People who work the land will tell you winter is a fairly peaceful time on a farm. The summer harvest is in and preparations for new plantings are relatively quiet until the new year.
But behind the deep winter breath taken by those who cultivate the land: constant worry. Because – in nature, anything can go wrong. And when you throw in human activities, the anxiety is non-stop about what lies ahead in a period of climate change, pandemic, population growth and war.
These are the themes of the 2022 World Soil report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), an assessment of the state of the land on Earth, with a focus on reserves of black soil. These are the most fertile lands on the planet, enriched by decomposing animal and plant residues, high in soil organic carbon content. They are a critical piece of the carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation challenge, as they store as much as ten percent of the world’s soil carbon stocks.
With more than 828 million people facing food insecurity, the report states, the care and regeneration of these soils is more important than ever. FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu notes, “Most black soils have already lost at least half of their soil organic carbon stocks and suffer from moderate to severe erosion, nutrient imbalances, acidification, compaction and soil biodiversity loss because of land use change (from natural grasslands to cropping systems), unsustainable use and excessive use of agrochemicals. This loss is further exacerbated by climate change.”
It is a cause embraced by big grain producers, vegetable and fruit growers, and, among them, a booming subset of creators of a multitude of luxury beverages, including whiskies and wines around the world.
Yes, in the great conversation about world food supplies, wines may be a detour. But regenerative agriculture knows no bounds and the climate impact of all agricultural practices are profound, regardless of the crop. Within the wine industry, there is no lack of passion for deliberate restoration of soil.
At least as far back as thousands of years ago, where, in the biblical story of the “Wedding at Cana,” Jesus was said to have changed water into wine, and potentially as many as five thousand years before that, the evidence is that wine has long been a centerpiece cultural drink. Singularly identified in flavors defined by its growing environment, or “terroir,” a good wine relies upon climate, air quality, a reliable water source and a healthy soil to nurture it.
Like many farmers around the world, viticulturists have awakened to the state of soils meant to give life, but stripped of energy and nutrients by chemicals, over-plowing, and the ravages of weather. Stephen Cronk the founder and CEO of rising Provence rosé star Maison Mirabeau, has seen it all. Previously a wine importer, then a telecommunications sales executive (think underwater trans-Atlantic cables,) Cronk and his wife Jeany sold their home in England, arrived in Cotignac 13 years ago, and created their wine business and brand, working with growers who produced grapes for their products.
In 2019, the Cronks dove into the deep end, so to speak, and bought a 14-hectare vineyard (34.5 acres) “Domain Mirabeau.” It’s been a deliberately paced small production odyssey of regeneratively farmed organic wines, aged in barrels, along with some gin, stylishly packaged and promoted, featuring the flavors of the moment in enticing pale pink hues and beautiful bottles.
Behind the cool appeal of the product: a journey from agricultural hell. In 2020, they lost a third of their grapes to frost. In 2021, all of their fruit was ruined by the smoke taint of a huge forest fire surrounding their vineyard. Spoiler alert – 2022 has been an excellent harvest. But nothing is guaranteed.
“Now I know why farmers always complain,” says Cronk. “It’s so stressful relying on mother nature. This will be our 13th vintage working with other growers, three years in our own vineyard. And every year it’s so stressful.”
Bemoaning the vagaries of climate swings, Cronk explained, “we’ve had a drought, a winter drought, then a summer drought, so we’re really lacking water for the vineyard.” In late October, Cronk reported “the vines a week ago were suffering from hydric stress. Last week on the anniversary of the forest fire, the heavens opened for two days and we had nine centimeters of rain (3.5 inches.) Then the ground can’t absorb the water quick enough. We had so much run-off. We had chemical runoffs into the Mediterranean, sewage run-offs. The knock-on effect of these intense rains is crazy.”
Arriving on the land of his newly acquired vineyard three years ago, Cronk was stunned. “It was like the moon’s surface,” he says. “You couldn’t differentiate from the track of the road that came into the farm to the actual land with the vines. The purpose of the soil was almost entirely to hold the vines upright.”
At a micro level, Cronk learned quickly that the scar inflicted on the soils of the world have been a long time coming, born of ignorance about the biological realities of soil, water and air, and a pride of farming practices, regardless of how flawed those practices have been. His conclusion has been that the most obvious remedy is regenerative, chemical-free agriculture.
It is a challenge shared by wine and spirits makers internationally and showcased in late Spring at a two day gathering in Arles-en-Provence organized by Moët Hennessy, the wine and spirits division of the LVMH group. World policy makers, vintners of several labels, scientists, and other critical players in the drinks and agriculture space gathered to share and learn, in an acknowledgement that the business of the environment is the business of business.
Regenerative agriculture is the dedicated act of giving back to the soil more than you are using, because so much has already been taken from the earth. It is not only a scientific and expensive business challenge, it is also an infrastructure and social challenge, as Cronk shared with fellow wine-makers last June in Arles. “The systems that farmers use in viticulture developed over millennia,” said Cronk.
“To get farmers to change the way they’ve been farming is a paradigm shift. We need evidence, we need proof that it works: scientific and economic proof. These are peoples’ livelihoods. And you’re saying to people, ‘No! no! no! You and your father and your grandfather have got it wrong for the last 200 years!’ The people element of this is really important.”
There is no room for fatigue in the business of farming, as wine growers know well. The rehabilitation of Domain Mirabeau has involved comprehensive innovative steps familiar to other viticulturists. “We’re beginning to understand that complicated network of infrastructure that’s in the soil,” says Cronk, who rejects the energetic “aerating” of the soil that plowing was long believed to have delivered. “If you’re turning the soil over, you’re oxidizing it, you’re killing a lot of micro-biomes in the soil, destroying physical structure as well as the microbial structure. So there’s a lot of reasons to not be plowing. If you get heavy rain, you get compaction. There’s no infrastructure in the root platform to hold the water.”
He has introduced trees and shrubs among vines that are far apart on his property, giving biodiversity a chance, creating a habitat for wildlife, and setting up owl boxes. Strips of clover and legumes are planted between lines of vines to draw energy from the sun and route it back into the soil. And it won’t be long now before the spring arrives, and sheep are herded onto these strips to eat the greens and fertilize the soil.
But before then, it will be Christmas. And around the world there will be toasts of delicious wines and glasses raised everywhere to the promise of a new year. “Wine is the most convivial product that nature gives us, almost directly, “ Cronk reflects. “We have to intervene, we have to catch the grapes, and ferment them, and put them in a bottle and so on. But it’s nature’s gift.”