Regenerative Viticulture is a phrase being bandied around a lot right now, but it is sufficiently new, and current, for the majority of people, that many probably don’t really know exactly what it means. This is why Jamie Goode has, once more, given us a topical book in which he hopes to enlighten us. The “us” in question certainly covers all wine professionals, in whatever capacity. We all need to get up to speed on regeneration, the buzz word of the decade for sustainability, not only in viticulture but agriculture in general. I also think that this book will appeal to any serious wine lover looking beyond books of scores, or those written about their favourite wine region. Certainly, anyone who read Jamie’s previous books examining the more scientific sides of wine (Flawless on wine faults, or Authentic Wine, with Sam Harrop, for example) will enjoy it.
Dr Goode is currently writing a longer book, to be titled “The New Viticulture”, to be published later this year. It’s a work intended to be more detailed and more technical. This current work is intended to “encapsulate what regenerative viticulture actually means, in a text that doesn’t require a strong scientific background” (to borrow the author’s words).
Regenerative viticulture as a concept is both simple, yet at the same time, difficult to understand. This is especially true as many consumers are already confused between organics, biodynamics and natural wine. Regenerative viticulture doesn’t fit into any neat pyramid, but is a separate entity with a focus on ways of creating an ecosystem allowing vines to thrive (including producing viable crops of healthy grapes and resistance to disease). Central to regeneration, but not exclusively so, is soil health.
When I was younger, I am sure I was not alone in being impressed when I visited vineyards of neat rows with not a weed nor plant in sight among the vines. What I didn’t understand back then, was that these vineyards were not only drenched in potentially harmful herbicides and synthetic pesticides, but beneficial root systems, and the microscopic life that inhabits them, were also compacted by tractors, torn by ploughing and stripped of nutrients by water run off’s erosive action.
Oddly enough it was first in Burgundy where I began to understand the negative impact of synthetic treatments and tractor compaction, and it was the top estates which were onto it first and led the way in changing the way they farmed. Becoming something of a passionate fan of Jura wines, I soon got to understand natural winemaking. Hand-in-hand with this philosophy you would always find an appreciation of soil health. In fact, a healthy vineyard is pretty much essential if you are making wine with zero, or minimal, added sulphites. So, I soon came to appreciate whatever the grower sowed or left to grow between the rows, and equally why they were using a horse rather than a tractor for work in the vines.
That, of course, is the romantic side of regenerative viticulture. How you get to that position requires a real understanding of your individual ecosystem (all vineyards are different). Jamie Goode brings a combination of deep scientific knowledge as a Doctor of Plant Biology, with his unrivalled ability as a multi-award-winning wine communicator, to explain a potentially complicated subject in a way which makes the light bulb come on immediately.
After a concise introduction Jamie sets the scene by talking about other vine management methodologies, through organics (the good bits and the bad bits) and biodynamics (especially the practical side of the philosophy). In Chapter 2 we get to understand that “regenerative” farming is effectively the way we farmed before the agri-chemical revolution, and indeed it has been practised as long back as indigenous peoples (anyone interested should read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and the relevant parts of Max Allen’s “Intoxicating” on indigenous farming in Australia, whilst noting that Pascoe has his detractors, and also an excellent book on Native American land husbandry by Robin Wall Kimmerer, called Braiding Sweetgrass).
We are introduced to the views and thoughts on the subject by a number of, mostly well known, practitioners of more enlightened viticulture, first in Bourgogne (as the region’s professional body would like us to call it now, not Burgundy), and then further afield, especially producers in Oregon and New Zealand.
One key concept Dr Goode introduces is permaculture. It’s a subject I’m interested in because I know the person who runs the Permaculture programme for Brighton and Hove Council. Permaculture is a subject in its own right, but there is a lot of overlap between that and regenerative agriculture. In permaculture we are beginning to see one path towards regeneration.
One key text is Masanobu Fukuoka’s “The One Straw Revolution”. You might have read my review of this wonderful, short, book (August 2021). Fukuoka was himself an agricultural scientist, not some guru-like peasant, and all his later techniques were the result of a very scientific observation of life in his fields (and, for sure, he certainly made mistakes to begin with). In the same way that Fukuoka will show you the way to regeneration and sustainability in a Japanese context, Jamie Goode will enable you to begin to understand why regeneration is so important to viticulture, not just to put right past mistakes, but in order to allow winemaking to remain sustainable through climate change (chaos).
If you want to taste Fukuoka-style permaculture in the glass, look for the truly astonishing wines made by Nate Ready, at Hiyu Farm in Oregon’s Hood River Valley. Nate, and partner China Tresema, get a page towards the end of Chapter 3.
Chapter 4 introduces the subject of Agroecology, fundamental to regenerative farming. Agroecology, in a viticulture context, means looking at the vineyard as a whole, as one total ecological being or system. Once the vineyard is recognised as an ecosystem, not just soil as a medium for crop production, then you are ready to begin a journey towards sustaining that vineyard, potentially indefinitely. Jamie discovered agroecology earlier than I did, via a book on the subject by Miquel Altieri, recommended to him by Ted Lemon of Littorai Vineyards in Sonoma.
The chapter looks at agroecology and introduces its current buzz topic, Functional Biodiversity. I won’t spin out the details, but if you take a percentage of your land out of production and create (or allow to grow) other habitats, the biodiversity created will directly benefit your crops.
