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Revolutionising viticulture: The movement to adopt new practices and technology to improve quality and yield 

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Wine and grape growers need to break with tradition in production methods as new studies identify yield and quality improvements can be achieved through changes which focus on soil health.  

Bactivate, Media Release, 10 January 2024

For generations, the cultivation of wine and table grapes has adhered to traditional practices including interrow management where the space and soil between the vines is kept bare to eliminate perceived competition from weeds for water and nutrients. 

However, the conventional approach of maintaining bare earth in both interrow and undervine areas, coupled with the routine use of systemic herbicides, is now facing scrutiny. 

“It’s like a dead zone when you create that space of exposed bare earth between rows of vines,” says AgTech specialist and Bactivate CEO Mark Gabsch.

“The consequences of this age-old practice are profound and detrimental, contributing to poor soil health, reduced nutrient uptake, diminished organic matter, and increased vulnerability to pests and pathogens,” he says. 

There is now a growing momentum in the viticulture and grape industry to depart from traditional practices and embrace innovative approaches and technology.  

A recent study published by the European Journal of Agronomy found that ground vegetation cover increases grape yield.  

It reported that “while tillage and herbicide-induced bare soil are increasingly regarded as traditional and quite harmful techniques for the environment, end-users and consumers, cover crops and mulching have gained a lot of credit as more sustainable practices”. 

The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation (RVF), an international network of leaders in regenerative agriculture and winegrowers, reports that some viticulture regions are already witnessing a transformative shift, allowing plants to flourish in interrow areas, recognising the myriad benefits they bring to soil, vineyards, ecology, and overall vine health. 

Mr Gabsch says that by cutting the life out of the soil between the vines, it causes a dramatic increase in moisture loss because of a lack of water penetration, coupled with surface runoff.

“You’re also destroying key fungus and bacteria which provide the elements necessary to help plants connect and communicate to share nutrients and water. Vines in particular like a fungal dominated soil.

“We need to retrain the way we think, and how we produce, so that we’re creating healthy ecosystems rather than these dead zones.” 

Mr Gabsch says that there is a caveat in that some varieties of wine grapes need to be put under ‘stress’ to change the tannins which in turn alters the flavour. 

“So, for these grapes that need to undergo stress then the successful growing conditions should remain the same but for other wine and table grapes, there is a better and more environmentally beneficial way of production.”  

Grape producers are urged to embrace core principles that not only enhance the quality of their yield but also contribute to a healthier bottom line: 

  • Minimise soil disturbance: This involves reducing activities that disrupt the natural structure of the soil, such as excessive tilling or plowing, to preserve the soil’s composition and structure, fostering a more stable environment for grapevines. 
  • Maintain living roots: Ensuring a continuous presence of live plant roots in the soil, even during dormant periods, contributes to soil structure and health, promoting microbial activity and nutrient cycling essential for robust grapevine growth. 
  • Keep the soil covered: Covering the soil with organic materials or cover crops helps prevent erosion, retain moisture, and suppress weed growth, creating a favourable environment for grapevines by providing consistent conditions and reducing competition for resources. 
  • Encourage diversity of plant life: Introducing a variety of plant species in the vineyard’s interrow areas fosters biodiversity, enhancing the overall ecosystem. This diversity can attract beneficial insects, improve soil health, and create a more resilient environment for grapevines. 
  • Integrate livestock: Allowing controlled grazing by livestock in vineyard areas can serve as a natural method for weed control, reduce the need for mechanical intervention, and contribute to nutrient cycling, promoting a symbiotic relationship between animals and grapevines. 
  • Reduce dependency on synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides: Seeking alternatives to synthetic chemicals involves adopting organic or sustainable practices, minimizing the environmental impact of grape production while promoting soil health and reducing potential residues in the final grape product. 

These practices not only promise water cost savings and reduced input costs but also pave the way for improved business profits and significant environmental benefits, Mr Gabsch said. 

The RVF also points out that as part of traditional interrow management, the vegetation around the vines is sprayed with herbicide, and one of the most common types is glyphosate. 

The industry’s reliance on glyphosate is further complicated by its potential environmental impact and the emerging restrictions on its usage in certain vine-growing regions, including some council regions in Australia.

Countries including France, the Netherlands, and Belgium have prohibited the household use of glyphosate. Vietnam, along with certain cities in the United States, has implemented total bans. Germany is set to enforce a complete ban on the controversial herbicide by the year’s end.

The RVF says that they fear growers may turn to more damaging herbicides, posing risks to both the environment and the quality of grape production. 

Mark Gabsch says other vine and tree crops often use interrow clearing,  and producers can adopt the same changes as for viticulture. 

“Recognising the interconnectedness of soil health with broader environmental and human well-being, the viticulture and grape industry stands at a pivotal juncture,” he says. 

“Embracing innovation and sustainable practices not only secures a long term, and profitable future for grape production but also contributes to a healthier planet for generations to come.” 

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