Regenerating Our Vineyards

Following a series of difficult vintages, mainly provoked by the challenges of climate change - drought, frost, mildew, heatwaves, hail - to cite just a few examples, you may have noticed how different many vineyards look today compared to the tightly manicured rows of a decade ago.  Today wine growers are questioning the traditional way of safeguarding the health of their vines that used synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to grow grapes.

These days we are hearing a lot of talk about regenerative viticulture, which is a rather vague concept.  No-one is entirely sure what that phrase means.  So in this blog, with help from an article written by Natasha Hughes M.W. for the Académie du Vin Library and Pierre-Olivier Clouet’s Manifesto for Anti-conventional Viticulture at Cheval Blanc, I think it is important to try and explain what this very important movement is in concrete terms. 

To begin with regenerative agriculture encompassed a pick-n-mix list of practices aimed at restricting the most noxious chemicals and promoting a greater degree of environmental respect. Quite quickly, certain producers anxious to preserve the quality of their vineyards, converted their vineyards to organic or even biodynamic practices, even if they were not necessarily seeking certification for their efforts.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and we find ourselves in a world where it is becoming increasingly clear that our soils and our vineyards are suffering from decades of synthetic treatments.  (We shouldn’t put too much blame on the last two generations; they were farming just after two devasting World Wars where the European countryside had been decimated.)  The great chemical companies who had vastly increased their output during the war, needed to find a use for all their stocks and agriculture was the grateful recipient.   Today, it is now increasingly rare to find a wine producer who hasn’t signed up to some kind of green vineyard scheme.

While the concept of organic viticulture is widely understood, its prescriptive nature of certification is often too restrictive for vine growers; one has to follow certain rules, regardless of how relevant they are to your specific situation and the way in which organic vineyards are worked can sometimes have both an adverse effect on soil health and leave a heavy carbon footprint. The biodynamic approac, while wonderful and bringing out the greatness of good terroirs,  entails a range of practices whose effects are still not quantifiable, which is a turn-off for those who prefer a scientific approach.

Regenerative viticulture is the new kid on the viticultural block and it’s causing enlightened growers to reappraise the way they think about grape growing. It entails a holistic approach to viticulture aimed at encouraging the development of an active ecosystem in and around the vineyard. In this world view, vines are not isolated units but exist within an interconnected biosphere that links the plants to both the micro and macro worlds in which they’re embedded.

As an aside, I would like to mention that we met a fascinating and very talented fungi scientist during this year’s harvest in Bordeaux. His name is Merlin Sheldrake, and he is the author of the best-selling book “The Entangled Life” which describes the yeasts, molds, lichen and all sorts of fungi that creep around sub soils seducing, intoxicating and altering microbial life.  The book is absolutely fascinating and at times a riveting read as Sheldrake digs into the mysteries that surround mycorrhizal fungi.  

Having spent time with him, we believe that there is a link to vine nutrition (minerals) and hydration through the very extensive underground mycorrhiza network;  we just need to understand how we can encourage this which, would be a huge advantage to regenerative agriculture.

One tenet of regenerative viticulture is that the soil isn’t just a matrix in which vines are implanted, it’s a living entity in its own right. The health of the soil is maintained and supported by its microbiome, and the fungi and microbes that live in and around the plant’s root system play an active part in ensuring the viability of the vine. It follows, therefore, that growers need to think carefully about how to ensure that soil health is maintained. Cover crops are a key tool, not only in terms of increasing biodiversity, but also because they can help to prevent erosion and can restore nutrients to the soil. Some growers, particularly those in cooler climates, believe cover crops can help maintain water levels in the soil – although in warmer, drier growing zones, these plants may end up competing with the vines for scarce water resources. The work done by cover crops is further supplemented by the use of composting, vermiculture and mulches.

Regenerative viticulturists aren’t just interested in maintaining plant diversity for the sake of the soil, however. Fostering a healthy diversity of plant life in and around the vineyard can help to moderate its mesoclimate (the climate in the immediate area of the vineyard) and support the local fauna. This, in turn, can help to control the level of pest species in the vineyard, eliminating the need for insecticides. Some growers even use animals – sheep are the beasts of choice for many growers – to keep grass levels under control and manure the vineyards during the period between harvesting at the end of one year and the start of the new year’s growth cycle in spring the next year.

Many of these ideas and ideals are shared in common with organic, biodynamic and sustainable growers, but unlike the first two approaches, regenerative viticulture is not a prescriptive system with a checklist of dos and don’ts. It also implies a greater degree of respect for the environment than is required by the more basic requirements of sustainable viticulture. Grape growers working within a regenerative framework are free to adapt their practices to the demands imposed by the needs of their vineyard plots and the exigencies imposed by individual growing seasons. Regenerative viticulture is a mindset rather than a set of practices.

This flexibility can be viewed as both a strength and a weakness of the regenerative approach. A weakness because it is impossible to sum up regenerative viticulture’s aims and practices in a few brief words, and so communicate its benefits to a wider audience. But also very much a strength as a flexible, adaptive mindset is likely to be the only way in which grape growers are going to be able to meet the climatic challenges to come.   So next time you pass a shaggy looking vineyard with grass growing between its rows and leaves sprawling over the sides of the trellises, take a closer look and see how healthy the vines are becoming. 

© Fiona Morrison M.W.