Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc

Regenerative viticulture – in theory and practice

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Jamie Goode’s books are always a source of information, learning and entertainment, I have reviewed and recommended a number in the past. This year he produced ‘Regenerative Viticulture’ a preliminary publication designed to be updated in a new edition with more science and depth in coming months. This interim book, published by Amazon, is around 170 pages long. I read it in France this summer, expecting it to be challenging and there is a good basis of science of course, Dr. Goode is a trained scientist and expert on plants. I had not expected to be so entertained, I zipped through the book in a couple of days and enjoyed it greatly.

Regenerative viticulture is very much a topic of our times. As Jamie says the thinking has changed about winemaking, emphasis has moved from the cellar to the vine and now to the soil. Our increasing concerns about the environment, climate and the damage modern agriculture has done to both mean that we have to look for change. The book shows that by turning back to the past as well as unearthing new science, viticulture can begin to make our soils healthy and productive. The clearly set-out chapters deal with issues such as the mycorrhizal layer, cover crops, soil management, pest control, and composting. They include scientific thinking as well as interviews with winemakers from all parts of the winemaking world who are working to incorporate such thinking into their practice. I found this very readable and learned a lot, it is a book to be read by anyone interested in agriculture generally, not simply viticulture.

Page 13 gives us a neat summary of the topic. The memorable quotation of James Milton, New Zealand winemaker, is there, there is no better précis, “We’re not standing on dirt, but the rooftop of another kingdom”. This refers of course to the role of fungae and other life in the soils in helping plants such as vines to grow. Research into this underworld is in its infancy but delivering fascinating information about the relationships between plants and fungae, future learning may well transform our practices. Jamie writes, “What regenerative viticulture gives you is a toolkit that can be adapted to place, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all way to farm.”. These two statements on page 13 inevitably made me think about how regenerative viticulture works in practice and, as I was working alongside Jeff Coutelou at the time of reading, how it relates to Puimisson.

The subject is certainly not new to Jeff, he has been a pioneer of regenerative agriculture in a locality where quantity and chemical boosting has been rife for decades. Indeed, Jeff has suffered vandalism, the burning of some of his regenerative hedgerows being one example. So, I talked with him and also used an interview he did for Radiovino with Julien Gangard to relate Jamie’s book to what Jeff actually does.

The Coutelou vineyards have been certified (Ecocert) organic from 1987, the work of Jeff’s father, Jean Claude. Since taking the reins of the domaine at the turn of the century Jeff has sought to bring life to the wines not just by making natural wines in the cellar but by improving the soils and environment of the vineyards. I well recall a tour of the vines where we settled in Rome vineyard and Jeff lifted the topsoil with his hand. A web of white threads spread out across the opened up earth, we were looking at the mycorrhizal layer. This network of fungae connects the vines to its neighbours and other plants sending information about minerals, food, predators and disease to support the fungae and plants together.

The photograph on the left shows some of the web of fungae, hard to see I know but it is visible.

Rome vineyard is a good case study in fact. It was Jean Claude’s favourite vineyard and is mine too. Jeff began to experiment with the soil here by not ploughing or tilling for seven years from 2008, a favourite methodology in regenerative viticuture. However, the results were not what Jeff expected. In 2015 I was there when he had to replace a hundred vines which had perished in the last few years. Holes were dug into the earth for the replacements and Jeff was taken aback by what we found. The theory is that by not ploughing the soil is undisturbed and life such as fungae, worms and insects are left untouched to aerate and improve the soil. However, in the heat of the Languedoc what actually happened was the formation of a hard crust on the surface and Jeff found no earthworms in any of the hundred holes. The earth below was also quite sodden because the crust was not allowing natural evaporation. Water in Languedoc soils is precious but, in this instance, the moisture was unhealthy and almost harmful. The crust, he believes, was preventing aeration too, hence the lack of worms.

This is why I quoted Jamie’s comment about needing to adapt the regenerative toolkit to the actual vineyards. During the Gangard interview Jeff says that it is for every viticulteur to make their own decision about what suits the soils which they know best. The practice which seemed best in theory did not work in practice for a healthy soil in that particular vineyard. Therefore, Jeff moved back to a very light, surface raking of the soils at most two or three times a year in order to break up the surface but not disturb life below the top 2cm or so. Since that time Rome has recovered its earthworms and insects and inspections, as above, reveal a healthy living soil.

