Worms and ladybirds

The worms are industriously eating, excreting and mating in Michael Malherbe’s wormery at the Laibach estate in Stellenbosch. That’s pretty much all worms ever do, which makes it seem an enviably cool existence. And then they die, which is also OK, as they expire with the satisfactory awareness that their once-writhing little bodies will be added to the compost they’ve spent their lives producing.

All to Michael’s great satisfaction, as it helps him with his organic, sustainable farming. As viticulturist and MD of this German-owned property, he’s been progressively moving in this direction for a decade – a pioneer in Stellenbosch, where conventional farmers were doubtful (it’s certainly easier to do without fungicides and suchlike in drier inland areas). All Laibach’s 42 hectares of vines are now farmed completely organically. A few are still officially “in conversion” for a short time before they will be officially certified.

Organic grape-farming has not yet really given shareholders in the massive agro-chemical industry much to worry about, but it is becoming increasingly fashionable internationally and locally. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of catering to a market demand vaguely inspired by health or sustainability concerns, or the environmental consciences of the producers themselves. But more and more ambitious wine-producers are turning back to more natural methods, confident that they will ultimately produce better wines, even if they don’t always bother with certification and marketing their wines as “organic”.

So there’s a great deal more life in Laibach’s vineyards these days (as well as in the dark shed where those languidly busy worms dutifully convert vegetable waste into beautiful dark, odourless fertiliser). Not all of nature’s creatures are welcome: mealybugs, for example, are a major curse, bringing a virus that curls up vine-leaves and retards the ripening of the grapes. But why use clouds of poisonous spray, wonders Michael Malherbe, when you can use wasps and ladybirds, whose culinary delights happily include mealybugs?

He still has to import some of these natural predators, but permanent populations are growing yearly. Fennel is planted at the ends of many of the vine-rows, because the ladybirds love the stuff, and are encouraged to hang about.

The helpful spotted creatures have given their name to a pair of the Cape’s most attractive organic wines: Laibach’s Red Ladybird and White Ladybird. In fact, there is officially no such thing as “organic wine” in most of the world, only “wine made from organically grown grapes”. Just recently, the European Union decided against creating an official organic wine category, despite strong feelings that regulation is urgently needed.

But it is not easily agreed precisely what organic winemaking would entail – certainly more control over additives and various high-tech winemaking practices, as well as, most controversially, limits on the amount of sulphur allowed in wine (a low level of sulphites occurs naturally in the winemaking process, but it is a risky business dispensing with further additions at some level). These are issues which committed organic producers like Laibach already take seriously, but there are no agreed-upon standards.

In the pic: Laibach winemaker Francois van Zyl

Deliciousness is not contemplated as a mandatory component, sadly. But there’s plenty of it in the Laibach Ladybirds – especially, for me, the merlot-based Red blend. You can get it most easily, perhaps, at Woolworths, where it’s good value at R85; the White (chardonnay, chenin and viognier) is R20 less.

 

First published in Mail & Guardian, 16-22 July 2010

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