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Viticulture: hybrid varieties, cross breeding resistant varieties with varieties of good wine quality

Viticulture, closely intertwined with the land and our earth, is threatened by the precarity of our environment. Wineries all over are being forced to reassess their practices

Cultivating the land – Masi wine group

Masi wine group, rooted in the region of Valpolicella Classica, has been making wine since 1772. They produce native Venetian grape varieties; Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. «It comes natural for winemakers to be sustainable», Raffaele Boscaini says. Boscaini is the seventh generation of winemakers. His family has worked to preserve the ancient Venetian methods used in winemaking, the technique known as the appassimento method.

It is a technique which dates back to the times of the Ancient Romans. It sees a natural partial dehydration of grapes to produce a fuller concentration of color, aroma and flavor. This often yields a much sweeter wine because there is still residual sugar left. Boscaini’s ancestors acquired their first piece of land in a valley in the hillside of the Valpolicella, Vaio dei Masi. Here, they began to utilize the native grape varieties. «To still be cultivating this same land after 250 years, we have had to adapt, economically, socially and environmentally». 

Limeburn Hill Vineyard

Limeburn Hill, a biodynamic vineyard located on the edge of Bristol in Chew Magna, began cultivating their land in 2015. They hand-planted 1800 vines. It was Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, who pioneered the grounding thoughts of biodynamic winemaking. His ideas were grounded on the premise that biodynamic farming was the necessary holistic and ecological approach to agriculture. «It works with the idea that everything is interconnected», says Robin Snowden. He continues: «It follows a Buddhist perspective that everything you do has an impact on everything else. From the tiniest little creatures, right down to the cosmos». A biodynamic farm lives and breathes on the belief that it is a living and integrated organism.

The ancestral viticulture method

One which has a physical, mental, spiritual and social being to it that has to be cared for. Snowden explains that their work has been something of a research project. Acting as a way to figure out what wine produced from this land authentically tastes like. He says, «we work to allow the vineyard and the season to express themselves as fully as they want».

In their winery, they use what is called the ancestral method, otherwise known as ‘pet nat’ for pétillant naturel. It is one of the oldest techniques for making sparkling wine. It is a technique which involves bottling wine partway through its fermentation to trap carbon dioxide gas in the bottle. This creates a gentle carbonation. «This is a minimum intervention method because it finishes fermenting in the same bottle that you’re drinking it from. We feel that it captures more of what you are drinking», says Snowden. 

The effects of warming in the vineyard 

The reality of global warming on viticulture practices is demonstrated through unpredictable weather and rising climates. This threatens the legacy of wine regions, especially for the production of premium wines. Although facing climatic change challenges, regions like the Champagne in France can only grow certain grape varieties by law. Snowden says: «Regarding Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy; the climate is changing so much that they are struggling to grow those grapes». In countries across the Northern Hemisphere, where the climate is getting hotter, grapes are ripening much faster.

Their provenance of distinct flavor is becoming lost. This early ripening has an undesired effect on the taste and quality of wine. Boscaini says: «You have to be prepared to change your wine for a variety of factors such as climate change. But also to consumer behavior and the possibility of new technology that becomes available». He explains that over the last five years, two vintages have been exposed to a high risk of spring frost. «This is totally unknown in this area», he says. He continues that over this winter, they haven’t experienced any rain. «It is quite scary and we hope that Spring will bring some water». 

Lampoon, Viticulture
MontePiazzo vineyard

Viticulture and hybrid resistant varieties  

Hybrid varieties are the name for the process of cross breeding resistant varieties with varieties of good wine quality. Oenologists are developing disease resistant varieties to caveat the issues wine regions are facing. This allows the grape to grow quicker in cooler climates and to be more resistant to fungal disease. Limeburn Hill grows eight grape varieties, seven of which are disease resistant. They include Sauvignac, Orion, Solaris, Regent, Rondo, Johanniter, Seyval Blanc and Pinot Noir, which is not.

Snowden explains that in most cases, people seek a viticulture consultant to help them decide on what varieties to grow. Alternatively, Robin and Georgia researched all the possible varieties they could grow, meeting with other growers and tasting their wines. He explains that they found that the most popular grape varieties growing in the UK were Champagne, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. However, they kept struggling to grow healthy in a biodynamic or organic way. Masi wine are looking for grape varieties that are designed to work with the challenges of the changing climate. He adds that other methods are also providing answers. Vineyard grass topping is a way of managing the space between vine rows. By planting grass cover in between vines, it helps to enrich the soil, stimulate microbial activity and control vine vigor. This regulates growth. 

