Balancing biodiversity with the demands of intensive monoculturalism has never been more pressing among the world’s vineyards.
Back in the 1950s, ‘60s & ‘70s, certainly in France, vignerons treated their vines against rot, weeds & (pesky) invertebrates according to the agrochemical calendar (provided by the local supplier); it was a time when vignerons struggled to keep a lid on the large crops being thrown out by over-fertilised vines. It was also a time when Claude Bourguignon, the éminence grise of viticulturalists, announced that there was more life to be found in a square yard of the Sahara Desert than in the equivalent sample of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.
Maybe it was a consequence of witnessing the hideous growths endured by those working with nasty agrochemicals, but with a new generation of farmers came a new dawn: la lutte raisonée (the measured fight). This sought to limit spraying to only when necessary. But over time ‘la lutte raisonée’ has lost its lustre, probably as a result of overuse by those never called to account (‘Organics’ & Biodynamics’ be warned); it has become a byword for conventional farming.
What it did do, however, was to encourage more time spent among the vines, observing the rhythms of vineyard life, as their grandparents had done before them. And with the 1980s came new-fangled, non-invasive ‘canopy management’ techniques from the New World designed to help manage vine health naturally. This has spurred many a step further towards organics & biodynamics, conscious of their responsibility as custodians of the land.
The vineyard treatments are divided up between ‘Fungicides’, ‘Pesticides’, & ‘Herbicides’. Fungicides essentially differ between those that protect the plant’s surface against general fungal diseases, & the more invidious systemic treatments that ‘work’ from the inside out; the traditional Bordeaux mixture of copper & sulphur are also allowed as part of the certified organic arsenal. Pesticides are a catch-all for substances used against insects, nematodes & fungal diseases; insecticides are the most odious. Herbicides target the (nitrogen & yield depleting) weeds & grass under & between the vines.
Dry-farming vs. Irrigation-assisted Viticulture
Using up precious water reserves to support an essentially arid-loving plant has become particularly controversial in the light of global warming.
Matching the grape variety to its environment (aka ampelography, the study of the vitis species) forms one of the pillars of the concept of terroir; so negating the need for external assistance such as irrigation. Achieving a symbiosis between variety & terroir has resulted in some of the world’s finest wines (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne etc…), almost exclusively the result of dry-farming viticulture.
It would appear to be a matter for the New World producing countries where consistently below average rainfall during the growing season seems to necessitate a degree of irrigation to secure even the finest fruit; applied notably prior to flowering & post harvest. Despite the EU’s ban on its use there are plenty of Old World exceptions, notably Austria and parts of Italy.
Regrettably vineyard irrigation has also been used as a tool for raising yields, since the early 20th century in Australia ’s case, so fuelling an explosion of primarily New World wines but also those of Sicily. More controversially, however, has been the use of irrigation infrastructure to convey nutrients to the vines, perhaps to counteract the stresses involved in producing large crops.