A watershed moment in sustainable global viticulture

Published by Sally on April 20, 2011

A much shorter version of this was first published in the Drinks Business, January 2011.

 We may live in a water-world with water, water everywhere, but more than 97% of the earth’s water is too salty to be drunk or be used in agriculture and industry. Most of the remaining 3% is deep underground or, even now, frozen in ice. Less than 1% of the world’s total water is usable for domestic use, farming and industry. Of this agriculture uses some 70%.  The availability of even this 0.7% of  water is increasingly unreliable, being intimately linked to climate, and therefore becoming less predictable in the face of more extreme climate events, such as extreme flood events in some countries; long term drought in others.

As it becomes more recognised that water is the new gold, stewardship programmes for water management are being created to develop systems of sustainable river basin management, considering issues such as water risk, availability, quantity, quality, and fair-share usage. 

The South African wine industry has been first out of the blocks in thinking about water from the perspective of water boundaries, i.e. catchment, or watershed, areas, which often bear no relationship to geopolitical or parish boundaries.  This approach is out of necessity, Inge Kotze, BWI co-ordinator for the WWF in South Africa said, “our wine industry is located in one of South Africa’s most water stressed provinces – where demand [for water] is already outstripping supply … wine industry expansion is curtailed largely by water availability or lack thereof.” Su Birch, CEO of WOSA added “the increasing cost of water will help drive home the awareness that we need to do something.”

Kotze pointed out the fast pace of change in environmental standards, saying “three years ago no-one had heard of a carbon calculator.  It is the same journey of learning with water footprints: standards and labelling. We need the wine industry to get on the front foot.”

So whilst the global industry may already be familiar with the concept of waste water management, Birch emphasised, “waste water management is different from reducing water usage.” The treatment and re-use of waste water is already monitored as part of the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW), and she added “WOSA is going to work with BWI over the next 12 months to start promoting water neutrality to all our producers.”

Alien invasion

Clearing alien vegetation at Vergelegen

Clearing alien vegetation at Vergelegen

The industry has already identified alien plant species as one of the single biggest threats to water neutrality in the Cape. They use much more water than native species and burn more regularly and at higher temperatures … and, said Kotze, “planting alien trees that grow the fastest to carbon off-set is a shocking disincentive to addressing real carbon neutrality.”

As an agricultural product the key building blocks for grapes are healthy soils and a sufficient quantity of good-enough quality water.  But in South Africa, said Kotze, “invasive alien species, such as black wattle and pine, are degrading our soil and water catchments, and altering the natural fire regime.”

Infrequent fires are an essential part of the Cape Floral Kingdom in which the Cape winelands nestle. Kotze said “in the Western Cape, fire is our friend when it comes appropriately every eight years or longer.” She said “the 2009 fires burnt for five weeks. At Lourensford, which hadn’t burnt for 12 years, 660 species were discovered soon after, so the seed bank comes back once the alien species are cleared. But over 240 acres burnt in both December 2008 and January 2009” which is too frequent. And the wine industry is also severely affected by these fires.

Not only are alien vegetation fires too frequent, they cause large scale damage to infrastructure and soil, as well as threatening property and lives. Because alien vegetation comprises woody, tall trees, Kotze said, they “result in a very high biomass or fuel load, so fires are very hot and prolonged, whereas most fynbos is just that – fine bush, usually growing to hip level, with far lower fuel load / biomass.” Added to which fynbos burns at low intensity heat in short-lived fires due to the lower biomass.

Alien vegetation fires bake soils, which prevents rain water being absorbed. Run off and rapid erosion result.   


Fires are one thing, but alien vegetation has also been invading the natural wetlands of the Cape. Kotze said “the entire lowlands of the Western Cape – all the flat area in and around Cape Town, up the west coast and along the southern coast were all seasonal wetlands, all underpinned by huge groundwater aquifers in the Table Mountain sandstone.”

In an epoch of climate change wetlands are a frontline defence against moderating extreme climatic events. They act as a buffer between precipitation events and demand for water by capturing water and slowing down run off. They also filter pollutants before allowing a slow replenishing of groundwater aquifers. 

Rivers flow again at Boschendal

Rivers flow again at Boschendal

The Western Cape wetlands, already threatened by urban development have been eroded by alien vegetation literally sucking the life force out of them. Kotze said alien species are “enormous users of water, eucalypts use up to 300 litres per tree, per day in riparian areas on a hot summer day.”  The worst culprits are blue gums, black and silver wattles. 

The strategy of water catchment stewardship would demand they be replaced with natural fynbos. “When the alien trees are removed, the wetlands reappear” said Birch, and “when the wetlands return, the indigenous flora and fauna around them return.”

Kotze said “these groundwater systems form a critical component of our water provisioning strategies,” adding they “will be developing a freshwater stewardship component to the BWI, whereby producers can choose to participate in either the conservation of critically endangered veld types (as they are currently doing) and/ or freshwater habitats (rivers, tributaries or wetlands and estuaries).”  In Elim, Dirk Human of Black Oystercatcher Wines said the hippo is “the latest addition to our wetlands, the first time in 120 years that they’ve been back.” This initiative is part of the Nuwejaars Wetlands area where private land from 25 land owners has been committed to conservation and more sustainable farming.

