Stellar Winery leads the way in organic farming

Date posted:
July 24, 2009

Stellar Organic Winery, situated in Trawal 275 km north of Cape Town on the N7, is the largest producer of fine organic wines in South Africa. The privately owned cellar makes use of a semi-arid climate, unrivalled refrigeration capacity and extensive in-house engineering skills to produce modern, organic Fairtrade wines.


Situated in an area famous for its spring flowers and the only semi-arid biosphere hotspot in the world, the cellar processes upwards of 13,500 tons of organic grapes from 12 farms straddling the northern boundary of the Olifants River wine region (now known as the West Coast Wine Route) and Namaqualand.


Working closely with the farms, winemaker Dudley Wilson has built a reputation for producing innovative, award-winning wines such as the no-sulphur-added range, which occupies a unique niche in markets at home and abroad.


Well-known for it’s innovative approach, Stellar has a number of “firsts” to its credit. It was the first organic winemaking operation in the world to gain the coveted Fairtrade accreditation and the first cellar in Africa to produce commercially viable no-sulphur-added wines.


The organic vineyards and winemaking process are fully certified by Control Union Certifications based in the Netherlands.


But what is organic? Organic refers to a system of farming that maintains and replenishes the fertility of the soil. The grapes are grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers. Only compost and organic materials are used, with indigenous vegetation for mulching. Weeds and pests are controlled using environmentally sound practices that sustain the health of our planet and ultimately our own well being, and in the cellar, the maximum allowable quantity of sulphur dioxide is half that of the maximum permitted for conventional wines, and certain chemicals are forbidden.


And what are no-sulphur-added wines? These are wines produced without the addition of sulphur dioxide at any stage of the winemaking process. Sulphur dioxide is one of the oldest known food additives and has been used in wine since ancient times when sulphur was burnt before sealing the wine in the barrels. It also develops naturally in wine as part of the fermentation process.


However, it is also added as a preservative to prevent oxidation of the wine and at the grape-crushing stage as a cleansing agent to kill unwanted bacteria and wild yeasts.


What is Fairtrade? Fairtrade is an international system of standards for producers and terms of trade for their goods that ensure farmers and workers in some of the poorest countries in the world are adequately protected and can build a more sustainable future.


The Fairtrade logo has become established as a credible, independent consumer guarantee for goods that are ethically produced and assist producers in developing countries get a better deal from international trade.


“Apart from operations to maintain the organic status of the vineyards, we implement recognised viticulture practices in order to ensure the best possible grape quality,” says Willem Rossouw, managing director. “Additional trellis wires have been attached to extended trellis poles and vines are trained to the vertical shoot positioning system (VSP). A lot of work is done to the canopy to prevent bunches and leaves from experiencing deep shade.  Aerated and ‘thin’ canopies are less likely to develop fungal diseases and allow for even grape ripening and quality. This ensures good colour development and reduces the potassium levels in the juice.



How's this for a "papsak"? Willem and Dr. Sharon Crafford, a visitor, next to one of the massive bags which Stellar uses for the production of organic wines. These two can handle way over 200 000 litres each.


“Hot growing conditions dictate that irrigation is done with the aid of sensors and computers. Water is via drip lines and regulated deficit irrigation (RDI).


“The winemaker decides when to pick. Chemical analysis is used as a tool, but the final decision relies more on flavour and tannin ripeness. Most picking is done by hand into small plastic lug boxes or 450kg fruit bins. Care is taken to pick only ripe grapes and to ensure that the bins remain free of leaves and canes.


“The cellar is built next to a table-grape packing facility. This means that we have an unrivalled refrigeration capacity as the table grapes are only processed for eight weeks of the year, and the end of the table grape season dovetails with the start of the winemaking.


“Before de-stemming and crushing, hand picked grapes of red and white cultivars are cooled to 00C in the same cold rooms used to chill the table grapes. The low temperature of the crushed grapes makes it possible for us to avoid the use of sulphur dioxide (SO2) at this stage as low temperatures inactivate bacteria and yeast.”


According to Rossouw, there are no compromises on ethics and production values on the organic farms and the farms are kept and managed in as natural a state as possible.


“A walk through the vineyards bears testament to this; the leaves on the vines are healthy and species of insects are varied and abundant. A soil examination reveals masses of earthworms – all indications of a healthy ecosystem.”



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