Regenerative Viticulture: What does it mean for the wine industry?

Two people sitting either side of a young vineyard attaching something to the soil/root of the vines
Trials of under-vine management at Sandridge Barton (c) Ebba Engstrom

Ebba Engstrom, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, is researching sustainability impacts related to green infrastructure in UK vineyards. In this blog, she reflects on her learnings from a course on regenerative viticulture at the Dartington Trust.

In recent years, the UK wine industry has boomed – with the expansion of vineyards in various parts of the country. However, the production of grapes – viticulture – is traditionally associated with intensive management practices, resulting in negative environmental impacts. This includes the production of greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change, pollution to waterways, and the degradation of soils and natural habitats. In early May, 2023, I undertook a course at the Dartington Trust, focused on the current topic of regenerative viticulture. More broadly, regenerative agriculture as a concept is not new  – in fact in 1983, Robert Rodale described how it regards the generation of minimum or no environmental impact, with greater levels of both economic and biological stability. Yet, it is in recent years that the topic has seen a re-emergence. Within the viticultural sphere regenerative practices are a set of tools which not only can reduce negative socio-environmental impacts, but also generate positive ones. Yet, what does ‘regenerative’ entail – especially within the context of viticulture?

1. There are many approaches to regenerative viticulture

Regenerative viticulture (and agriculture) aims to build back soil complexity and health in connection with working with nature – and its myriad of interacting components – rather than against it. In doing so, regenerative viticulture can firstly, promote biodiversity – enhancing essential services such as pollination. Additionally, it can help tackle climate change (given the right conditions) by absorbing carbon. Moreover, the regenerative movement perceives humans and human communities as a part of our natural systems, whose well-being must be accounted for. Therefore, regenerative practices can also provide social benefits.

Sheep grazing in a vineyard (close-up view)
Sheep grazing in a vineyard (c) Nicl on Unsplash

To achieve this, there are a series of practices which can be implemented, such as minimal till or no-till practices, which reduce the level of disturbance to soil organisms and their interactions, together with cutting the use of pesticides and chemically synthesised fertilisers, which have a substantial environmental impact both at the production and use stage. It can also involve the use of cover crops and agroforestry (also known as vitiforestry in the context of viticulture), which can improve soil structure and moisture, composting, which adds back nutrients to the soil, and animal grazing, which helps manage weeds.

2. No ‘one size fits all’ in regenerative viticulture

Regenerative viticulture means working with nature – and therefore, the conditions of the environment you are in. As a result, what may work well in one place might not have the same level of benefits in another one. Being mindful of the context and which combination of regenerative practices to implement becomes even more complicated when viticulturists have to ensure sufficient financial revenue from their crops. For example, one question – which became especially discussed during the course – was that of how to manage weeds in vineyards, and whether it is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ from a regenerative standpoint to use herbicides or to cultivate (e.g. tilling, discing) the land. Both of these have their downsides. Cultivating the land disturbs the soils, and herbicides can negatively impact biodiversity as well as human health – and both of these impacts have to be weighed against each other.

Vineyard rows with herbicide under-vine treatment - showing bare earth under the vines, with grass and flowers in between
Vineyard rows with herbicide under-vine treatment (c) Ebba Engstrom

3. Committing to regenerative viticulture can be a challenge

Tying in with the need to generate sufficient financial revenue from a crop, there is also the question of how to both ensure continuity in regenerative practices, and how to scale them up. Even though regenerative agriculture aims to ensure long-term, economic stability, there will always be  variation year to year in yield outcomes. When conditions are difficult, maintaining certain regenerative practices, like minimising pesticides, could be challenging – especially when other solutions that can secure yields but do not improve the long-term health of the surrounding environment, are readily available, and have been used before (with successful outcomes) in said viticultural systems. Additionally, within a viticultural system, practitioners may be willing trial regenerative practices for a certain part of their production but are wary of the risks of relying on these for their entire system.

Regenerative practices have a lot to offer to the viticultural sector

As the wine industry aims to reduce its socio-environmental impacts, and develop regenerative viticultural systems, it is important that best practices are established for different production contexts. This will not only help to ensure the best outcomes, but also showcase the flexibility in the types and combination of practices which regenerative viticulture can offer. And in doing so, this could encourage more viticulturists to adopt these practices. It is therefore key that industry actors, researchers, and policy-makers work together to identify the benefits and challenges viticulturists face in implementing regenerative practices in the long-term, and scaling these up, in order to best direct needed support.

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