The regeneration game

The regeneration game
Regenerative viticulture is the ‘new kid on the block’ in the drive towards sustainable farming, and its flexibility is its great strength, writes Natasha Hughes MW

For as long as I’ve been visiting vineyards, producers have been engaged in recalibrating their relationship with the environment. It wasn’t that unusual 20 years ago to see vineyards being farmed conventionally, which is to say that pesticides, herbicides and fungicides were all routinely deployed in the quest for healthy yields. Thoughtful growers, though, were experimenting with sustainable viticulture, an ill-defined concept that encompassed a pick-n-mix list of practices aimed at restricting the most noxious of chemical inputs and promoting a greater degree of environmental respect. The most quality-conscious producers were already in the process of converting their vineyards to organic – or even biodynamic – practices, even if they weren’t seeking certification for their efforts.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and we find ourselves in a world where proof of environmental degradation is evident to most. It’s now increasingly rare to find a wine producer who hasn’t signed up to some kind of green vineyard scheme, but the flaws in the trifecta of sustainable, organic and biodynamic approaches have become increasingly clear.

Sustainable viticulture’s blurred boundaries make it difficult to define, and open it up to accusations of greenwashing. The concept of organic viticulture is widely understood, but the prescriptive nature of certification is often highly restrictive – you’ve got to follow certain rules, regardless of how relevant they are to your situation – and the way in which organic vineyards are worked can have both an adverse effect on soil health, and leave a heavy carbon footprint. The biodynamic approach entails a range of practices whose effects are not quantifiable, which is a turn-off for those who prefer a scientific approach.

There’s a new kid on the viticultural block, though, and it’s causing many of the most enlightened growers to reappraise the way they think about grape growing. Regenerative viticulture entails a holistic approach to viticulture aimed at encouraging the development of an active ecosystem in and around the vineyard. In this world view, vines are not isolated units but exist within an interconnected biosphere that links the plants to both the micro and macro worlds in which they’re embedded.

Healthy soil in the vineyard. Photo credit: Mimi Casteel


Bestel Heights. Photo credit: Mimi Casteel

One tenet of regenerative viticulture is that the soil isn’t just a matrix in which vines are implanted, it’s a living entity in its own right. The health of the soil is maintained and supported by its microbiome, and the fungi and microbes that live in and around the plant’s root system play an active part in ensuring the viability of the vine. It follows, therefore, that growers need to think carefully about how to ensure that soil health is maintained. Cover crops are a key tool, not only in terms of increasing biodiversity, but also because they can help to prevent erosion, restore nutrients to the soil. Some growers, particularly those in cooler climates, believe cover crops can help maintain water levels in the soil – although in warmer, drier growing zones, these plants may end up competing with the vines for scarce water resources. The work done by cover crops is further supplemented by the use of composting, vermiculture and mulches.

Regenerative viticulturists aren’t just interested in maintaining plant diversity for the sake of the soil, though. Fostering a healthy diversity of plant life in and around the vineyard can help to moderate its mesoclimate (the climate in the immediate area of the vineyard) and support the local fauna. This, in turn, can help to control the level of pest species in the vineyard, eliminating the need for insecticides. Some growers even use animals – sheep are the beasts of choice for many growers – to keep grass levels under control and manure the vineyards during the period between harvesting at the end of one year and the start of the new year’s growth cycle in spring the next year.

Many of these ideas and ideals are shared in common with organic, biodynamic and sustainable growers, but unlike the first two approaches, regenerative viticulture is not a prescriptive system with a checklist of dos and don’ts. It also implies a greater degree of respect for the environment than is required by the more basic requirements of sustainable viticulture. Grape growers working within a regenerative framework are free to adapt their practices to the demands imposed by the needs of their vineyard plots and the exigencies imposed by individual growing seasons. As Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, a winemaker and trustee of the Regenerative Viticulture Foundation, explains, ‘Regenerative viticulture is a mindset rather than a set of practices.’

This flexibility can be viewed as both a strength and a weakness of the regenerative approach. A weakness because it is impossible to sum up regenerative viticulture’s aims and practices in a few brief words, and so communicate its benefits to a wider audience. But also very much a strength as a flexible, adaptive mindset is likely to be the only way in which grape growers are going to be able to meet the climatic challenges to come.

Natasha Hughes graduated as a Master of Wine in 2014, winning several prizes as she did so, including that year’s Outstanding Achievement Award. For the past 20 years she’s freelanced as a journalist and educator, specializing in wine and food. She also consults for private clients, wine producers and restaurants, and is currently researching her first solo book on the wines of Beaujolais. You can follow her on Instagram @latashmw
Back to blog