A Permaculture Vineyard in Flanders

Working with nature!’ That sounds all good, and we have to admit it’s a phrase we sometimes use ourselves, describing what inspires us as brewers. But what could that possibly mean? Is it just an empty catchphrase? To find out, we decided to try our hand at making natural, low-intervention wine from a vineyard we have planted ourselves at our house in Flemish-Brabant.

A few years before we moved to a little place in Kortenaken with the intent of growing most of our food ourselves, so we started dabbling into the possibilities of a permaculture garden for our vegetables. But to be honest: we failed pretty good at that. We tapped into all the theory pretty easily, but to materialise it was something else. The idea of permaculture is to get rid of linear structures and separate compartments, having different plants reinforce each other, instead of keeping them apart. For example, you sow lettuce together with cabbages and carrots, you cover the soil with straw, and let seeds spontaneously come up in the next years. You keep doing that, and let nature itself decide further on which plants grow best where. So far for theory. After a few months, our vegetable garden was a big mess, with very low yields. Yep, we switched back to a more linear system, sowing seeds again every spring, and trying to get rid of the weeds in between the rows.

But the idea of permaculture kept lurking. What if we would have more space to let plants grow spontaneously, and what if we would have other expectations concerning yields? We had a whole field plowed by our 2 mangalica pigs, that would be perfect for planting a little vineyard. So the idea rose to combine both: an experimental vineyard with as much as possible edible plants in between the rows. We had already planted some fruit trees before on the plot, and designed the vineyard around them: apple trees, cherry trees and some apricot trees.

One of the first principles of permaculture we had to compromise was its preference for cyclical shapes. It's fascinating to think more cyclical for sure; and maybe that's what we've learned mainly from maintaning the vineyard. Everything comes in cycles; our whole year becomes structured around the work in the vineyard, from winter pruning, to summer harvest, it's nature itself that gives us the rhytmn. But concerning design: there was no way we could give up on linear structures.

One of the main difficulties of growing grapes in Belgium is the rather wet and cold climate. We might benefit a bit from climate change, but generally the climate is still pretty humid, causing fungal diseases like downey and powdery mildew to thrive. So when designing a vineyard it's pretty crucial to have vines planted in such an order that the whole plant can dry easily during the day and after rain. A cyclical shape would mean moisture gets trapped in. Our south-west/nord-east lines ensure that the rows can dry easily, as the dominant wind direction is south-west.

The fungus-problem also determined the choice for grape varieties to a large extent. We planted a few classical varieties that are fit for more northern wine regions like Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Dornfelder. But mainly we choose hybrid varieties, in which an American resistant variety is crossed into a classical wine grape variety: Leon Millot, Regent and a few newer varieties developed by Valentin Blattner in the swiss Jura: Cabernet Jura, Pinotin, Cabernet Blanc and Cal 6-04. It might be still a little early to tell, but for now all the Blattner-varieties are doing really well: they are vigorous growers, have been fungus-free without any treatments what so ever, and provide beautifull, open clusters. Leon Millot is a bit of a let down, as it grows too abundant, while the clusters are really small and dense. Our biggest mistake might however have been planting Pinot Noir. In drinking natural wine, this is our favourite grape, but it is probably a too fragile variety to cultivate ourselves. We only treat it with minimal amounts of sulphur and copper, but even in a dry spring and summer as 2018, we're unable to prevent downey mildew on both leaves and clusters. In 2017 we had beautiful clusters till the end of August, but then they fell prey to blackrot, wasps and fruitflies. We weren't able to harvest anything at all. Very probably we'll have to get rid of them, and replant a strong variety as Cal 6 04 instead.

Our main principle is to strengthen the natural abilities of the plant to deal with problems as fungi and other grape-related pests. That's why we never use any systemic products, that reach into the plant's system. By using systemic products, the plants would become too dependent on external means in fighting pests. Instead we mainly work the soil. We want a lively, healthy soil, so the plants get all the nutrients they need. That's why we plow every other row, each spring, alternating rows over the years, and sowing green manure: a mixture of herbs and flowers. They attract a lot of different insects, but also provide nutrients on the long term. Mainy of the roots reach into the soil for about one metre. They die after summer, leaving behind traces of humus in the soil, and aerating the soil so other organisms can thrive. At the same time, many of those plants can be used in cooking or in our gruit beers: dill, yarrow, radish, mustard, borage...

We also keep throwing different vegetable seeds in the vineyard, while plowing the rows, causing the occasional tomatoplant, artisjokes, beans, zucchinis, swiss chard, selery, onions, fennel... popping up at random places. The permacultureprinciple is starting to work, especially since we have few expectations concerning yield. They provide pleasant surprising when making another vineyard salad.

So yes, we see biodiversity augmenting every year. Still, it's too early to tell what the real effect is on the strength of the plant and the wine. We are guided by intuitive principles, which we hold dear, but which will have to be tested further in the long run. It's definitely not an all success-story. As wild as it oftens looks, it's a very labor intense process. Many of the herbs grow pretty high, causing excess humidity around the plants. That's why we use a handscythe for weeding around the plants, making sure the grapes can dry easily enough. Another problem is caused by the invasive Japanese fruit fly Drosophila Suzukii. This fly threatens all soft fruit, puncturing the berries and causing vinegar production within the berry. When working without sulfites this is an absolute nightmare, because too many infected berries may cause excess amounths of ethyl acetate production (aceton-smell).

Again, we are relying on augmenting biodiversity to attract natural enemies. But of course, that's a long term solution. At the moment, there are still very few natural enemies and the biodiversity itself helps the fruit flies to grow into pretty big colonies. The vineyard is surrounded by other fruit such as blackberries, raspberries, sloeberries and elderberries, allowing the fly to go through different reproduction cycles from early June till the end of August. Thus, when all the other fruit is gone at the end of the summer, they easily migrate to the grapes.That's why last year we resorted to some desperate measures in protecting the grapes: we covered all nice clusters in a breathable cloth-sack so the fruit fly would have no access to the fruit. All unprotected cluster could not be harvested, except for the white ones, because of their thicker skin.

We'll explain the process of winemaking in a different post. What is most important now, is to end up with enough healthy fruit, so we can process it in a low-intervention way, without any additives. We made a first hundred bottles last year, and hope to double that number this year. Anyway, we keep learning about both the beauty and the difficulties of 'working with nature', to slow down and to be a good listener; qualities which we hope will benefit us too as brewers and as humans.