Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine


Pruning, Pesticides and Natural Wine Dogmas

We’ve gotten off to a good start with the pruning this year. We started right after New Year and have finished the small upper plot of the Carabaña vineyard – about 250 vines (all white Airén variety). It took so long to do because apart from the actual pruning, we also hoed up the earth around each vine to remove the grass and plants and to aerate the soil a bit.

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We don’t plough up the vineyard between the rows like all our neighbours do – instead we let all the grasses, plants, flowers and thistles grow, and we just cut them back once or twice a year when they get too high. We also leave the canes from the pruning and chop them up into little pieces; and all this organic matter returns to the soil, improving its structure and fertility.

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This way of doing things has its advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage, I think, is the competition for water and nutrients from the grasses and plants. But, on the other hand, grass and plants have relatively small short roots, while vines have very long deep ones, as well as surface roots, and they seem to manage fine; also the vines we have, Airén and Tempranillo, are well suited to the climate and don’t need a lot of water.

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The main reason for leaving all the grasses and plants is to provide a habitat for insects that all predate on each other, so no one species ever becomes a problem and attacks the vines or grapes. We’ve never used any pesticides in all the years (9) that we’ve been cultivating the vineyard.

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Yet another reason for not ploughing is that there will never be any residues of pesticides on the grapes or in the wine. I understand, from reading reports and articles, that all conventional wines made from non-organic grapes have traces of pesticides in them. Some people say that these residues are insignificant and harmless, but I have my doubts. I think that, like in many other issues, once you have the actual real facts and hard data available to you, it still boils down to a question of belief!

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In this case, the facts are:
- There are traces of pesticides in wine
- Experts tell us that the quantities are insignificant and safe for human consumption

BUT, here are a number of doubts (or ‘beliefs’ if you prefer) that are important enough for me not to use pesticides:

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1. It’s happened often enough in the past that a chemical or substance has been banned at a certain point in time, because it was discovered that it wasn’t safe after all! I believe that the same could happen this year or next with any product that is currently permitted. I also believe that this is because the authorities pay more attention to corporate lobbies than they do to consumer/safety lobbies.

2. These products may well be safe for human consumption, but what about the runoffs that go into the soil, underground aquifers and rivers? I don’t think they’re safe for micro-organisms, flora and fauna, or for the environment in general. It’s also a fact that the world’s pollution problem is caused by industry and agriculture.

3. Even though each individual pesticide may be considered harmless and safe for human consumption, what about the ‘cocktail effect’ of many pesticides combined. There are no studies showing that they’re safe in combination with each other.

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Anyway, 250 vines down, 1000 to go – in Carabaña. Then we have about 3000 vines in Villarejo (Malvar variety) to prune too. The deadline is around March when the vines wake up from their winter dormancy and the sap starts flowing. It’s not a good idea to prune after that happens, because you’d be removing valuable nutrients from the vine. The same applies if you start pruning too early, ie before the vines go into dormancy around November/December.