The regeneration game: farming for a more sustainable future

The regeneration game: farming for a more sustainable future

Climate change is dominating the headlines, as world leaders, campaigners, celebrities, and policymakers converge on Glasgow for COP26. Jamie Goode delves into what sustainability means in the context of wine.

What is sustainability? And specifically, what does it mean when applied to wine and vineyards? It’s a term that’s used a lot these days, but unlike organics, where there are certification bodies and recognised international standards, sustainability is shrouded in mist, the rules and perspectives differ by country.

A holistic definition of sustainability

The easiest answer is to say what sustainability isn’t! To use the words of Geoff Thorpe at Riversun Nurseries in New Zealand:

“If we can’t keep doing this on the same land, in the same community and on the same planet for the next 100 years and the next 1,000 years, then it’s not sustainable”.

Current sustainability schemes mostly fail to hit this benchmark. That’s because they’re a compromise: sustainable farming is important, but then part of sustainability is financial, and as the saying goes: you can’t be green if you’re in the red. So while current schemes are to be applauded - they move growers in the right direction and get them keeping records - they don’t go far enough. Grape vines are susceptible to two major diseases: downy and powdery mildew, which are most easily treated with chemicals. And the major grape-growing challenge apart from this is weed control, and this is most cheaply managed by using herbicides.

Gina Giugni works biodynamically at the Chene vineyard in Edna Valley in California. Here she is next to her compost pile and showing some cover crops in the vineyard.

The hidden benefits of organic and biodynamic farming

There’s a growing realization that a living, active soil helps feed the vines with the nutrients they require. Organics – and its variation biodynamics – bans the use of herbicides. The focus is on soil health, and creating soils with good levels of organic matter. In vineyards managed organically, the weeds are either left growing, are mown, or are removed by cultivating the soil. In addition many organic growers will use composts, and may plant specific cover crops to get the soils working well. The vines also give back to the soil, through their roots, and this helps feed a complex circular microbial and microfauna community below the surface. Communication between these microbes and the vine roots can help the vine become more resistant to diseases. The presence of a balanced agro-ecosystem in the vineyard, rather than a monoculture of vines, helps reduce pest and insect pressures. Biodynamics takes organics a step further through the use of various preparations, some of which are added to organic composts, while others are directly applied to the vine. But at its heart, biodynamics is also about farming soils and not just growing vines.

A new buzzword is appearing in viticultural circles, and that is ‘regenerative’.

This overlaps with biodynamics and organics and looks at providing growers with a toolkit of approaches that helps them see their vineyard as a holistic agro-ecosystem. Where regenerative farming differs is that working the soils using ploughs – something widely practiced in organics and biodynamics – is frowned on, because it damages soil structure and results in the degradation of organic material. Instead, regenerative farming looks to maintain cover over the soil, flattening cover crops rather than cutting them, to create mulches that help preserve soil moisture, which then break down providing more organic material for the soil. There’s also concern about the effects of using copper-based fungicides (one of the few treatments allowed in organic and biodynamic viticulture) on soil life: in organics and biodynamics, these are the only effective remedy for downy mildew, but copper is damaging to microbes in the soil.

Ben Waldgate at Tillingham has farmed organically from the start

So, as you can see, it’s a rather complex picture that’s emerging: not just a linear journey of virtue from conventional viticulture, to sustainable, to organics/biodynamics. The best - and most sustainable - way of growing wine grapes will differ from place to place. Most of the wines on the Sourcing Table list are from grapes grown organically or biodynamically, and this is great because it means that no herbicides will have been used, and herbicides are the big baddy here because of their effect on soil health. But viticultural approaches will differ, because wine regions are all different. Smart winegrowers manage their vineyards in a tailored way, bearing local conditions in mind.

Sustainable viticulture in action

One example would be the approach of Ben Walgate at Tillingham. Ben, whose father is a farmer in Lincolnshire, has thought very carefully about the approach taken in this recently planted vineyard in Sussex. He has farmed organically from the outset, and planted cover crops to create some competition, so the young vines develop a deeper root system. Weed control is by means of retractable hoes that slice off the roots of the weeds and don’t disturb the soils too much. And Ben also uses a range of tisanes and preparations to help the vines and protect against disease. He had his first crop from the home vineyard in 2020. There are very few English vineyards farmed organically, and even fewer farmed biodynamically, although this may change in the future.

In Austria’s Burgenland, Gernot Heinrich has been farming biodynamically since 2006, and is one of the 16 founder members of the Respekt biodynamic organization. An early change was working with cover crops to build up life in the soil.

“This is the most important thing”, says Gernot, “building up the humus”. The idea is to strengthen the natural immunity and resilience of the vines through a healthy soil. “This is the secret of biodynamic farming”.

Biodynamic benefits

Situated in the most easterly part of Austria, close to the Hungarian border, Burgenland is the driest, warmest wine region in the country. There is very low rainfall, it’s classified as semi-arid at 400mm per year, and sometimes there is no rain at all during the summer. “Biodynamics helps us get through these dry periods”, says Gernot.

Gernot and Heike Heinrich are passionate about biodynamics because they feel it’s right for the planet, but also because they believe the best wines express a sense of place, which they do best if they're rooted in a biologically diverse environment.

How does biodynamics help with soil water retention?

“You are improving the water-holding capacity in the soil, building up the humus. If I look at our vines now they have low vigour, but they are resilient to all the diseases. You don’t get these fast growing, green leaves so there is better natural resilience”.

They use biodynamic preparations and produce their own compost. In 2020, which was a particularly dry year, they sprayed some horn manure to support growth, balancing the natural forces. They also use stinging nettle tea, which they mix with preparation 500, and spray these together. Preparations like these are part of the biodynamic toolkit, practitioners like Gernot will use their judgment and experience to know when to apply them, to bolster their vines against environmental factors and attacks from pests and diseases.

Learn more about biodynamic farming: What is Biodynamic Wine?

Across the wine growing world, approaches to viticulture are changing, and many of the winegrowers represented on The Sourcing Table have similar stories to tell. The hope is that these enlightened approaches to farming with a lighter touch will spread beyond small, artisan winegrowers to the wine world at large, and that the footprint of the wine industry will be reduced, and viticulture will be truly sustainable.

Viticulture is one piece of the picture. Read more about what we're doing to be sustainable in how we ship and manage our stock, and how producers such as Adi Badenhorst are approaching the human and economic aspects of sustainability in: What it means to be a 'Sustainable' wine shop.

Sustainable wines to try