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What the #vines need: Happy soils!

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Balanced and healthy soils are the basis of any healthy and sustainable agriculture. A truism that one, however, had to rediscover in a more or less painful way in the last décades. This puts an end to the false promises of the “glorious”, chemical sixties! Many have understood: We have to take care of our soils. You have to protect and cherish them, so they can live on. Because soils, these piles of stones and dirt, may even die ...

“Agriculture has literally to go back to its roots and must become aware of the importance of healthy soils ...”, writes the FAO on its website. Soils are actually very complex, vibrant ecosystems that serve to a variety of functions, bringing benefits to the cultures that we plant on them. Being a reservoir for water and minerals, it’s bares also to a large variety of organisms: bacteria, fungi, insects and even mammals. All together they form a symbiotic system with the roots, improve the soil structure and contribute to a healthy and harmonious plant production. Soils are self-sustaining, open ecosystems that basically do not need the provision of man.

From the moment on men decide to cultivate a soil, they bring the system out of balance. This is not least due to crop harvesting, taking away a part of the ecosystem. It has long been believed that this imbalance could be adjusted with the help of chemical fertilizers and a massive application of weed killers and pesticides, to clean up the fields from the “parasitic nature”. This was believed to be the right path, since chemical fertilizers achieve spectacular growth results within short time.

HOGWASH! The excessive supply of nitrogen makes plants large but weak, the soils losing their porosity and their water retention capacity. Finally, this will kill the system… This imbalance may be hardly corrected. But there is an alternative, without necessarily getting back to prehistoric wilderness. On the contrary, the alternative to chemistry usually requires much more efforts and considerations.

“We use no more weed killers since the nineties,” explains Jean-Marc Verhaeghe, vineyard manager at Château du Cèdre in Cahors.
“We control the growth of wild herbs with a plough, inter-vine hoes and mowing. This has proven to be very beneficial to our vineyards. The vines have driven their roots further down, the weeds improve soil porosity favouring the infiltration of rainwater. In addition, evaporation and erosion are reduced, and biodiversity in the soils and the vines increase.”

Yves Gras has enriched his soils with a special carbon-containing compost. Ten tons per hectare! The compost brings organic material into the soil and increases its water retention capacity. Not a luxury in the hot Mediterranean part of the Rhône Valley, where are his vineyards.

Hubert Soreau also stopped using weed killers, taking considerable risks in his Chardonnay growing Clos l’Abbé in the Champagne south of Épernay. For grasses and herbs may increase the risk of frost in spring, which may sometimes nip the entire harvest in the bud. But his vines seem to be grateful with a more natural life, giving him fully ripe grapes for already several years, a basis for its full-bodied and amazingly complex champagne.

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Pierre Cros

Santa Duc

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Champagne J.Vignier

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