One of the requirements of my oenology studies in France is a three-month winemaking internship. I chose to do mine with Didier Barral, a Languedoc winemaker who I’ve written about several times before on this blog. With his cows roaming freely in the vineyard, close to 50 pigs free-ranging nearby, and a beyond-biodynamic biodiversity philosophy, Barral makes a vin de terroir that is alive with the spiciness of the garrigue scrub-brush and minerality of the shale that characterize Faugères region wines. This latest segment of my winemaking report deals with working the vineyard soil as naturally as possible.
Didier Barral’s strong belief that 90 percent of winemaking happens in the vineyard is rooted in his effort to create a balanced biodiversity. He says that it takes close to a decade before the soil has the proper porosity and mycorrhizal system to ensure that the vine roots obtain the necessary nutrients and moisture.
He has an uncomplicated philosophy about working the soil (the less the better, and, in fact, he has stopped using his tractor in many of his vine parcels to avoid compacting the soil). This article addresses two of the principal characters in his sustainable soil effort: cows and earthworms.
Both cows and earthworms are rarely seen in vineyards. Cows, quite obviously, because they are herbivore eating-machines. Left too long in a vineyard, and they’ll strip the vines of leaves and branches, leaving nothing but stumps. So no cows enter the vineyards between bud break in the spring and the fall harvest. His forty-or-so-cows are kept in wooded pastures during this time period.
Immediately after the grapes are harvested, the cows spend anywhere from two or three days to a week in each vineyard parcel. The time depends on the amount of vegetation there is between the grapevine rows. The secret is to allow them to eat the ground cover, and then move them on to another parcel before they start to dine on the vine branches.
Weed control is not the only objective. What goes in one side naturally comes out the other, providing the grapevines with the freshest possible natural fertilizer. And these cow “pies” do more than provide nutrients for the grapevines; they’re also where a majority of the earthworms that populate the vineyards reside.
Barral says that before he stopped plowing with rubber-tired tractors (most of the limited mechanized work in the vineyard is now done with caterpillar-tread tractors that compress the soil less because the weight is spread over a larger surface) there were very few of these legless invertebrates in the well-compacted soil.
Sink a shovel into the ground here now, and the soft, well-aerated soil is teaming with earthworms that can reach up to an amazing 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length. The curious who come to visit and to question Barral about his unorthodox viticultural practices (for how many vignerons in France, or elsewhere, depend on cows to control the vegetation and fertilize their vineyards?) are inevitably shown the earthworms lying just beneath the bovine deposits.
The wines from these schistous soils are known for their wild, spicy, meaty character, and some of those attributes are undoubtedly due to the symbiotic life cycle going on both above and under the ground here.