Sustainable and organic – the way forward.
Wine growers and drinkers share similar objectives, with benefits for wine tourism.
Mountain vineyards of Daniel Anastasis, owner of Santa Irene Winery in Cyprus – high up, away from civilisation, never sprayed, never watered. As in Santorini, the vines obtain their water from the morning dew that gets absorbed into the soil.
First, in viticultural terms, how do we define sustainable? Since time immemorial, when man first planted a vineyard, the intention forever has been to look for a succession of plentiful harvests over many decades, generations even, to reward the grower and his family for their efforts. A grape-bearing vine can have a productive life of a hundred years and more. Peak productivity may be reached around 35 years; potential wine quality can continue to increase as volumes begin to decline, the number of bunches lessens, and grape-size begins to shrink. This provides the vine with a chance to impart greater flavour, character and a defining quality, which can slowly increase over the years to add to the drinker’s enjoyment and to the grower’s reputation.
To this end, sustainable healthy long-term growing conditions are of top importance to the wine farmer. Maintaining soil fertility to encourage growth, and soil structure for suitable root development and drainage, are key. In each new season, vine health will depend on the plant’s condition at the end of the previous harvest. This in turn depends on vineyard management, from post-harvest pruning and attention throughout the growing season, until the ripened fruit is ready for picking. Strategies employed must be as natural as possible – and essentially suited to, even enhancing, the vine’s environment and its capacity to deliver a harvest of healthy ripe fruit.
A statement of the obvious; indeed it’s a biblical message. Years of progress, however, have since come into play: technology has brought about the widespread use of modern inorganic fertilisers, also of chemical herbicides and fungicides designed for plant protection (both backed up by powerful marketing and the salesmen’s promise of improved yields). Now, more recent science has brought a greater understanding of the potential detrimental risks to the complex ecology of the soil, the plants themselves, and the on-going vineyard environment.
The result is that a growing number of wine producers are embracing newly laid out principles for organic farming and vineyard management, in some cases even becoming biodynamic. The objectives are for clean soil health, with ecological and environmental safety, as well as improved wine quality and freedom from chemical residues. Scientifically based vineyard management embraces a growing awareness of the imperatives of sustainability. And coincides neatly with the simultaneous growing demand from consumers for organic produce. In everything now, we seek the sustainable.
For visitors to France and other countries, a warm welcome awaits in many well-established organic vineyards. Notably in Burgundy, in Bordeaux, indeed in almost all viticultural areas, organic growers open their doors to help broadcast their message and attract new customers. Especially in Alsace, where growers are leading the charge and where a growing number are engaged in the biodynamic practices advocated by Rudolf Steiner, obtaining certification by Demeter. (Alsace has more Michelin stars than any other region; is this ‘biodynamic’ interest a coincidence?)
Vineyard holdings in Burgundy are frequently below 10 ha., a manageable size for an owner and his family to give the extra care needed. In Bordeaux, the largest vineyards may exceed 100 ha., but this has not stopped the adoption of organic practices – for example as at Chateau Pontet Canet, now biodynamically certified thanks to the passionate commitment of Alfred Tesseron.
Typically, vineyards that open up to visitors offer an insight into their working practices, and provide an opportunity for consumers to taste and make purchases. Agri-tourism provides a means to offset the high costs of organic conversion. I propose to look at these costs another time, and reveal more of the benefits discovered by the pioneers of organic winemaking, including the fervour for biodynamics as certified by the approval body, Demeter. An aptly named organisation, Demeter being the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility.
Sam Sandbach, May 2019
Footnote by team member, Bill Warry who lives in Cyprus
In Cyprus and Greece, there is a growing tendency to adopt organic methods, even if certification is not always obtained. Sometimes intervention is made to treat disease if vines may become infected, for example by mildew. Sophocles Vlassides of Vlassides winery said to me, “If our vines get attacked by a disease, we don’t leave them to die, we treat them, but we don’t indulge in the systematic use of chemicals.” Daniel Anastasis of Santa Irene Winery was proudly showing me his mountain vines recently: “Look how our vines flourish with nature,” he said. “We never spray here.” So many butterflies and bees are able to do nature’s work in perfect harmony. A few kilometers away in Pera Pedi, Costas Tsiakkas, winner of numerous International Wine Medals, takes care to have all his vineyards certified as organic.