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Apr 2024 | Article

Using biostimulants for vines in winemaking

The biodynamic association states there are 600 certified biodynamic vineyards worldwide, of which just 7 are located in the UK. One of the 7 is Ancre Hill Estates, near Monmouth in Wales, a unique, boutique vineyard that has practiced experimental methods since its creation and is currently working with biostimulant specialist Orion FT to improve its vines.

Founder and owner Richard Morris says that since planting the first vines in 2006 and making the decision to become organic and biodynamic in 2010, he has never stopped learning and adapting how the Estate grows its vines.
“My vision was not to grow too large that we became dependent on chemicals to produce wine. I wanted to make the most of what the land already had; uncultivated rich soils, south facing, sheltered slopes, and a climate that can grow grapes as well as many established wine growing regions.” 

The Estate benefits from sheltered sites protected by the Cambrian Mountains and Brecon Beacons to the west and north. The mudstone and sandstone soils of the Estate have not been used for arable farming and his fields were historically grazed by livestock that only enhanced the fertility and nutrient value of the soil.
“We grow higher off the ground with the Geneva Double Curtain (GDC) trellising system. Good canopy management is vital to ensure maximum air flow and sunlight penetration to combat potential mildew diseases. This higher system is also better for combatting frosts.  Our vines yield high quality fruit with intense flavours, and, with just 22 acres, it is about quality not quantity.”

Richard is keen to stress that the choice to grow vines on the land was not based on models from elsewhere, but very much by assessing what was available. The southwest facing land of the Estate is free draining, with a good slope that catches the sun and harnesses warmth. It also protects the vines from frost in the colder months. 

“You can’t transplant growing techniques from one country to another. The terroir is different, but also climate change is playing havoc with growing systems worldwide, so the idea of copying and pasting was never one we believed would work.”

He and his head winemaker, South African Jean du Plessis, have therefore worked hard to understand the terroir and climate that the vines have to live in. Warmer winters threaten the vines’ ability to rest in a dormant state for long enough, and late frosts can also be of concern. However, the wet conditions over this winter and early spring are potentially a greater threat to the vineyard.
“In May 2021 we had 160mm of rain in three weeks in common with the south of England, which is almost the same as we would normally expect in an entire growing season. This led to problems with downy mildew and demonstrated that we had to find ways to strengthen the vines against climate extremes.”

Hearing a presentation by biostimulant specialist and agronomist Kate Williams from Orion FT, Richard was impressed by the approach that described biostimulants as a preventative method, rather than a cure.

“It was so refreshing to hear an approach that wasn’t using words like ‘control’ or ‘management’ and was instead plant focussed, advocating a methodology based on improving the plant’s natural defences to cope with attack, disease or climate extremes.”

He immediately began his own investigations, contacting Demeter to establish whether biostimulants could be used under its guidelines. Following confirmation that the products made by Orion FT did not contravene any of Demeter’s rules and following approval, he and Jean began a trial with the oldest vines on the Estate.

“The idea was to see if we could unlock the hidden potential of the vines. We trialled three biostimulants in 2023 starting on 7th April and making 14 applications through the growing season, with the last on 13th September.”
The biostimulants used included Fossil, a dual action, silicon-phosphite formulation designed to enhance and stimulate natural plant defences; Trident, a copper and zinc formulation to boost immune pathways; and Sirius a biostimulant with 21% bio-available silicon, designed to enhance natural plant resilience.

“Thankfully it was a good growing year, so the vines were not subjected to too much stress. However, we could see the difference in plant health and vitality. The vines were visually healthier, and it was evident that the addition of silicon was making a difference, but how much difference is impossible to say.”

Biostimulants then now have a part to play in the mixes that the Estate is using to improve its vines and the quality of its crop. However, it is only a part.

“We make our own tisanes as foliar sprays both for nutritional and disease prevention purposes, much of which is grown here on the Estate. Willow, nettle, yarrow, dandelion, comfrey, valerian, and chamomile all have a part to play in our spray programmes.”

He accepts that traditional organic and biodynamic principles are not always necessarily up to the challenge of preparing the vines for everything the sometimes unpredictable UK climate can throw at them.
“We are not expecting any one measure to miraculously overcome all the challenges we face, which is why we use a wide variety of natural treatments that are all designed to promote plant health.”

The Estate also uses its own vinegar solution made with cider apples grown on its land, which lowers the pH and activates sulphur to help prevent disease and pests. This approach has also seen Richard reach beyond the Estate to source local organic raw, unpasteurised milk to combat powdery mildew. It is applied as a foliar spray after a couple of days settling to enable the bacteria to build up, the idea being for the bacterial population to out-compete any fungal spores that may be present in the vines. He suggests that milk is only used at temperatures of 25 degrees C and above. 

“We are always on the lookout for supplements that can help the vines. Nettle and willow are good for combatting downy mildew, whilst yarrow flowers, which we grow and buy-in dried, is good for powdery mildew.”

Enhancing the vines in this way also has the benefit of enhancing the natural balance and biodiversity in and around the vineyard. 

“We don’t worry too much about aphids because we have a thriving population of ladybirds. I frequently find dozens in the bathroom of the house and, most years, we do counts to assess the population of beneficials and the potential threat of pests, but because we haven’t tampered too much with the biodiversity of the Estate, it manages itself.”

The result is a grape that is full of natural flavour and, in his words, ‘not dulled’ by the interference of using too much copper or chemicals.
“Over the past dozen or so years we have moved away from using copper altogether in some seasons which some may find hard to believe, but we have faith in our methods, and we can see the results.”

Introducing biostimulants is another step towards creating a bio-sustainable system that focuses on plant health, with the goal of producing wine that reflects the flavour of the grapes. 

“If your wine could talk, what would it say? I like to think that our wine would tell you that the way it has been grown, and its flavour, is entirely natural and a true depiction of its Welsh heritage,” he concludes.

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