Terra Est Vita … Soil is Life: Extraordinary wines approved by Mother Nature

Terra Est Vita … Soil is Life: Extraordinary wines approved by Mother Nature
Avondale Wine Estate

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Avondale Wine Estate, situated just outside Paarl on the slopes of the Klein Drakenstein mountains, is an internationally certified organic wine estate that is committed to the practice of organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming practices.

“We regard our wine estate as a dynamic living system where all its elements form part of a complex web of relationships that are interconnected and interdependent,” says Johnathan Grieve, proprietor, Avondale Wine Estate and pioneer of the BioLOGIC® approach to sustainable viticulture.

“The practice of BioLOGIC® farming is a combination of organic, biodynamic and modern science in a holistic approach. We are acutely aware that healthy balance in our vineyard eco-system, our wines and in our own lives is dependent on first achieving healthy balance in our soil. Chemically, biologically and physically the health of soil, water, plants, animals and humans are intricately inter-related.”

“‘Terra Est Vita’ i.e. ‘Soil is Life’ is at the heart of all we do,” continues Grieve. “It involves the removal of all chemical input (e.g. fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides, etc.), basically the removal of everything that kills life rather than promotes it. We have based our soil system on Dr William Albrecht, a US professor who many decades ago worked out the ideal chemical makeup for soil.”

There are 13 different types of soil on Avondale Wine Estate. The various soil compositions range from deep loam to Table Mountain sandstone with 75% decomposed rock, Villafonte, Kroonstad gravels to decomposed granite. “Each soil has very different properties, form and characteristic, that, in turn, is reflected in the wine,” continues Grieve.

“The trick to biological farming is to ensure that nature’s balance is maintained,” says Grieve who shares some examples that form part of Avondale Wine Estate’s BioLOGIC® approach to farming.

This approach focuses on various areas including:

• Nutrient density
Nutrient density (level of nutrients) of the plants and crops are fundamental building blocks of both food and wine and occurs naturally where the soils are farmed with a focus on broad spectrum natural nutrition. At Avondale, there are high levels of nutrient rich soil due to their organic and bio-dynamic farming practices as well as the philosophy of feeding the micro life which, in return, feeds the crop that you are growing. Nutrient density effects all stages of wine production, the soil, the plants, and the grapes. The plants are more resilient and resistant to diseases and pests and the wines develop significant character through their elegance, concentrated flavour, purity and natural longevity.

• Pest Control
One of the most effective, responsible and long-lasting ways to reduce damage from pests is to introduce or deliberately boost natural populations of ‘beneficials’ – be they helpful predators, parasites or pathogens. Providing habitat and food sources for a range of organisms within the farm ecosystem is an important way of working with nature to manage pests and avoid the use of pesticides and fungicides that poison the environment.

Some examples include ‘Jonty’s Ducks’ who take care of the snails in the vineyards, chickens that rid it of fly larvae and naturally occurring birds of prey to help with rodent control and insectivorous bats who help to keep the moth population in check.

• Cover Crops
As part of Avondale’s holistic approach, it makes use of a uniquely diverse cover cropping system. “We use more than 10 different mixes of cover crops to foster a thriving community of life in our soils,” continues Grieve. The cover crops fall into five main plant groups – cereals, brassicas, grasses, legumes and chenopods, each makes a different contribution to the diversity of micro-life in our soils.”

• Weeds – and what they tell us
Every weed has an ideal environment that it likes to grow in. If a soil is out of balance, a specific profile of weeds will grow there as living testimony to that environmental condition, telling us more about soil conditions. Achieving and maintaining balance in the soils, and in the ecosystem, is a highly effective yet gentle approach to weed control. In addition, ferments of certain weeds species can supply either nutrients for deficient soils or cultures to stop that same weed from germinating.

• Fynbos
Avondale actively restores and re-establishes indigenous fynbos species in the actual vineyards and have designed and created nature corridors that run through the vineyards so that its entire ecosystem is a well-connected web of natural vegetation. “We have planted many thousands of indigenous trees on the farm and, in addition, we include fynbos species in our cover crop mixes,” adds Grieve.

Encouraging and replanting fynbos species makes good sense as it is obviously perfectly suited to the climate and thrive, with its diversity contributing balance and an essential robustness to the ecosystem. Natural flora is home to the native fauna, harbouring and providing food for an extraordinary range of animal life. To keep their land healthy and strong, wine farmers need the biodiversity of fynbos as much as it needs to be protected.

• Nitrogen
A great challenge for farmers is a plant’s need for nitrogen in order to develop. In traditional farming this leads to a never-ending dependence on commercial nitrogen fertilisers, essentially harsh salts that burn up the organic material and micro-life in the soil. Over time, more and more chemical fertilising inputs become necessary to eke production out of what is essentially a lifeless soil.

By contrast, Avondale through its organic and biodynamic farming focus on creating the conditions for natural nitrogen to be available in the soil. This is achieved through the use of legumes crops, free living nitrogen fixing bacteria and the continuous building of our humus content in the soils.

• Use of water
Naturally Avondale does not only look at what and how much water it uses, but also what happens to the waste stream. In the Avondale cellar only cleaning agents that meet organic standards are used; they are readily biodegradable and free of harmful residues. However, wastewater from the cellar is also concentrated with grape residues which would pollute the environment if introduced back without treatment. “After extensive research, we implemented a wastewater system of three dams interlinked by spiralling channels of cleansing reeds that replicates a natural river system, that naturally treats the wastewater without any chemical additives” explains Grieve.

One of the huge results of farming according to organic and Biodynamic principles is that you build your soils natural water holding capacity through humus creation, this in turn helps tremendously with the vineyards capacity to be more resilient in tough times such as the devastating drought of recent years.

• Humus
At Avondale they ensure that the soil is balanced and can provide all the nutrients required for healthy plant and micro life is a key factor in biodynamic agriculture with key focus in creating stable humus. This helps to maintain soil moisture, nutrient retention and overall soil health. Avondale focus on creating this humus through the natural rhythms, the use of Biodynamic preparations, cover cropping and other tools available to establish wonderful buffering sponge-like effects in the soil which in turn help soils and crops cope with the extremes of our climate.

“We are committed to a holistic approach towards farming in harmony with nature,” continues Grieve. “When we despatch Avondale wines for local and worldwide distribution, we hold the intention that they will play a role in enhancing healthy balance and affirming joy in the lives of those that take pleasure in them.”