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.