writer: Maryke Roberts photography: Dewald Kirsten
We spend the day with Simon Grier who has looked after the 170 hectares of vineyard for the past 35 years. His wingmen are the vineyard managers Christie Franse and John Williams. Harvest yield is a conservative 8 tons/ha to ensure the best fruit quality.
Outside the tasting room the game viewing vehicle is ready and Simon explains that the farm operation relies on various divisions: conservation, economic sustainability and social responsibility, but that the latter was more or less taken out of their hands with the start of the Pebbles Project. This project has now expanded to other regions as well, with Villiera remaining the headquarters.
Villiera Wines, the Grier’s family farm in Koelenhof just outside Stellenbosch, are pioneers on various levels, from the wine Industry to nature conservation: sustainable farming practices, the first wine and MCC supplier to Woolworths and the owner of the 2017 The Drinks Business Green Company of the Year Award.
The Grier family is the fourth generation in the family-owned business. Grandfather Jack Grier arrived in South Africa from England in the 1920’s. After completing his studies at Elsenburg, he started a chicken farming business. The second generation Griers, Robin and Alexander senior, took the business to the next level and formed County Fair, a value-added poultry business and also planted vineyards. The third generation, cousins Jeff and Simon and sister Cathy, were more interested in what you could have to drink with chicken and formed the wine business Villiera, in 1983.
At present Jeff is the manager and the cellar master. Simon is the viticulturist and Cathy Brewer is responsible for marketing and exports. Both Jeff and Cathy are Cape Masters of Wine. Alexander Grier and Nathan Valentine are the winemakers working under the guidance of Jeff. Alexander is the first of the fourth generation Griers to work on the farm.
The farm comprising of 400 ha consists of a wine cellar, tasting room and game ranch. The Pebbles Project empowers children of farm workers and even has a traveling toy library. There is a complete clinic, the Owethu Clinic, also accessible to farmworkers from neighbouring farms, an educational centre and aftercare on the farm.
In 2006 Villiera started spreading its wings internationally and bought a small wine farm in the Roussillon region in the south of France. Domaine Grier is a 22-hectare vineyard and cellar close to St Paul de Fenouillet. Varieties cultivated on the farm include Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Maccabeau and Chardonnay.
Villiera is well known for its highly awarded Méthode Cap Classique (MCC). South African wine farms are not allowed to use the word “champagne”, only sparkling wine from Champagne, France may use that name. The name Cape Classique honours the fact that the classical art of winemaking was introduced to the Cape by the French Huguenots. MCC describes the process of bottle fermented sparkling wine made in the Cape. It also indicates that it is made in the traditional fashion, like champagne, with a second fermentation in the bottle, the méthode champenoise technique.
Villiera also produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their range of wines comprises 7 white wines, 6 red wines and 5 MCC.
ACCREDITED FARM GENERATES OWN ELECTRICITY
Villiera is accredited by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) and has BBBEE accreditation through their support for these projects. As we drive away from the farm, you can see that the roofs of all the farm buildings are covered by solar power panels. They can generate 172 kW, supplying the whole farm with electricity
Golf carts are used for farm work. These carts are recharged with solar power and has no harmful emissions. Apart from all the accreditations, their wines are also vegan friendly. It is evident that conservation, sustainability and social upliftment is second nature for the Griers.
RAINWATER IRRREGATES THE VINEYARDS
Simon shows us the very long cutters running right around all the stores and the cellar, next to which a big water tank is mounted. All the rainwater running from the roof, is pumped into the irrigation systems. “With our roof surface area covering almost one hectare, every millimetre of rain supplies us with 10 000 litres of water. And with an average rainfall of 700 mm per annum, we are thankful for enough water, especially due to its high quality.” The rainwater is mixed with the draining water of a lesser quality and is then used for irrigation. Water used in the bottling plant, is re-circulated.
The cellar has been expanded on numerous occasions since the first bricks were laid in the forties and can handle 2 800 tonnes of grapes. Jeff says they believe visitors should experience the wonders of the production process and for that reason self-guided tours were introduced in 1996 providing an overview of all the activities. According to Simon they buy grapes from other farms to maintain sustainability. “One never knows how the future can influence our farm.”
ITALIA SUCKERING METHODES UTILISED HERE
Simon stops next to a block of vines where a team is busy to sucker the vines in silence. It is unusual for the workers not to chatter like a swarm of finches. He explains that their intensive pruning course with the company Simonit and Sirch is the reason for the silence. Suckering is now not only methodical or randomly, workers need to inspect every vine thoroughly before they decide where to prune. The workers’ decision in the vineyard is continued the next year by the next worker and this is how you ensure new wood on old vines,” he explains.
The technique will not necessarily increase the yield, but it extends the life span of the vines. Initially the programme ran for three years, but Villiera is currently in their fifth year and is literally bearing the fruits of this He explains that the costs for establishing one hectare of vines can be between R175 000 and R200 000. In other words, for every hectare of old vines they can utilise longer, they indirectly save on these costs.
“Over the past 16 years we have not planted any new vineyards. This is madness if you ask any viticulturist. We decided to utilise our vineyards for longer and that is how we ended up with the Italians.” The pruning techniques ensure that the vineyards grow new shoots every year and all the open spaces between carrier branches are utilised, without too dense growth smothering the bunches. The farm is now also a member of the Old Vines Project, conserving vines older than 35 years and ensuring better prices with producers.
