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‘We Are All Part of the Same Cycle’: Winemakers Embrace Agroforestry Amid Climate Change

Many vineyards are monocultures, or plots devoted to one crop, and, as such, they face extreme weather conditions and climate change with a limited set of biodiverse levers to pull. Agroforestry, the cultivation and preservation of trees and their ecosystems, presents a range of solutions to these types of viticultural issues, maintaining vineyard production while reducing negative impact on the environment. 

Here’s how wineries around the world have embraced agroforestry for the betterment of their surroundings and their products.

Amirault Vignerons, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, France

Agroforestry for wine in France
Harvest in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, France / Photo courtesy of Xavier Amirault

Sixth-generation vignerons Xavier and Agnès Amirault oversee the organic and biodynamic Clos des Quarterons vineyard in France’s Loire Valley. Their work is comprised of “thousands of actions” that promote biodiversity, says Xavier Amirault. “We are caretakers!”

On their vineyard, geese and hens eat grass and weeds (often pecking them out by the roots), gobble pests and fertilize soil.

“We are in the process of extending this to the entire estate,” says Amirault. “We want to be able to let them do everything, including laying their eggs right in the vineyard— but we must manage and share the space with the foxes and weasels.”

Sharing the space with organisms that call the area home is exactly what agroforestry seeks to achieve. Amirault points out the need to plant trees not just for wood and fruit, but to provide habitat and shade for birds and insects, and organic matter from fallen leaves. “A lot of people talk about it, but around the world few plant trees,” he says. 

The agroforestry philosophy restores tree populations throughout the countryside where agriculture is present. “It is crazy to think that ‘monoculture’ could work in the long run to feed people with healthy food without destroying the balance of nature,” says Amirault. “Let’s bring back more wilderness!”

Viña Tarapacá, Isla de Maipo, Chile

Agroforestry in wine at  Vina Tarapaca Chile
Sebastián Ruiz at Vina Tarapaca, Isla de Maipo, Chile / Photo courtesy Viña Tarapaca

Viña Tarapacá is in a biodiversity hotspot in Central Chile that is threatened by development. Winemaker Sebastián Ruiz and his team are convinced that restoring and conserving biodiversity has a positive effect on climate change.

In early 2014, the estate carried out an in-depth soil and climate study, which revealed that the land was highly compacted, and that the property supported many exotic species that absorbed a high amount of precious moisture. The result was a biodiversity master plan. 

“We knew that as we restored the biodiversity of our estate, we would also recover the life in our soils, while also enhancing the meso- and microclimatic conditions,” says Ruiz.

The property’s position between the Altos de Cantillana conservation area and the biological corridor of the Maipo River could potentially interrupt the natural traffic of wildlife. “In order to reactivate connectivity, we created a series of biological corridors between both,” says Ruiz. This was done by replacing exotic plants with native species.

Ruiz says the vineyards are now better balanced, resulting in expressive, character-driven wines. 

“This is a win-win for both production of wine and our planet,” he says. “It’s time to understand that we are all part of the same cycle.”

Di Filippo Wines, Cannara, Italy

Agroforestry helps wine in Cannara Italy
Donkey at Di Fillippo Wines, Cannara, Italy / Photo courtesy Di Filippo Wines

The Di Filippo family farms organic and biodynamic vineyards in the heart of Umbria, Italy. The small team led by Emma Di Filippo is engaged in an agroforestry project with University of Perugia, where geese roam freely in the vineyard and feed on the vegetation that grows spontaneously, rather than using chemical and mechanical means of vineyard management.

This has delivered a perhaps unexpected side impact.

“A test carried out by both Perugia and Sassari universities has demonstrated that geese in a vineyard help to reduce the level of copper in the soil just by grazing,” says Leonardo Besi, export manager for Di Filippo Wines. In an organic vineyard, copper is permitted as a fungicide and, while this treatment is a lifesaver against mildew, there is concern that it can build up in the soil and harm the microbiome. 

“This is a win-win for both production of wine and our planet. It’s time to understand that we are all part of the same cycle.” —Sebastián Ruiz

How does this impact the geese? The team from the University of Perugia studied that, too. “It’s interesting to note that they haven’t really found any difference in the level of [copper] in the meat [of the] geese in the vineyard and the geese from conventional farming,” says Besi. 

The Di Filippo family is counting the benefits of having their feathered friends around. 

“Just this year we conducted tests of the microbiome in all our different vineyards, and we found that in the agroforestry one there is a higher level of beneficial microorganisms,” says Besi, noting that fruit from this vineyard is selected for the estate’s top-quality wines.

Graham Beck, Robertson, South Africa

Agroforestry helps wine at Graham Beck South Africa
Graham Beck vineyard, South Africa / Photo courtesy Graham Beck

Since the designation originated in 2004, sparkling wine producer Graham Beck has earned Conservation Champion Status from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The winery team is committed to conserving at least four acres of natural vegetation for every one acre farmed, in a region that is also a biodiversity hotspot. 

“We also initiated a voluntary agreement with 27 of our neighbors by creating the Rooiberg-Breederiver Conservancy, and, as a group of farmers, we now conserve more than 35,000 acres of natural vegetation,” says Mossie Basson, conservation manager for Graham Beck. This effort, in cooperation with WWF, establishes a dedicated rehabilitation manager for this corridor of the endangered Succulent Karoo biome, which Basson says is the most vulnerable part of the “glorious” Cape Floral Kingdom.

Basson believes that the Earth and its human inhabitants can’t survive on agricultural land only. “We prefer to talk about ‘area wide planning,’ which we have practiced in the Conservancy,” he says. In his eyes, establishing protected and rehabilitated land ensures sustainability alongside development.

“We at Graham Beck conduct our business within this vulnerable ecosystem,” says Basson. “Just as important as our quality of product and well-being of the people that work for us, is the well-being of this ecosystem.”