Biodiversity and regenerative agriculture 

The French word, terroir, refers to the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced. The biodiversity encompasses more than just the land, water and air, considering the various flora and fauna. The array of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms that make up a vineyard’s ecosystem. Nitrogen makes up a macronutrient for plant function and is a key component of amino acids. It forms the building blocks of plant proteins and enzymes. Nitrogen can be found naturally through a variety of ways such as cow manure, coffee grounds, fish emulsion.

Snowden says, «life in the soil has a symbiotic relationship with the plants. All bacteria and microbial life in soil break down everything in soil, making those nutrients available to the plant». He continues, «it isn’t your soil that is full of nitrogen as such. It is that your soil is full of a nitrogen compound which microbes eat. They then either die or produce waste and it’s that waste that plants then take up. If you don’t have microbiology in your soil, you don’t have life in your soil». Robin and his wife, Georgina, have cultivated a vineyard on what was previously a pasture. They grow their grapes in a trellis system which allows their vines to be much higher up off the ground. This method encourages air flow which lessens humidity and the risk of disease.

Masi vineyard in Argentina

Biodiversity can include butterflies, beetles, bees and birds which contribute to the vines’ survival and good health. These examples of nature are visible signs that the ecosystem is in balance. Looking out of his window into their vineyard, Monte Piazzo, Boscaini says, «we have a balancing of biodiversity. We have terraces kept together by dry walls without cement. In between the spaces there are animals, birds and insects, it is a balancing of nature».

He continues by describing the Masi vineyard in Argentina. In the middle of the estate of hundreds of hectares, they have a space of ten to fifteen hectares. Here, a bush resides, full of animals, flora and wildlife. «It is the heart of the vineyard», he says. Masi built a lake in the same region in order to have a reservoir of water. This is to water the plants and to promote diverse wildlife and animals to the area.

Limeburn Hill – growing vines high up to allow for plenty of vegetation in the vineyard

Lakes can also retain heat so, placed next to a vineyard can be a way of warming the surrounding land. This works in preventing roots from freezing during colder weather. At Limeburn Hill, Snowden explains they grow their vines high up to allow for plenty of vegetation in the vineyard. «Our vines look pretty wild», he says. «There’s wildflowers everywhere, bugs, bees, badgers and bats». Snowden adds that in biodynamic farming, a key principle is keeping everything within the farm or vineyard.

Producing natural fertilizers is an important part of this. They grow treatments such as willow and dandelion to make teas to spray onto the vines. Willow is high in salicylic acid which increases the plant resilience. Dandelion is high in potassium, helping to increase root growth and reduce water loss. «We don’t come at this from a wine point of view. We come at it from an ecology point of view. I love wildlife and I have always wanted to be a farmer too. The idea of having a piece of land which I can bring more life to is an absolute dream for me», says Snowden.

Viticulture being open to change

To continue the tradition of wine making in these times means to adapt and evolve. Adapting to variable conditions is a good viticulture practice. It reaffirms what it means to work with land and not with machines. Boscaini says, «I want to see sustainability in a wider way of thinking. Wine makers must approach their craft with this outlook or there will be no longevity of what they are doing». Historically, until the climate began to change, wine making in England has been something of an oddity.

Snowden explains that it’s an interesting time for winemakers in this part of the world. Unlike in other wine regions, England has no appellations. There are no restrictions on what grape varieties you can grow, where you grow them and how. Although it is a fairly new phenomenon, Snowden notes that there are still very traditional outlooks on winemaking. This is despite the rare opportunity to innovate whilst there are few rules. He adds: «Having said that, there are young people, aged around forty, who come in and look at our methods of working. They say, I wouldn’t even think of doing it any other way. It’s got to be biodynamic. That is where the change is going to come in». 

Masi Wine 

A family run business which was founded in the Valpolicella Classica in 1772. They produce and distribute Amarone and other wines inspired by the values of the Venetian territories. The use of native grapes and autochthonous methods, and the research and experimentation carried out by its Technical Group, make it one of the most famous producers of high-quality Italian wines in the world.

Limeburn Hill Vineyard 

Ecological vineyard near Chew Magna on the edge of Bristol. It was the first biodynamic vineyard in the south west of England, and one of only seven in the UK. Perched on a sunny south-facing slope overlooking the Chew Valley, the vineyard was hand-planted with 1800 vines in 2015 and a further 1200 in 2020/21. Eight varieties of grapes are grown – three red and five white – from which a variety of natural wines are produced.

Anna Doherty

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
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