The problem with their existing vineyards, he explains, is that it was initially planted to be replaced every 20 years. Now the vineyards are 30 years old and we have to replace lots of wires and posts. “I knew 35 years ago our pruning techniques were wrong and it is tragic how many vines we have already lost.” Simon admits that it is very difficult to invest in your farm if you are uncertain about the future. “And it is bad for tourism, for the country as a whole and for job opportunities,” he says.
“It is an unbelievably difficult time to start something new on a wine farm, because of the drought of the past few years. We also do not bring in any compost into the vineyards, it is just too expensive, so we rather try to sow coverage between the vineyards,” he explains.
Most of their vineyards were dryland vineyards and according to him farmers spoilt the vineyards by starting with irrigation. Now the vines suffer twice as much in the drought as they are used to irrigation, the rainfall is less and the soil drier. About 20 percent of their vineyards are still dryland cultivated.
GAME PARK ON THE WINE FARM
In 2009 Villiera and their neighbours, Cape Garden Centre and Wild Clover Farm, reserved 220 ha for a game park. The park includes, amongst others, 12 dams with estuaries attracting many bird species. A wide variety of game was established on the farm, including kudu, springbok, giraffes, bonteboks, eland, oryx, black wildebeest, bush pigs, Burchell’s zebra, duikers, steenbok and grysbok.
Simon says they annually catch a few duikers and steenbok in the vineyards and then release them on the game farm because they can cause havoc in the vineyards. He shows us Table Mountain and Lion’s Head in the distance and indicates to the mountains behind us and behold, there is Little Table Mountain and Little Lion’s Head, perfect small replicas of the real ones.
Everywhere in the game camp there are smaller fenced-in camps with trees. He says the farm’s staff cultivates indigenous trees in old milk holders and plastic water bottles and when they are about nine months old, the farm buys it from them and plant them on the farm. Thousands of trees were also donated by Cape Garden Centre and by May 2015 a total of 100 000 trees were planted on the farm. There are 23 indigenous species and along the fence of the game camp the thorns of Acacias keep unwanted visitors out.
In a small camp a few Peking ducks are taking a bath. They are used for pest control. No insecticides are used on the farm and the ducks ensure that the vineyards are cleaned. Simon explains that until about four years ago they had 1 000 ducks, but that only 50 remain today. Over the past two years they allowed natural weed to grow between the vines, in staid of sowing rye. The snails are notably less. “Another experiment,” he laughs.
We stop at one of the many dams and look out over the yellow-billed ducks, Egyptian geese, African coots, cormorants and floaters gliding on the water. In the middle of the dam there are two installations floating on blue plastic drums. He explains that one is carrying solar panels supporting a water pump with which he can pump millions of litres of water between the dams. The second is covered by branches and grass and bird dung and explains that initially the birds used to sit on the solar panels, and he had to plan to get them to do their business elsewhere. Now many birds nest there, and the grass grows down from the installation into the dam water.
Villiera sells their honey in the tasting room – collected from 36 beehives cared for by Simon. “Actually, it is only my hobby and something I want to leave for my children, but I enjoy it.”
At one of the dams we see two recently erected wooden poles. Simon explains:” We have a pair of fish eagles regularly visiting and we hoped that if we build a nest, they would breed here.” And as if on cue, the pair flies past low over our heads and into a gigantic blue-gum tree, giving their lovely call.
Underneath the trees there are five giraffes, of which three are with young. Two young bulls are standing resting proudly in the shade on the dam wall. Blue plastic pipes tied around the tree trunks have us curious. Simon explains that they push different tree branches into the pipes to ensure a variety of feed for the animals. “Giraffe won’t eat branches lying on the ground or those hanging loose. The technique to push the branches into the pipes, comes from the Melbourne Zoo,” he says.
He also shows us how they get rid of invasive species: no Port Jackson is hacked, because some wildebeest species eat them. His team plants Acacias underneath the Port Jackson and as the Port Jackson dies, the dead branches protect the small indigenous trees underneath against hungry buck teeth until the tree is strong enough to grow further on its own.
WHAT HOLD THE FUTURE?
Back at the tasting room we sip on the Prestige Cuvee Villiera Monro Brut MCC, while I chat with Alexander. He joined the farm last year after having worked overseas and locally as a winemaker for 12 years. He says the compilation of the vineyards is currently 50% red and 50% white. “The total production on the farm is 50% Cap Classique, 25% red and 25% white,” he says. He says they plan more plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for the MCC seeing that the demand has increased dramatically. “We are known for our MCC and we believe that is where our future expansions will focus.”
Alexander is very excited about their membership of the Old Vines Project. “It is great that we can make wines from vineyards planted so long ago by Jeff and Simon. Now we can pay tribute to their hard work and the project enables us to complete the circle.” He explains that they hope to manage all their vineyards within the next five years under the Old Vines Project and his eagerness rests on the sustainability of the project.
Every decision taken, is thoroughly considered and analysed for it to have the least impact on the environment. “Simon taught all of us that you need to think before you switch on a light or open a tap. Conservation is second nature to us,” he says.
He enjoys his work on the farm and says sustainability is entrenched in every worker. “It is not only on small boutique farms where sustainability is practised. We have a large farm, but the same principals are adhered to here.” “Our continued focus is on green energy, rainwater-utilisation, effective water-usage and sustainable projects,” Cathy says while we greet.
It is necessary to book for a game drive. Send an email or call for a booking.
Farm: Villiera Wines| Owner: Simon Grier | Location: Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa | Contact: +27 (0) 865 2002/3 | www.villiera.com