When red is green

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2009, 12:00am

For investment banker Jason Scott and his wife Jennifer a love of wine and an interest in the environment pointed to one logical conclusion. Rather than just visiting the world's wine regions on holiday, sampling vintages and touring estates, they should aim to start their own vineyard and run it on fully organic principles.

The idea crystallised during a 1998 trip to South Africa with friends - and now business partners - George and Vanessa Austin, and little over a decade later Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards (TMV) is not just operating successfully, but winning plaudits from international professionals for the quality of its wines and the sustainability of its approach.

'We had spent a lot of time travelling through Europe's wine areas when I was based in Frankfurt and wanted to be involved in the business in some way,' says Scott, who, when not discussing rootstock or irrigation systems, is overseeing prime services and listed derivatives for Credit Suisse in Singapore. 'It had been no more than a distant aim, but when visiting the wineries in South Africa together, we saw that properties were available and started to think seriously about investing.'

Apart from a favourable exchange rate, what stood out at the time was the great sense of hope and optimism as the country came out of apartheid. There was also a wave of talented young winemakers, expert in the technicalities of viticulture and production, and a straightforward set of legal requirements.

'There was the feeling this was a real opportunity,' Scott says. 'We just found the people were fantastic and thought this was our chance to make good quality wine.' A huge amount of research followed into everything from soil types and average rainfall to grape varietals and natural vegetation. It resulted in the decision to buy a roughly 190-hectare hill farm in the Western Cape region, about 85 kilometres from the Atlantic coastline.

Most of the land, which previously had been used to raise cattle, stretched across a north-west facing slope of the Witzenberg mountains and was at an elevation of between 380 metres and 480 metres above sea level. As such, it would get good sunlight during the growing season, cool nights, low summer rainfall, a dry prevailing wind and lowish daytime temperatures allowing slower ripening. Site tests and soil analysis showed the area should be particularly suitable for red grape varieties such as syrah, mourvedre and cabernet sauvignon.

'We bought in early 2000 and the process started almost immediately,' Scott says. 'We were able to rip the soil, do the surveys, build a dam and plant the first vines in June and July.'

In the second year, the area under cultivation grew from four to 16 hectares, with a drip irrigation system installed to give each block of vines the specific moisture required and apply compost teas. And, in 2003, attention switched to building a cellar to receive the first small vintage ready later that year and completing certification as a recognised organic producer.

From day one, the whole philosophy had been to create quality wines that genuinely drew their character from the soil, prevailing climate and natural growing environment. As a result, there was no use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides or insecticides on the estate and all husbandry, including the harvest, was done by hand. Ground cover crops had been chosen to reduce erosion and control weeds, and 50 hectares had been specially set aside as a conservation area to promote biodiversity and protect indigenous vegetation.

'Basically, the premise of being organic is to start with the soil and to reflect that in the bottle,' Scott says. 'Quite a lot of the Rhone, Loire and Burgundy wines do it this way, so we are following traditional footsteps, but in South Africa it is rare. We are the only organic producer, but some of the bigger guys are now looking at it and setting aside space for conservation.'

He notes that, for TMV, the guiding principle extends to practising low intervention cellar techniques. No chemicals or acids are used in the wine-making process and the only additives are those allowed under approved organic standards. The wines mature in French oak barrels.

A next step towards self-sustaining 'biodynamic production' will be to start raising organic sheep and cattle on different parts of the property. The plan is for the livestock to provide manure, keep unwanted vegetation and weeds down, and, in a couple of years, contribute revenue from organic lamb and beef sales.

As a long-distance owner, Scott employs a viticulturist, winemaker, a foreman, and three other permanent staff, bringing in temporary workers to help with the pruning and harvest. General strategy and annual budgets for the following year are decided during family visits each Christmas and, with an experienced team on site, he has no real cause to worry unduly about day-to-day issues.

'The directional stuff doesn't take that much time and there haven't been too many disasters,' he says. 'We have had some variable yields, but if we lost some grapes to leaf-eating bugs, baboons or fungal infections, we would just cut down on the quantity that year to make sure of having the quality.'

He feels strongly that the one thing you can not afford to outsource is quality control. Therefore, he expects to be involved in regular discussions with the winemaker about projected yields and progress with the organics, while entrusting client-related and marketing issues to his wife.

With maturity, vines that initially gave around two tonnes of grapes per hectare are now yielding four or five tonnes, making it possible to produce between 50,000 and 80,000 bottles per year. For practical reasons, some grapes are also bought in to make a white wine and a sweet wine which, logically, are not certified as organic.

The original vintage and still the standard-bearer is the Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards 'Theta'. Made from the year's best grapes and only released if 'exceptionally good', it has won praise from respected critics and helped TMV gain international attention.

'In terms of marketing, we have reached a point where we feel distributors appreciate what we have got to offer,' Scott says. 'You have to spend time finding the right distributors, and we have a very sympathetic one in Hong Kong. If the guy understands what you are doing and supports that, then you support him with price and allocation, so there's a mutual benefit.'

Though now selling to an increasing number of international markets, Scott emphasises that profit has never been a motive, and that is not going to change. The objective has always been to break even and, should it become possible, to reinvest any surplus in improving the business and the property.

'We started out with the attitude that we didn't intend to make money out of making wine,' he says. 'The basis was to make quality wine and help the local community, and we set out with the idea that if we lost our investment, it wouldn't be a nightmare.'

His advice to anyone considering a similar venture is to observe certain rules: be sure at the start how much you want to put in, stick to that, and be prepared to lose it all.

It is also important never to stop talking to people in the industry, who were generally open with advice and ideas and very willing to help.

'We haven't got an end game,' Scott says. 'At the moment, we are playing it by ear and having a lot of fun. It is going fine and there is no pressure to divest.'