frans Smit.

And indeed, a key aspect of regenerative viticulture is cover cropping to get the soil working properly. ‘It’s really important to have things [other than vines] growing in soils to have life in them, and thus good levels of soil organic material,’ explains Goode.

Another is about not disturbing the soil – while tilling deals with weeds effectively, it disrupts soil structure and the delicate ecological balance of soil life.

Then there’s the vexed issue of water. ‘Water preservation will be the biggest issue in years to come, with the growing population in the Western Cape, and agriculture will come under huge pressure,’ says Smit.

South Africa isn’t the only country facing this issue. Most of the moisture supplying Argentina’s vineyards originates high in the Andes mountains in the form of glaciers and melting snowfall, and climate change has lessened the amount of moisture available in groundwater and for agricultural purposes. Water conservation measures are therefore constant priorities.

Healthy soils sequester carbon, which improves the soil’s ability to hold water, increasing resilience in hot conditions and meaning that less water is needed to get the same result. Using regenerative farming practices ‘allows us to preserve the quality, health and biodiversity of our soils and their ecosystems, which subsequently can absorb greater quantities of CO2 than conventionally farmed soils,’ says Anne Bousquet, president of Domaine Bousquet in the Mendoza wine region, which has used organic and regenerative farming since its vineyards were planted in 1999.


Every little bit helps

For even the most enthusiastic and well-meaning of farmers, however, a total overhaul of conventional methods may not be possible. But an immediate entire transition isn’t necessary. American organic and biodynamic consultant Andrew Beedy says that if a full-scale revamp isn’t feasible, conventional farmers should use any biodynamic practices they can work into their system. And ‘the more people we have doing it, the better’, he adds.

Craig Camp, general manager of Troon Vineyards in Oregon, USA, who partnered with Beedy to transition from conventional farming to a regenerative operation, understands that it may be a long-term endeavour, but stresses that it’s worth it to rebuild soils using the vineyard’s natural resources. ‘Regenerative [agriculture] improves soils, vines and wine forever,’ he says.

Locally, Johan Reyneke from Reyneke Wines and Jasper Raats from Longridge Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, both of whom practise biodynamic farming, concede that converting a farm to biodynamic or organic represents risks in the short term, but that among the long-term gains are better yields, fruit quality and soil quality.


The planet shouldn’t pay for your profit

The regenerative business model is one that all farms should consider emulating, particularly considering the reporting requirements of the international Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, which aims to develop recommendations on the types of information companies should disclose to investors and lenders. Companies that get ahead of the curve managing climate-, nature- and biodiversity-related risks will have the upper hand in a rapidly changing business environment.

But companies require a strategy that allows them to remain commercially viable while making the transition to regenerative business, which will ultimately pay off. Every business must be commercially viable, but the aim is to make a profit without costing the planet.

As Newton-King puts it, ‘You can’t have a sustainable business in an unsustainable world.’