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Grape expectations part 2: Monty Waldin reaps his biodynamic harvest

Monty Waldin

1st May, 2008

Battling a fractured back and the vagaries of the weather high in the Pyrenees, is the biodynamic dream of wine writer turned grower Monty Waldin about to turn sour?

My first task when I returned to France should have been spreading the 15 tonnes of organic compost I had ordered for my newly rented French vineyard. As the car crash in Italy had left me with a fracture in my lower back, however, it meant my first priority had to be finding a back specialist in France, someone who’d be able to manipulate my back regularly enough for it to heal straight rather in a banana-shape. Luckily Eric, whose organic vineyard I was renting, was able to recommend a local osteopath, Fred Py.

During my first visit Fred told me ‘Monty, you’ll never make a winegrower – no my friend, not with a back like you’ve got. Mind you, even without the fracture in your back, I suppose growing wine is a sure way to damage it permanently. So you can’t win either way!’

When I did finally get to spread the compost on to the vineyard, using just a shovel and a wheelbarrow, I was in considerable pain and, Fred said, risking permanent damage.

Nevertheless, I had reasoned that spending time moping around, doing nothing, was likely to be just as bad for my health as taking a calculated risk and getting on with what I had come to France to do – to grow wine in as environmentally friendly a way as possible. In the end I had to pay some locals to prune the vines for me, as my back just wouldn’t take any more punishment.

Winter pruning is necessary for the vines to produce a crop of grapes. I had the vines pruned when the moon was going through its ‘winter’ phase, which lasts roughly two weeks out of every four. This is similar to – but not the same as – the ‘waning’ moon, which is when the moon’s visible shape in the night sky gets gradually smaller after the full moon.

The moon’s ‘winter’ or descending phase occurs when the moon’s physical position in the night sky gets lower and lower – just like the sun’s from summer to winter, when it gets lower in the sky. Whereas the sun takes six months to do this (from June to December in the northern hemisphere), the moon takes only approximately 13 days – although you’ll have to wait for good visibility and spend a few nights waiting up into the early hours of the morning in order to verify this.

This ‘descending moon’ period is a good time to prune – and to plant – woody plants such as vines or fruit trees. The idea is that when the moon is descending the sap remains in the woody trunk of the tree and underground in its roots, rather than being in the branches. If you prune the branches off when they are full of life-giving sap, you’ll be throwing away all the valuable food they contain, making your vines weaker as a result. Weak vines are more likely to suffer from pests and diseases.

‘Prevention rather than cure’ is the watchword of bio farmers, and so knowing what the moon is doing when you are pruning makes sense – and costs nothing.

Even if I could control how and when my vines were pruned, however, I had no control over the weather.

An element of chance

Three extremely dry winters in Roussillon had left many local villages with water shortages. Mutterings about global warming were now a staple of daily conversation, especially since the 2006-2007 winter had not only been dry but also much warmer than usual. All of which meant the vines were on track to produce their spring buds several weeks ahead of schedule.

This was potentially disastrous: if the vines budded abnormally early they would be at risk from any subsequent cold snap – a real possibility for vines as high up as mine were growing (500m altitude). It would take just one night of cold to kill off the spring buds, and with it my chance of producing any wine grapes at all. I’d be out of business before I’d even started.

Luckily, towards the end of March, snow fell for two days, calming the vines down enough for bud-break to be delayed for another fortnight. The vines were back on track and I could relax a little.

I began work on my vegetable garden, organised a hen house and chickens, and dug a small water reservoir, which would also serve as a swimming pool for a pair of geese I had bought. The geese would keep the grass down on a neighbouring allotment owned by an elderly gentleman who was so ashamed of the weeds growing there (he’d given up gardening years ago) that he said he had planned to spray the whole plot with weedkiller. The geese became such a hit with the villagers that my elderly allotment neighbour’s grandson was taken down regularly to see how ‘Marmaduke’ and ‘Petronella’ were getting on.

The other sight of interest in the garden was an oak wine barrel I had half-buried there. This was the container in which I made some of my biodynamic barrel compost.

A quick form of sprayable compost, along with cow manure and eggshells (to counter radioactivity) it contained the six all-important biodynamic compost preparations made from yarrow, chamomile, dandelion and valerian flowers, whole stinging nettles and oak bark. When spread on to soil, these herbal preparations carry into crops what biodynamic growers call ‘life forces’.

These are said to help plants grow more strongly, allowing them to tap into beneficial earthly rhythms (the changing seasons, for example) and even lunar and other cosmic cycles. Without them, my vineyard could not be considered biodynamic.

In fact, there are nine biodynamic preparations in total, the three others being horn manure, which is sprayed on to the soil to enliven it; horn silica, which is sprayed above the vines to help them gather as much sunlight as possible, and a tea made from horsetail (a plant more commonly known as ‘bottlebrush’), which is sprayed on to the vines themselves to prevent disease.

As far as commercial winegrowing is concerned, however, biodynamics is not an end in itself, meaning I would still have to spray the vines with substances such as sulphur. This protects the vines from a type of mildew and is approved for use in biodynamic and organic vineyards. If mildew struck I knew I’d be looking at a small crop of grapes of highly questionable quality.

