Into the woods

Amanda Barnes explains agroecology, and explores how these practices support vineyards and their surrounding environment, as well as improving the resulting wine.

Haut-Bages Libéral
Haut-Bages Libéral

Instead of vines, Château Haut-Bages Libéral has started planting trees in their vineyards. In fact, in one of their eight-hectare plots in Haut-Médoc, they are planting almost 1,000 trees — almost 125 trees per hectare. The famed Bordeaux château is by no means swapping wine for forestry, but instead they are one of the many growing disciples of agroecology.

Agroecology is, put simply, the practice of ecology within agriculture — studying the relationship between plants, animals and other living organisms and seeing how they can be beneficial to farming. It is a sustainability movement looking into how greater diversity in the ecosystem can be beneficial to all.

You’ve no doubt seen large scale vineyards around the world where all you see on the horizon is vine row after vine row, with neat lines of bare earth in between. It’s quite an impressive sight, but agroecologists believe monoculture plantings like these can be detrimental to the longevity of a vineyard. They argue in many ways that messier is better; a greater biodiversity of different plants, flowers and trees co-existing within the vineyard, as well as insects and animals, are beneficial to the vines.

Agroecology is an umbrella term which can cover many different aspects in the vineyard — ranging from organic to biodynamic production — but at its core, agroecology is about returning to polyculture. Polyculture, with vineyards mixed into olive tree plantations, small home farms and gardens, was common up until the industrialisation of the industry and onset of intensive agriculture.

While polyculture vineyards can be less productive and more labour-intensive, studies suggest that a diversity of flora and fauna can improve the lifespan and quality of the vines, and ergo, ultimately, the quality of the wine.

How planting other trees and plants can benefit vineyards

Clair Villars-Lurton of Château Haut-Bages Libéral is not alone in planting trees within the vineyards. Trees can promote biodiversity and attract animal and insect life, but also regenerate soil life and sequester carbon.

Within the vineyards of Haut-Bages Libéral today, for example, you’ll find trees and hedgerows with a range of species including peach trees, apple trees, maples, elms, dogwoods and poplars. Between each vine row too there are a multitude of different plant species being cultivated, ranging from clover and rye to mustard and broad beans.

The purpose of both the trees and plants is to keep the soil fertile and alive, filled with earthworms, which can lead to greater nutrient availability and distribution in the soils. Another function is that the plant life (and earthworms) also aerate those soils so that the vine roots can thrive and grow deeper. Research suggests that deeper vine roots give greater balance to the vine and improve the quality of the wine.

Trees among the vines can also offer certain benefits in the face of climate change. The evapotranspiration of the trees can help lessen or mitigate the impact of drought, while trees can also offer extra shading and a cooler mesoclimate in the vineyards.

Holistic farming at Geyerhof
Holistic farming at Geyerhof

Allowing the animal kingdom to reign in the vineyard

As well as plant life, agroecology promotes the growth of a diverse animal, bird and insect life within the vineyard.

Two of The Society’s growers in Austria have been particularly proactive in attracting the animal kingdom into their vineyards. Birgit Braunstein (Weingut Birgit Braunstein) and Maria and Josef Maier (Geyerhof) came together to forge their own protocol for agroecology by creating their Wild Wux project in 2012.

As well as planting indigenous fruit trees in the vineyards, they have created ecological corridors for special habitats for the animal kingdom. Geyerhof has dedicated 13% of its entire estate to nature reserves — creating conservation areas to attract fauna and flora. The increase in insect life, and competition between species as well as creation of other food sources, means that the Maiers no longer need to use insecticides and the vines remain strong and healthy.

Both Geyerhof and Weingut Birgit Braunstein have also installed nesting boxes in their vineyards for barn owls, little owls and hoopoes, which eat the pests keeping populations in check. And they have put sheep to work in the vineyards, grazing and keeping the weeds trimmed down.

A thriving landscape at Geyerhof
A thriving landscape at Geyerhof

Bees are also a secret work force in the vineyard, helping to cross-pollinate cover crops. Birgit Braunstein has ten bee colonies in her vineyards, which not only get to work with pollinating the cover crops but also produce a delicious blossom honey.

As the movement worldwide steadily grows, it seems that the sweet side of agroecology is beginning to come to the fore. While having trees in vineyards is nothing new, agroecology is certainly bringing polyculture back into fashion.

>Browse wines from Braunstein 
>Browse wines from Geyerhof

Amanda Barnes


Amanda Barnes

Amanda Barnes is an award-winning British journalist and editor who specializes in wine and travel writing. She is an expert in South American wine and regions and a regular correspondent for international wine and travel publications (including Decanter, The World of Fine Wine and Wine Enthusiast). She is currently studying to become a Master of Wine and is author of the South America Wine Guide.

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