Delheim Estate, long known for its commitment to conserving its natural environment on the Simonsberg Mountain and the array of sustainable farming practices used in creating world-class wines, has been named winner of the Conservation Pioneer Award in the Cape’s Best of Wine Tourism and Ambassador Awards for 2024. The Best of Wine Tourism Awards annually recognise wineries in each of the international Great Wine Capitals Network member cities for their levels of excellence in seven different categories.
A total of 81 wine estates across the Western Cape entered the Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism Awards 2024, all showcasing how they are elevating their wine tourism experiences for visitors, with Delheim named as this year’s Conservation Pioneer. Sponsored by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), the Conservation Pioneer Award intends to emphasise the critical role of eco- and social sustainability in the development and execution of a new generation of relevant and appealing competitive travel offerings.
Nora Thiel, co-proprietor and director at Delheim Estate, says the Conservation Pioneer Award is the culmination of the ethos of conservation and sustainable farming that has existed on Delheim for over seven decades.
“The modern wine industry world-wide has over the past 20 year moved conservation and sustainability to the forefront of its agenda, making wine a leader in sustainability in the global agriculture sector,” says Thiel. “The ethos of conservation that has always existed on Delheim has allowed the estate to play a major role when the Cape wine industry began to formalise the benefits and needs of protecting the winelands’ natural habitats and emphasising sustainable farming practices and wine-making.”
Today Delheim constitutes 375ha of land in the Simonsberg of Stellenbosch, of which 89ha has been set aside for conservation. For this, Delheim was granted Conservation Champion Status in 2008 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) making it a member of a small group of South African wine farms who actively pursue the protection and conservation of the fauna and flora on their properties. Delheim’s conservation efforts are underscored by regenerative viticulture, making the estate a holistic model of sustainable wine-farming.
Victor Sperling, also co-proprietor and director on Delheim who like Nora grew-up under his father Spatz’s realisation of the important symbioses between wine-farming and the farm’s unique natural environment and biodiversity, says the production of wine and sustainability are inextricably linked.
“Everyone likes to say wine is made in the vineyard, but what happens in that vineyard is dependent on the environment in which it grows,” he says. “The more natural the vineyard environment, the healthier and more expressive the grapes are for the making of wine.”
Besides the conservation of Delheim’s unique natural biodiversity, viticulture and farming are centred on sustainable practices. By planting corridors of fynbos close to the vineyards, natural pests are kept away from the vineyards, finding the thick indigenous vegetation more habitable than the vines where they would have to be removed through spraying. “Furthermore, on Delheim we use parasitic insects to neutralise the more harmful bugs, while the planting of cover-crops inhibits weed growth, curbing the need for chemical spraying.”
With Delheim’s ancient soils of decomposed granite being one of the features in allowing the vineyards to grow grapes expressing the farm’s unique terroir as well as housing the indigenous species of fynbos, vineyard soil health is an all-important aspect.
Victor says that maintaining soil-health includes planting diverse cover-crops between the vine rows to manage the nitrogen balance in the soil, remove carbon from the air and to provide mulch which aids water retention and acts as a natural fertilizer.
“No tilling or ploughing is done around or among the vines in order to retain soil structure and moisture,” he says. “And when it comes to adding fertilizer, it is not done at random – each parcel of soil is monitored to detect the level of nutrition in the soil, thus fertilizer is only added where and when it is required.”
Limiting the use of chemical fertilizer to incorporate more organic products also plays a major role in maintaining health and natural balance in the soil.
As the lifeblood of any agricultural endeavour and natural environment, management of water usage is of critical importance at Delheim. Half of the farm’s vineyards are dryland, thus farmed without irrigation and totally dependent on rainfall. Planting of cover-crops maintain soil-moisture and where needed, irrigation is applied judiciously, with leaf-pressure bombs determining the amount of water each vineyard requires allowing only the precise amount of water to be given, thus dissuading excessive and wasteful water distribution.
All water used in the cellar is pumped to an effluent plant where it is recycled for irrigation use.
Besides its efforts in preserving the biodiversity on Delheim Estate itself, the farm has played a major role in harnessing the conservation efforts of the local community. This includes conserving the area around the renowned Klapmuts hillock. “In 2004 Delheim was a founder member of the Klapmutskop Renosterveld Conservancy, which later morphed into the Public Benefit non-profit organisation The Greater Simonsberg Conservancy, currently comprising 20 wine producers and 10 landowners,” says Nora, Chairperson of the Conservancy.
“After the tremendous wildfires of 2000, the need to protect the 300 year old indigenous yellowwood forest on Klapmutskop was identified. This led to general consensus that as wine producers we are custodians of our natural environment and that by formalising a conservation body we can all contribute to conserving our natural heritage. Today, this is non-negotiable.”
The result of these and numerous other measures of sustainable farming has resulted in Delheim continuing to be rich in fauna and flora. Over 50 species of birds and 120 different kinds of plants have been identified on the property. Wildlife includes porcupine, duiker, dassies, snakes and lizards. And on camera the majestic Cape leopard has been snapped, prowling the vineyard slopes at night.
Nora says the awarding of the Conservation Pioneer Award as a part of the Cape’s Best in Wine Tourism is also recognition for the manner Delheim as incorporated its natural environment and conservation mind-set into its tourism offering.
“Besides allowing visitors to experience the splendour of the estate’s natural surroundings by just being there, we also present an opportunity for them to get out onto the mountain slopes and the vineyards,” says Nora. “This includes our annual mushroom foraging events in the forests as well as vineyard tractor drives during harvest festivals.
“Of course, our marketing of Delheim wines incorporates the commitment to sustainability and the conservation of the rich biodiversity. But with our tourism activities we provide visitors to see conservation in action, allowing practical understanding and experiencing this founding principal of Delheim. Receiving the Conservation Pioneer Award for all these aspects is a tremendous honour for all at Delheim and for the farm’s pioneers who instilled this mindset which we are honoured to continue in this environment where the preservation of the natural world is of global importance.”