Chapter 5 is called “Farming Soils” and starts out with a great quote from James Millton (Gisborne, NZ): “We’re not standing on dirt, but on the rooftop of another kingdom”. A simple idea, almost a cliché, yet one somehow forgotten by a post-war generation of conventional grape farmers…or if not forgotten certainly not understood. Here we delve deep into the micro-world of fungi and spores. If you want to dig deeper (trying not to disturb the underworld), read “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard, whose work in British Columbia led to revelations about the mycorrhizal connections which communicate in sophisticated and hardly believable ways beneath the ground (the so-called “wood-wide-web”). It opens the mind. Jamie mentions Simard in this chapter.
Chapter 6 gives us the regenerative tool kit. First out the bag, cover crops, though this, you will discover, is a very big subject, especially when remembering that all sites are different. Jamie touches on composting, biochar (which he comes back to in the last chapter) and mulching. Chapter 7 links in via weed control and looks further at no-till systems (Lemon, mentioned above, favours no-till). There’s a handy, balanced, section on glyphosates (“Roundup”) here, as part of the wider discussion of synthetic herbicides. But not all weed control needs the napalm death approach and other systems and approaches are introduced. We also get a good look at some of the most prevalent vine diseases here, a section which any MW or WSET Diploma student needs to understand.
After a brief discussion of certification and whether or not it has value in Chapter 9, we move on in Chapter 10 to a very current topic: incorporating animals. I’d never seen animals in a vineyard before I’d visited the Durrmann family in Andlau a few years ago. In their case it was sheep. Now, I find sheep, and hens, almost common and I’ve even seen pigs. As well as introduced species, some producers are content to allow wild animals (deer, bears, even potentially destructive wild boar) among the vines.
Equally, trees may be planted for shade, but they will, when grown, encourage birds. But they will eat the grapes, you say. They will also eat insect pests. The chapter discusses their value and function to the ecology of the vineyard, which is met with incomprehension in many cases from the viticultural, and especially government, bodies. Not to mention fellow farmers and neighbours. Jeff Coutelou in Languedoc, and the late Stefano Bellotti in Piemonte, both experienced vandalism from unknown sources who didn’t appreciate the planting of trees on or in the vineyard. André Durrmann, whose sheep I met in 2017, has trees actually interspersed among the vines.
One of the great issues with climate change is whether traditional varieties will still thrive, or survive, in the places where they are currently famous. A glaring example is Merlot in Bordeaux, where its tendency to over-ripen when the weather gets hot can lead to very unbalanced, high alcohol, wines. Matching variety to place is rightly discussed in Chapter 11 before the following chapter looks at hybrids and the new resistant vines (known by most as PIWIs, an abbreviation of the German word “pilzwiderstandsfähige”).
PIWIs are becoming increasingly important, even if the varietal label-seeking wine consumer is a long way from hearing about them. They are already getting a lot of producer attention in Switzerland, where research is in far greater proportion to that country’s production level. They are equally becoming more used in Germany. Goode quotes star natural wine producer Jan Matthias Klein as saying that their quality matches the traditional varieties, perhaps with the exception of Riesling.
The French equivalents to PIWIs are called ResDur (the Resistance Durable varieties). You might have heard of a few of them. In my case it’s Muscaris Blanc, Souvenier Gris, Solaris, Pinotin and three Cabernets (Blanc, Cortis and Jura). I’m equally sure that varieties such as Muscaris and Frontenac might be known to those who have sampled wines from the likes of La Garagista of Vermont. I had absolutely no idea, though, that Champagne has approved such a variety. Well, it’s on a ten-year trial, but “Voltis” is allowed as 10% of any blend. I don’t know what it tastes like, but its resistance to disease, and other attributes, do suggest it is an interesting proposition for the region’s climate.
The book ends with an in-depth interview Dr Goode conducted with two very different proponents of Regenerative Viticulture, Mimi Casteel (Hopewell Vineyards, Oregon) and Miguel Torres Jr (Torres, Peñedès). The interview took place at the launch of the Regenerative Viticulture Foundation in London, in March of this year. It’s the perfect note on which to end this marvellous little book.
I should say something about the production values. It’s a nicely bound paperback which does have something of the feel of a “print-on-demand” title (printed by Amazon), so it’s not as flashy as a paperback from a publishing house. But this doesn’t detract from the book, which has clear text interspersed with good, and relevant, photos taken by the author. The author has also been a science editor and that is probably why there are only one of two typos. A way better score than similar self-published works, like the book I’ve been reading over the holiday which asserted that a gig in Milan was very much enjoyed by “the Spanish audience”. You cannot beat a good proof reader.
Regenerative Viticulture by Dr Jamie Goode is available via Amazon for (currently) £16.76, or reduced to £9 for the electronic/Kindle edition. I really think this is a must read for any wine professional or wine lover who is interested in sustainability, climate change and ecological issues relating to viticulture, and wine in general. Whilst the book does contain more solid science, and scientific terminology, than your average wine book, Jamie Goode is such a great communicator that it didn’t feel that I was at any point close to being out of my depth. That alone is an achievement for the author. Rarely have I found a book like this to be so interesting. At 165 pages it doesn’t take an age to read, and it’s short enough that I shall re-read it after a suitable break away from wine-related material. Is there a more important, and relevant, topic in wine at the moment?