During the vines’ growing season, the plants would need to be sprayed every 10 to 14 days with sulphur – some five times in total. I had planned to spray as much as I could by hand using a back-sprayer, thus avoiding the need for diesel-burning tractors. Due to the problem with my back, however, only the biodynamic sprays went on to the vineyard by hand. The sulphur required a tractor-mounted spray rig – though I did manage to get the vineyard weeds under control using a horse-mounted plough.

Weeding yourself

I think that far too much energy is wasted in the fruitless quest to make vineyards look ‘clean’ or weedless. The conventional approach, of course, is to use weedkillers, but many bio growers also go overboard by ploughing out every last weed. As well as burning up a lot of diesel, ploughing with a tractor sends earth – in the form of dust – into the atmosphere, dust that is full of the kind of food valuable soil organisms such as worms need to survive.

Ploughing with a horse is much more gentle - and besides, I only used the horses to plough a small strip of weeds away on either side of the vines. This prevents high-growing weeds from blocking valuable sunlight from getting to the gapes.

I also left a weed-covered strip down the middle of each row. This allows the weeds to act as a habitat break for insects such as ladybirds, which will natuarlly control vine pests such as spider mites. In addition, the weeds would protect the soil from eroding under the hot sun or when rain bursts were heavy. Mine is a steeply sloping vineyard and the weeds would stop the soil from slipping off in a heavy downpour.

Soil in the vegetable garden was equally precious, and there I used the raised-bed system. Some people call it the French intensive system – not because it resembles intensive farming in the battery-hen sense, but because with unusually deep, fertile soil you can grow more crops in a smaller space.

You simply bank up soil in beds surrounded by wooden boards, with pathways in between. The idea is that the more space that is taken up by crops, the less space there is for weeds, meaning you spend your time making crops grow rather thankeeping weeds down.

By making the beds only double the width of your arm, it also means you can water, weed or pick each of your crops from either side of each planting block. You will never have to stand on the growing area and damage the soil by compacting it with your work boots.

The vat of the land

In the winery I did my best to recycle as much as I could. I had planned to make my wine in a local co-operative, but as this was not approved for a wine carrying organic certification I had to change tack and rent space in Eric’s winery. This was approved by the organic inspectors.

Eric had no spare fermentation vats that were usable, only some old cement vats last used 30 years ago by his grandfather. We eventually struck a deal: I agreed to clean them and help pay for new door-hatches on the side and top of the vats if he’d let me use them.

Cement tanks are ideal for making red wine. Tanks made of fibreglass or stainless steel heat up or cool down very quickly; cement, however, warms and cools only slowly. Gradual changes in temperature are best for the yeasts that turn grape juice into wine via fermentation – when sugar gets converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.

Wines fermented in fibreglass or stainless steel tanks are more likely to need to be chilled or heated using expensive – both for the environment and financially – temperature-control systems to keep the yeast happy at a constant temperature.

Harvest festival

When it came to harvesting the grapes, only hand-picking would do. My vineyard had been planted in the 1950s when machine-harvesters did not exist. After the oil crisis of the early-1970s, however, in Europe at least, winegrowing was all about producing as much wine as you could for as little money as possible. Picking vines by hand was 40 times slower – and thus 40 times more expensive – than doing it by machine.

So my vineyard had been modified using a system of support posts and wires that allowed the vines to be picked by machine: as the mechanical harvester passed, the wires would stop branches snapping off – potentially fatal for the vines.

I insisted mine be hand-picked, though, and when all the grapes were in the vat felt a great sense of relief. I knew at any moment that the fermentation could ‘stick', however, and I’d be left with a few thousand litres of vinegar rather than wine.

In the end the wine turned out to be good enough and fairly enough priced to interest a number of British wine importers, but I soon realised that making the wine was only half the battle. Packaging proved to be equally as important. Bottles, corks, capsules and labels – all of these had to be selected too.

Ultimately, I opted for a bottle stopper that was not made from 100 per cent natural cork. Although environmentally sound – the tree bark from which natural cork is made can be stripped for hundreds of years without the trees themselves ever having to be cut down – natural cork stoppers have proved unreliable. Wines sealed with natural cork risk becoming tainted by off-flavours that are present in the cork itself.

I opted instead for a stopper made from cork particles that were bound together using a non-organic substance.

It was much better than a metal screwcap or 100 per cent plastic cork, neither of which are foolproof (both can occasionally make wines smell vinegary or cheesy). The stopper I chose was the only one that I have found that could bring the bottled wine to the consumer exactly as the wine came out of the tank.

Ideally I’d ship my wine to the UK in oak barrels, from where wine merchants could fill up up their customers’ own empty bottles on an as-needed basis – the customers would then reuse their bottles indefinitely, rather than use them once and smash them up in recycling bins of dubious environmental value. Making a bio wine is one thing; getting it to the consumer in a ‘bio’ fashion is my next challenge.

Monty’s biodynamic, organic wine is available from Adnams, see www.adnams.co.uk

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2008


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