Jamie Goode: Why regenerative viticulture is important
By Jamie Goode, 2 November 2021
There’s a new buzz term in viticulture circles: ‘regenerative’ farming. But what exactly does it mean, and why is this important?
Dissecting the historical legacy of this term is probably less useful than examining what it means today in practice, but a brief summary is worth making. The term was first used in the 1980s by the Rodale Institute, but then fell out of use, only to be resurrected again in the last decade. It has no strict definition, but I’ll attempt a broad one below. It ties in with some of the ideas of permaculture, which has been made famous by the book One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka, first published in the late 1970s.
Viticulture has traditionally been split into three categories, and these have been seen in terms of a sort of virtual journey. At the bottom end we have conventional viticulture, and this is the baddie. Typically, herbicides will be used to eliminate weeds, fertilizers will be added to replace what the vine has taken out of the soil in terms of nutrients, and systemic fungicides and insecticides will be used to deal with pests and diseases. Basically, it’s the cheapest way of farming (in terms of labour), assisted by agrochemicals (these cost money).
Then next up we have sustainable viticulture, which can mean a number of things. Many countries have their own certification schemes for sustainable, which usually encompass as checklist and ban the worst sort of agrochemicals. The idea isn’t to stop using the chemical toolkit for farming, but to minimize inputs. Based on good science, these sustainable schemes are a step forward. But all of them tend to allow the use of herbicides, as weed control tends to be the most expensive and difficult part of viticulture. One benefit of these schemes is that they encourage farmers to start recording and measuring what they do, and another is that the usually low barrier to entry means it’s possible to recruit just about everyone into the scheme. But most are not truly sustainable in that they can be continued for hundreds of years.
Then we have what is seen as the pinnacle: organic and biodynamic. I’ve lumped the two together here because there are so many similarities. If you are biodynamic you will be organic. Herbicides, chemical fertilizers, systemic fungicides and synthetic insectides are banned. There is an emphasis on soil health, and typically composting will be used to create fertilizers. With biodynamics, animals may well be incorporated into the farm. Disease control is via traditional fungicides, cultural methods, and biological control. Active cover cropping can also play a role.
In reality, things are a bit more complicated, and it’s not necessarily more sustainable to farm organically and biodynamically than it is to farm sustainably without using herbicides and applying compost and cover-cropping. One of the main problems here is that organics and biodynamics rely on copper-containing fungicides for controlling downy mildew, and copper is certainly something that you don’t really want in your soils. Also, farming this way often requires more tractor passes through the vineyard with attendant consequences of enhanced carbon footprint and soil compaction issues. The division of viticulture into these three bands is a little simplistic.
This is where regenerative farming comes in. To try to encapsulate it in a strap line, regenerative viticulture is about farming soils not vines. It looks at the agroecology of the vineyard, seeing the vine as simply part of a more complex ecosystem, involving everything that grows there, including the mysterious hidden world under our feet. Below ground there is a complex network of life, encompassing fungi, bacteria, protista, insects, nematodes, arthropods and worms, as well as plant roots. This life is largely dependent on plant growth: as well as taking up water and nutrients from the soil, plants also farm the soil microlife by releasing products of photosynthesis into the soil, which then helps feed this complex community. The action of mycorrhizal fungi in concert with vine roots unlocks a lot of nutrients for the vine, which is why the vine is happy to pay its way. The microbial communities in the soil close to the roots, which is known as the rhizosphere, have a significant effect on the biology of the vine through chemical signalling.
So the regenerative farming toolkit looks to support and nourish this below ground ecology. A key aspect is cover cropping. It’s really important to have things growing in soils to have life in them, and thus good levels of soil organic material. This is why herbicides – and even organic herbicides – are not good. If nothing grows in the soil apart from vines, then there’s low organic material, less soil life, and the soil is at risk of compaction and erosion: soil structure relies on roots growing through it, and their exudates help form soil particles.
Another aspect of regenerative farming stems from the world of permaculture, and it’s about not disturbing the soil. This is also related to no-till, which is gaining traction in broad acre farming, although here some herbicide use is also applied. Turning or cultivating the soil looks healthy and wonderful, but it’s not good for soil life. While it deals with weeds very effectively, it disrupts soil structure and the delicate ecological balance of soil life, and also oxidises the organic material in the soil that farmers have worked so hard to capture.
So where possible regenerative viticulture involves permanent plant cover of the soil, even in the vine row itself where mowing isn’t possible.
A key aspect of regenerative farming is using cover cropping intelligently. If the soil is low in nitrogen, then nitrogen-fixing plants are a good choice. If it lacks structure, then cover crops with strong tap roots can help. It’s all about getting the soil working properly: after a few years, the vineyard can balance itself and the active soil provides enough nutrition for the vines to flourish. And an active ecosystem is also a resilient, self-correcting one: it’s likely that insect pests will be managed by their natural enemies. With the right soil microbes, the vine is also more resistant to fungal disease (although not completely: some sort of spraying will still be needed).
Regenerative viticulture is basically good farming, with an understanding of the vineyard agroecosystem, and using intelligent approaches to offset problems. There is no recipe, just a toolkit. And good farmers will use this toolkit with skill. In a way, there’s nothing revolutionary about it, and many of the most enlightened viticulturalists are farming regeneratively, even if they haven’t described their approach this way. But expect to see the term ‘regenerative’ crop up frequently in the context of viticulture in the next few years.
- Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.
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