A common thread I heard from Italy to Austria through Germany and France was that the old way is proving to be unsustainable and that vineyards need to be integrated back into nature as much as possible to maintain a natural ecosystem. There is growing knowledge about the importance of what is called a “living soil”. This topic was touched on heavily by Gaia during the luncheon and it reminded me of a winemaker by the name of Peter Veyder-Malberg in Austria who drove me to his vineyards so he could show off his dirt. As we stood amongst his lush green vines, we trampled flowers, clovers and herbs while he humbly bragged to us about all of the gorgeous salads he makes from the “extras” growing throughout his vineyard. Stopping to pull out a clump of greens he showed us the soil beneath, it was dark, moist and smelled heavily of fresh earth (you know that warm toasty smell that almost makes you want to go “mmmmm”). It was teeming with worms, bugs and what he assured us were billions of microbes that we couldn't see but had to believe were present.
This microscopic world that most of us seldom think of is one that is a necessity for healthy plants, not just vines. When soil is “living” that means that it is in balance. There is plenty of nutrition, there isn't a surplus of one set of chemicals or another and Mother Nature is doing her thing just as she always intended. If you have the opportunity, go do some test digs in various places around where you live. If you find bugs, the earth smells rich and the soil is moist, then you are holding in your hands a small universe of life.
When you get down to it, soil is a combination of four ingredients: minerals, water, air and organic matter. The percentages of these four components will vary greatly depending on where that soil is located and how it’s been cultivated and maintained. Water and air fill the gaps between solid soil particles. These spaces are also known as “soil pores”. It's in these spaces of the soil that microbes are able to assist in the mineralization of organic matter in the soil: that is they eat particles in the soil and what they excrete is something that is plant accessible nutrition.
If you don't have microbes in the soil or you have soils that have been either compacted or overly tilled, then you don't have anything helping the plants to absorb nutrition from the earth around their roots. Essentially, if you have earth that you are using over and over again with no life in it, you'll have to add fertilizers since the plants wont be able to access any nutrition on their own.
I find it completely fascinating to learn about the health of soil and the people who work with it on a daily basis. They are the ones who can walk through a field and tell you its’ story, or look at a plant and tell you what it needs. This new class of winemakers is one that truly is listening to what our earth needs, not with their ears or eyes but with their heart. They want to protect the heritage that is being passed down to them and shepherd the land carefully into the hands of the next generation.
Bringing myself back into the moment of the presentation that Gaia was giving, I couldn't help but be in awe of this commitment to nature even within the confines of a vineyard. She and many other producers around the world are proof that the de-evolution of this centuries old practice isn't just possible, but perhaps even a noble pursuit in the technology swarmed world we live in today. Stepping away from synthetics and machines to move back towards a natural biosphere is a scary step, one that requires more work, more risk but perhaps depending on your perspective more reward.
Many people will balk at the idea of there being more reward in a natural vineyard, but what if that reward is just knowing that you are taking care of billions of animals from ones that you cant see without a microscope to the ones that fly over the vines eating bugs to deer that migrate through the vineyard in the summer. As Gaia smiled proudly at a picture of a vineyard filled with wildflowers, tall grasses and bee boxes and it was impossible to not smile with her, for that hope and progress that she is representative of is a sign that we are slowly learning to listen to what the earth has been trying to tell us all along.