Elsewhere in the world

South Africa may be the only wine producing country currently looking at an industry-wide initiative, but producers in other water-stressed countries are also taking a leading position.   

New Chilean vineyards

New Chilean vineyards

Chile’s largest producer, Viña Concha y Toro, having already measured their carbon footprint for the past three years, is the first winery to be measuring its water footprint.  Laura Noguer, their sustainable development manager said “this is an additional step in our sustainable development strategy and an important sign of our commitment to preserving the environment and its resources.”

In January 2010 Concha y Toro linked up with Fundación Chile and the Water Footprint Network (WFN), an international organisation aimed at promoting a move to sustainable and equitable fresh water use.

Noguer explained “The water footprint of a company measures directly and indirectly used water and it is a multidimensional [measurement] of ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how much’ water is consumed, and polluted, considering the whole product supply chain.

“It also explains the type of water that is being used, for example, rainwater (green water), surface and groundwater (blue water), or polluted water (grey water).  The water footprint aims to determine all water consumption at all links in the chain, which are not available for the downstream water system: water that is evaporated (crop evapo-transpiration), withheld (dams) or is otherwise removed from the system (civil works to move water over long distances). Under this logic, contaminated water is water which is not available for later use, and therefore also computed. This methodology, which measures only the outputs of the system, has the advantage that does not allow double counting of water.”

While Concha y Toro wait for the results, potential actions are being discussed for water-use reduction, according to what the results reveal.

Errazuriz has followed in the (water) footsteps of Concha y Toro, and is also working on their water footprint in conjunction with WFN. Head winemaker Franciso Baettig said they will “calculate the Errázuriz water footprint during this season (productive year 2010-2011) by process and product.  The idea is to create an index of the water use in the vineyard and in the cellar. The second stage is to use this information in order to diminish the use of water and become more efficient in water use.”   

They are already anticipating changes to both practices and equipment. Baettig said “we are evaluating the replacement of our earth filters with crossflow filters which require less water for cleaning and washing the equipment and don’t generate earth to be disposed of.” And he added they are thinking how they can “recover all the lees from barrels which will diminish the water consumption for cleaning.”

Liquid waste treatment lagoons at Elgo, Strathbogie

Liquid waste treatment lagoons at Elgo, Strathbogie

Over in Australia, which, until the 2010/2011 season, had mostly been in drought since 2001, there are no industry-wide initiatives akin to the South Africa example. Though Amy Russell, recently the natural resource management coordinator at the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia and now consultant to the industry via Naturalogic, said winemaking water issues now come under the aegis of the broad environment and wine –  EntWine – program.

She highlighted the logic for a co-ordinated watershed-wide strategy, saying that “for example, in 2008/09, South Australian irrigators were only able to access 16% of their allocation because of the lack of rainfall in the Murray-Darling river system from where their irrigation water is drawn.” Already, she added, private “farm dams must be licensed so that the government can ensure that the landholder isn’t storing too much water and reducing availability to other users in the catchment.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, specific water-reduction and conservation measures are already being adopted. Russell said “conversion to drip irrigation is largely complete, with research now turning to sub-surface irrigation as potentially even more efficient. Partial root-zone drying and regulated deficit irrigation are being used with some success. In the winery, water use efficiency practices include rainwater collection from shed roofs, wastewater treatment for re-use, trigger nozzles on hoses, and dry brushing to clean equipment prior to switching on the hose.”

This sort of reduction of water use in the winery is relevant the world over, and in France, Fitou co-operative Mont Tauch is a founding member of the ‘vinegrowers in sustainable development’ movement, a certified system of improving viticultural sustainability. Among the projects that form part of this certification are a limit on water consumption, and managing waste water. They found water to clean equipment is one of the biggest users of this resource, with a machine-harvester being an especially high user, so the co-op has installed a meter to track the total quantities of cleaning water used, and have started using a pressurised water jet to reduce usage.

Research by the French water agency has been monitoring water use in the area for the past ten years, and Mont Tauch has been involved for the last five years.  This has shown that their more sustainable viticulture has “had a positive impact on the quality and protection of water” according to Jerôme Collas, their vineyard manager, adding, “we’ve done fewer treatments, so less weed killer goes into the water”, and at their Montmal estate he added “we measured water usage two years ago.  And then put on restrictions to reduce usage, by using medium pressure rather than high pressure.”

Pushing the boundaries

As biodiversity goes beyond the perimeters of the property, so does water stewardship. It goes beyond the important parameters of reducing water use and treating waste water. With effective and sustainable water stewardship, downstream shouldn’t be the worst place to be.


2 Responses to “A watershed moment in sustainable global viticulture”

  1. Luis Gurovich Says:

    Dear Sally: I was not able to find your last name in the article. I am preparing a presentation for Mondiavitis next June on Hidric Sustainability of Viticulture and would like very much to cite your work. Can you please provide me with backup references / papers on the subject?


    Luis Gurovich

  2. Sally Says:

    Hi Luis
    I’m delighted you liked the article enough to want to cite it in your presentation. See ‘About’ for a few biographical details about me which should give you all the relevant material to reference the article.

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