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What is Regenerative Viticulture, Is it Important, and What Does it Mean for On-premise Sales?

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18/07/2022 Keeping up with trends in viticulture forms, Charlie Leary explores & defines the trend & identifies some important sommelier practitioners as the new buzz is all about regenerative viticulture.

Regenerative agriculture, and with it, regenerative viticulture, have very recently generated a lot of buzzes. There’s a new Regenerative Viticulture Foundation and many wine experts like Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, as well as important wine companies like Torres, have thrown their weight behind the concept. With many on-premise consumers choosing green wines, will regenerative viticulture change the sales and wine menu landscape? Or is this just another rendition of sustainable, organic, biodynamic, or natural wine? 

What is Regenerative Viticulture?

The Foundation defines regenerative viticulture as “the capability . . . to sequester atmospheric carbon, helping mitigate climate change and global warming impacts, as well as enhance the natural environment.” The goal is to move “away from a chemical-based monocultural agriculture that is degenerative to soil and local ecosystems.” A prominent British wine publication has claimed that “regenerative viticulture is the only vineyard model based on the carbon cycle, which maximizes the vine’s ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the ground, benefiting the soil and promoting biodiversity.” 

Promoters emphasize enhancing biodiversity and enriching vineyard soil health, with a big focus on quarantining carbon in the ground through a variety of techniques, including cover crops and sheep grazing between the vines, but going as far as multi-cropping and encouraging nearby forests. For a specific example, Oregon regenerative viticulturist Mimi Casteel practices farming without irrigation and tilling, growing fruits and vegetables with the grape vines, and “introducing animals on her farm (pigs and ducks, for example) to further support this habitat.” What many of us might call weeds are also tolerated, not eliminated. 

Stephen Cronk, the Foundation’s founder, and Trustee refers to the need for a “holistic way of farming.” McClaren Vale winegrower Dudley Brown says, “The regenerative approach is the only approach that seeks to continually and specifically improve the status of the resource base via the diversity of plant and soil life, increasing organic matter and water-holding capacity while simultaneously reducing or minimizing the costs of external or off-farm inputs.” He insists that objectively measuring vineyard soil health is a critical task for the new movement. 

Wine expert and scientist Jamie Goode say what’s new is really a matter of focus, comparing it with the precepts of biodynamics and permaculture, already practiced for decades. Goode believes there is something new. “Key to regenerative viticulture is the idea of the vineyard as an agroecosystem. . . . It is about farming soils, not just seeing the vine as a crop plant.”

But What is So Different Here?

I’ve recently practiced a version of sustainable viticulture in Andalusia and was one of Louisiana’s first certified organic farmers in the 1990s. I studied permaculture. But I didn’t call any of this “regenerative viticulture.” The goals and practices promoted by the Foundation, Torres, and other small winemakers like Brown, Casteel, and Cronk are admirable. Do we as a society need another catch-phrase? And do wine professionals need to know about, and be able to sell on-premise, yet another green way of producing grapes for wine? We already have organic and biodynamic, among others. 

From a sommelier or wine director’s perspective, yes. Regenerative viticulture continues to gain the attention of the wine world, including fine wine consumers. There is now a certification program from the Regenerative Organic Alliance in California applied to winegrowers. Having the capacity to discuss in detail wines made from these practices will engage consumers and sell more wine. It’s also important for climate change and the planet’s health. 

On the positive side, regenerative viticulture addresses some of the problems with the natural wine movement, which can lack definition, application of academic knowledge, and conventions. Thus Cronk’s underlining of the importance of objective standards is appreciated. Making soil health the central component of winegrowing practices is fundamental and lends the movement something solid, analyzable, to build upon, and to establish benchmarks. The holistic perspective is important too: a vineyard is part of an ecosystem, after all. 

Pesticide and herbicide use in vineyards should be curtailed. Soils should be looked after like the treasure for future quality products that they are. The particular emphasis on carbon sequestration in the soil, especially when viewed from a holistic perspective, technically distinguishes regenerative viticulture from biodynamics and organic cultivation.

This means the use of nitrogen-fixing plants as cover crops and/or companion plants. Adding animals, like chickens or sheep, produce the manure that’s essential to soil enrichment, an organic fertilizer that also contains essential bacteria. No- or low-tilling practices also help preserve soil quality. Tilling and removing other plants beside the grape vines is taboo under this system, as are, it almost goes without saying, chemical inputs like synthetic fertilizers, which do nothing long term to enrich the soil or preserve its positive qualities for producing great wines. 

 I understand that technically organic and biodynamic practices are more about prescriptive measures—what you can’t do to cultivate the vines—than positive enriching measures. But this argument only goes so far as the individual winegrower. My personal perspective, as well as that of many certified organic and biodynamic producers, already encompasses a whole ecosystem, low input, soil-centric perspective. Famed wine grower Peter Sisseck produces biodynamically. Does this mean he does the bare minimum to gain certification, with no consideration of the whole grape-growing system? No.

Sisseck and others have long emphasized the importance of a deep understanding of winemaking and terroir together, knowing when inputs are necessary but also realizing that minimal intervention is a plus. Animals and the manure they produce, are for Sisseck among others, an integral part of the viticultural system, even if technically this is not part of biodynamic production. He says he works “in a very natural but academic way.” The holistic perspective is part of regenerative viticulture, but also of biodynamic viticulture, which is why Sisseck sees it essential to have a manure source. “In order to close the biodynamic circle completely, we will need a cattle ranch. Composting, for example, is very important for biodynamics.”

Biodynamics, as well as permaculture practices, embraced a holistic perspective based on soil health well over a decade ago. An in-depth 2012 article talked about “the regenerative promise of biodynamics,” for example, and quoted Wes Jackson as saying, “Soil is a placenta or matrix, a living organism which is larger than the life it supports, a tough elastic membrane which has given rise to many life forms…. But it is itself now dying. It is a death that is utterly senseless, and portends our own.”

So, the emphasis in regenerative viticulture on the soil, carbon sequestration, and an all-encompassing perspective should be applauded, more so if objective standards are built into practices, including certification programs. But I’m not sure there’s much truly new here, just perhaps the focus changed as Goode states, and the claims that this is the only system that “seeks to continually and specifically improve the status of the resource base via a diversity of plant and soil life” seems tenuous.

Wines from Regenerative Viticulture

That said, does regenerative viticulture produce good wines that can be profitably sold on-premise? Absolutely. Extremely high-quality wineries offering high-quality use of regeneratively cultivated fruit, usually from their own estates. Here are a few examples:

- Truett-Hurst 2018 Rockpile Zinfandel: A single-vineyard wine made by a dedicated regenerative producer in Dry Creek, Healdsburg,  California.

- Troon Vineyard 2020 Amphora Amber: A skin-fermented Vermentino wine that is Regenerative Organic Certified, from Oregon’s Applegate Valley. 

- Tablas Creek Vineyard has bottled seven varietal whites from the 2021 vintage that are Regenerative Organic Certified. These included varietal wines (Viognier, Picpoul, and Grenache Blanc), including rare grapes (Bourboulenc, Picardan, and Clairette Blanche), and one blend, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.

- Rose wines (there’s a whole range) from Maison Mirabeau, Provence, France.

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