Is regenerative viticulture the healthy future of winemaking?

By Cameron Douglas

Is regenerative viticulture the healthy future of winemaking?
Regenerative agriculture is fundamentally a holistic or ecological approach to grapevine production, concentrating on soil health and biodiversity, which ultimately results in better wine. With customers increasingly concerned about the environmental costs of the food and drink they consume, expect to see it as a booming trend in 2021.

Have you ever noticed that some vineyards have totally bare soil, not even a weed, while others have grass between the rows? These are examples of different farming practices that treat the topsoil and substratumin different ways to control how a vine reacts with the land, grows fruit and even achieves a specific crop size.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for vineyard management, there is significant evidence and recent research to suggest that the stronger the relationship between the vines and what settles on or covers the ground, along with soil health, the better the wine.

Hamish Hay, vineyard manager at regenerative Central Otago winery Chard Farm, says there are myriad ways that regenerative viticulture influences the flavour profile of wine. “A healthy vine, free of disease and insect pressure will always produce the best fruit,” he says. “For instance, a nutrient imbalance in the vine can have deleterious effects on the acidity level of the wine and the ability of the yeast to complete fermentation.”

Simply put, a successful regenerative approach presents the fruit at its best.

Thoughtful viticulture

If a nutritionist advises you to eat more vegetables to help you stay healthier and perhaps live longer, instead of just taking a pill, you hav ea choice. We are often presented with choices about how we feed our bodies and what the long-term health outcomes can be. The same can be true for the decisions made about agriculture, commercial crops and vineyards.

Regenerative agriculture is a new practice that uses a diverse range of plant life that stores and cycles carbon into the ground, increasing soil microbial diversity and activity through interaction between plants grouped together in a vineyard.

Recent experiments with sheep farming have involved growing a diverse range of plants along with grass, then allowing the sheep to self-select what they eat. In effect, eating a more diverse food source results in numerous benefits, including healthier sheep and better wool.

Sustainability practices and its certification for vineyards have always been the first step towards thoughtful viticulture. Perhaps this is no longer enough. Organic or biodynamic farming has proven advantages for the health of the vineyard and its soil, and can ultimately produce better tasting wine.

Regenerative agriculture in combination with sustainability, organic and biodynamic practices is where a balanced and healthy vineyard can be realised. “The naturally dry summers we have in Central Otago allow us to run a pretty organic vineyard model,” explains Hay.

“However, I have never been comfortable with the ‘thou shalt not’ rules of a purely organic regime, especially over multiple vineyards and many different neighbours. I also felt that ‘sustainable viticulture’ wasn’t strong or positive enough and something more progressive made sense. Therein lies the beauty of regenerative viticulture– it’s a way of naturally enhancing and bettering the soil and plant health, resulting in low plant disease and insect pressure.”

If you’re a gardener, then you’ll know how the use of straw, moss or eco wool mulch mats improve water retention. In biodynamic vineyards, straw can be used to cover the ground directly around vines to maintain warmth and retain moisture. Regenerative agriculture takes this one step further by replacing some or all of the straw with inter-row plants to achieve the same result as well as capture moisture whilst feeding the carbon needs and microbial activity of the soil.

“This makes the vine less likely to take up water and dilute the berries if there is a rain event just prior to harvest,” says Hay. Reducing the need for fertilisers, chemical sprays, pesticides and herbicides has to be better for the soil, vine and environment.

A bed of minerals

Regenerative agriculture challenges the use of and reliance on synthetic additives in vineyards. Ultimately, healthy vineyard soil contains a balance between organic components that serve as food as well as working alongside worms and micro-organisms like bacteria and algae.

The interactions between vine and soil as well as processes such as decomposition of mineral and organic material produce food for the vine and build extremely healthy soil. It is possible, too, that the voice of the soil, call it minerality, can be a lot louder in wine aromas, flavours and textures as a result of serious regenerative agriculture practice.

“All the soils in Central Otago are based on schist rock and quartz that contain very little organic matter. So our vines are literally growing in a bed of minerals,” says Hay. “It is the presence of these minerals that will give the wine the expressive and long flavour length that we are looking for. The trick for us as winegrowers and makers is to tame the abundant fruit and acid that we have, to be able to expose the texture and minerality in the wine beneath.”


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