Of Sheep and Terroir
Regenerative farming is an approach to cultivating the land, where the key focus is on improving the health of the soil. It builds the proportion of organic matter in the soil and increases its biodiversity with respect to microorganisms and plants. Its proponents claim that regenerative farming removes a meaningful amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provides for crops with higher nutritional density than conventional farming.
Regenerative farming calls for growing a diverse set of cover crops and abstaining from tilling the soil or leaving it open to the elements. Use of herbicide or pesticide is discouraged and in order to close the natural life cycle herbivores, managed according to holistic grazing strategies, must be integrated into the farm.
While the goal of promoting soil health is very much in line with the underlying philosophy of biodynamic farming, there are some differences between the two approaches. A handful of our biodynamic neighbors have successfully integrated herbivores in their vineyards and we are following their lead.
We started our conversion to certified biodynamic farming in 2018, and by now, the first parcels have completed the conversion. This winter, it was time for another step forward, and we acquired a small herd of sheep that we will graze in our vineyards all year round. By this spring, we look forward to the herd growing with the addition of newborn lambs. These new employees will help us keep the undergrowth of our steepest parcels nice and tidy. These are parcels that we would otherwise have to mow by hand.
Our sheep are of the breed Ouessant, which is the smallest breed of sheep in the World. A fully grown ewe measures only 45 cm (18 in) to the shoulders. They are friendly, easy to manage, and fit quite conveniently under the lowest wire on our trellis. The name of this breed comes from the French island Ouessant in the English Channel. Interestingly, it was the Vikings that initially brought the Ouessant breed to this island, and given our Scandinavian heritage, we can now say the Vikings are taking them back.
But Does This Really Result in a Better Wine?
A key goal of regenerative farming practices is to naturally increase the plant available nutrients in the soil. In turn, this results in crops with a greater nutritional density.
First in line to take advantage of these nutrients are the yeasts responsible for converting the grape’s sugars into alcohol. It is well known that nutrition deficient grapes result in wines with less well-defined fruity aromatics. For example, if the yeast does not get enough nitrogen, it may get stressed and start to produce hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs and can easily mask other aromatics of the wine.
The increased nutrients in the soil will therefore lead to wines with more clearly defined and beautiful fruity aromatics.
The story doesn’t end there. Some very recent research has provided links between the terroir expressed in wine and the microbes living in the soil. A recent overview can be found here. This fascinating research became possible with the development of cheap DNA analysis of soil samples and grape juice. In short, this research has shown that the microbes from the soil are also found in the grape juice prior to the onset of fermentation. The pathways of influence are still not fully understood, but these microbes have an active metabolism and can therefore directly influence the chemical composition of the wine.
If a vineyard has been sprayed with herbicide and pesticide for many years, the microorganisms in the soil have likely been significantly affected. By reverting to regenerative practices, one can reestablish a unique locally adapted, and diverse population of microorganisms in the soil.
When the unique local microbe population thrives, then the true terroir character of the vineyard can be expressed in the wine.
Somehow it all comes down to Karma and treating the soil gently. Happier microbes and yeasts in the soil will make for better-tasting wines expressive of their terroir and that my friends leads to happier customers.