Chef Janez Bratovž (Restaurant JB) tells me in almost every discussion about food and cooking: the quality of ingredients is by far the most important thing. Everything else is more icing on the cake than not.
Similarly, many winemakers like to talk about how the best wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. This is, of course, a conscious exaggeration, let’s say, because without careful cellaring there is no wine, but it is true that the raw material, the grapes, are the basis of everything, and they must be healthy and of the highest possible quality. To produce such a crop, the plant needs a healthy and living environment, which means that it is an integral part of the ecosystem and not the main part of a monoculture in the location where it grows. To better understand why even many notorious wine reviewers, who have long been openly – some of them vocally – sceptical about organic and biodynamic viticulture, now admit that even the highly regarded wines of very famous wineries that have switched from conventional to sustainable vineyard work are now much better.
A great example is Chateau Palmer in Bordeaux, which has been converting its vineyards to organic over the last decade and has been biodynamic since 2013. This year, the estate is also due to be officially Demeter-certified. Since taking office in 2004, Director Thomas Duroux has made radical changes in philosophy and approach. Among other things, he is convinced that relying on pesticides to fight disease leads nowhere. Before his arrival, the work was the same in all the vineyards. After a thorough analysis, they found, among other things, that their 66 hectares of vineyards grow on 18 different soil types or substrates, which require individual attention and work if they are to achieve optimum results.
The Earth beneath us is still very much alive
Static as it may seem, the ground beneath our feet is very much alive. More bacteria and other micro-organisms live in ten grams of soil – about one tablespoon – than there are people on earth. Eighty percent of the world’s biomass is right here – not on the surface. Man walks on the moon, flies in space, sends rovers to Mars, but at the same time knows very little about the aforementioned micro-life in the soil and the complex coexistence between these micro-organisms and plants, or – better said – plant roots. Claude and his wife Lydia Bourgignon, who are considered leading agronomists and experts in farmland soil research, explain that a plant needs more than 20 different nutrients and more than 60 mineral elements, including iron, molybdenum, zinc, selenium and even arsenic, to grow and develop.
It gets most of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen it needs through its leaves, whereas it can only get the above through its roots, but contrary to popular belief, only indirectly. It can absorb nutrients and minerals exclusively through micro-organisms in the soil. Pardon, hello, live earth. Micro-organisms need oxygen, among other things, to survive and function, which requires loose soil. Only earthworms and other worms that loosen the soil beneath our feet weigh collectively as much as all the other animals on our planet put together. At least, that’s the way it used to be, since the amount of these nutrients in conventionally cultivated land has declined from two tonnes to a hundred kilograms per hectare since 1950, mainly due to artificial fertilisers and the intensive use of pesticides and herbicides.
Such soils are dead or, at best – as far as life is concerned – severely impoverished. The soil is highly compacted and almost impermeable to water, about a millimetre of rainfall per hour, which means that erosion occurs when it rains heavily. On the other hand, healthy, alive and loose soil receives around 100 millimetres of rainfall per hour, building up a supply for dry days. The anaerobic environment created in a chemically destroyed substrate is at best a home for pathogenic bacteria, which are naturally harmful to the plant.
The vineyards were once fruit trees
The opposite of this is a healthy ecosystem, where an abundance of plants and other life forms coexist to provide a balance above and below the surface. In the past, it was normal for fruit trees, herbs and vegetables to grow in the vineyard, which, among other things, helped to create humus. Grasses and other plants in the vineyard provide some competition to the vines in the topsoil, indirectly encouraging them to grow their roots deeper, saving them in dry periods and providing a rich source of nutrients and minerals from the different layers of the subsoil. In the end, we can feel it in the glass, in the wine that such a vineyard produces. For me, only such wine is produced “in vivo”, especially if it is the result of spontaneous fermentation and minimal intervention in the cellar.
Unfortunately, most of the wine drunk in the world today does not fall into the category just described, as it is not really an agricultural crop and has often never been in direct contact with a human hand. From the vineyard onwards, everything is mechanical, industrial you could say. The mechanical and chemical interventions at all stages of the process of producing such wines are so intensive that I personally can no longer call it agriculture, but agro-industry, producing wines ‘in vitro’. This is not to portray viticulture as black and white, as we know many winemakers who may not be classified as organic or biodynamic, but whose work is much closer to sustainability than the invasive approach described above.
Next time: organic, biodynamic, natural