Cover crops have long been a feature of the Coutelou vineyards, I recall my first visit in 2011 and naively considering them a bit messy because of all the other plants growing amongst the vines! The spring flowers, grasses and herbs are cut in summer to provide nourishment to the soils and prevent too much competition for water. After harvest the must of grape skins and stalks are piled into compost heaps recycling life back into the soils from which they grew. However, as Jamie points out, that must is very rich in potassium, too rich for a balanced soil so the compost must be mixed with other sources too.

Compost waiting to be used on land ready to be planted in La Garrigue

Vineyard planning and the training of vines is another chapter in the book and the best example from Puimisson is the La Garrigue vineyard. The vineyard is on a ridge with one side facing south, the other facing north. Jeff thought about what grape variety would suit each slope best. He wanted Syrah and Grenache to be grown, grapes which form the majority of his wines such as Classe. Grenache, originating in the Mediterranean, especially Spain, loves the heat. Syrah, from the Rhone Valley, prefers some cooler temperatures. Therefore, Syrah was planted on the north facing slope (photo below), Grenache facing south.

Two of the vineyards, Rome and Font D’Oulette, are now planted with gobelet trained vines to reduce metal and wires. So too is Jeff’s retirement vineyard in St. Chinian which we worked on in late 2021. Hybrid varieties are being much investigated at present to help combat the climate chaos we see in the world and the vineyards. As temperatures rise some varieties simply don’t cope. Jeff thinks that acidity levels will drop in many European wines because of higher temperatures, picking too early to maintain acidity leads to wines made from unripe grapes. Therefore, he is looking at grapes which add bitterness to wine rather than acidity. Acidity is a Western feature of food and drink, citrus and vinegar for example. Asian cuisine often uses bitterness instead and grapes such as Clairette bring a slightly bitter flavour, Jeff has planted more and more of it around his vineyards.

Jeff with Matteo and Icare in the new gobelet trained St Chinian vineyard, Clairette being labelled

The book also considers the role of animals in the vineyards, both harmful and beneficial. Pest management is a serious issue and one to which I will be returning in the next article. From, ironically, fungal attacks to moths and snails, winegrowers face numerous challenges. Controlling them without recourse to chemicals and soil damaging products is a real challenge. One answer is the use of animals in the vineyards, for example ducks are used in parts of South Africa to eat snails. Didier Barral in Faugeres and other winegrowers graze cattle and other animals in the vines especially in winter. The animals eat and manure the soil at the same time, a perfect symbiotic relationship. I have come across deer, hares, rabbits and all sorts of birds in Jeff’s vines over the years and he is determined to encourage wildlife in an area which is unhealthily monocultural. The most recent example is the reservoir he has constructed in Peilhan vineyard with plants to clean the water, bird roosts and measures to help animals find water all year round. This reservoir is supplied with local water and fills very quickly. Steps have been built in to allow the animals to get to the water. You can read more about this in the latest edition of Aaron Ayscough’s Not Drinking Poison, the interview contains some excellent photos too. Pleasingly, the pond has already attracted insects, birds and small game.

Elsewhere, beehives, bat boxes (bats eat the main vine damaging ver de la grappe) and huge numbers of trees and shrubs have been added. Jeff’s belief is that not only do they help to regenerate the vineyards with flora and fauna but add to the welfare of the humans who work in the vineyards. If you’re pruning in the cold winds of January then simply having trees around is more stimulating, and in the heat of a Languedoc summer they provide shelter and respite for human, animal and vine. The vineyard is a workplace so make it as pleasant as possible, from Puimisson the Montagne Noir and the Pyrenees are visible, bringing back trees, shrubs and plants makes parts of the vineyards almost idyllic.

This is an enormous subject but a vital one. Many winegrowers, certainly around Puimisson, simply ignore the issues of climate change. With every heavy rainstorm comes banks of mud washed off the vineyards as the soil is loose and dusty from herbicide use. Soils with better management absorb those rains better and stay in place.

I urge everyone to read Jamie Goode’s book, anticipating the extended edition too and to ask questions about the vineyards which provide the wines we drink. As Jeff says when he plants a tree he knows that he will not see it in its maturity, he does it for the future of our planet and vineyards. That seems to be to be the only healthy approach to agriculture and viticulture. No aspect of wine is more important.

Author: amarch34

I'm a recently retired (early!) teacher from County Durham in North east England. I am going to be spending most of the next year in the Languedoc leaarning about wines, vineyards and the people who care for both.

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