It starts with the soil.
“I am passionate about the microbial world under our feet, and the key role it plays in the vine’s adaptation to climate change,” says agronomist Martina Broggio, a sustainable viticulture consultant in northern Italy, Tuscany, Marche, and Puglia. Since 2018, Broggio has been helping wineries in Alto Adige move in a regenerative direction.
Regenerative Viticulture (RV) requires a significant paradigm shift within vineyard management, where soil is understood as a living environment rather than as a container for growing grapes. It envisions an ecosystem in which all parts of the vineyard, including roots and bacteria, play an important part. By improving the soil’s health through interventions such as cultivation of cover crops, mulching, composting, and integrating animal life in the vineyard, growers hope to enhance carbon sequestration and mitigate some of the effects of climate change. RV is rooted within the larger field of regenerative agriculture (a term picked up in the early 80s by the Rodale Institute in the U.S.), which has been gaining prominence in food production in recent years. The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation, a global non-profit organization founded in 2021, aims to be an online resource for professionals working with regeneration, and to provide a more robust scientific basis for the legitimacy of RV.
Regenerative Viticulture requires a paradigm shift where soil is understood as a living environment rather than as a container for growing grapes.
The extreme heterogeneity of the landscape of Alto Adige makes it an ideal region from which to explore the benefits of regenerative viticulture. In his newly released Regenerative Viticulture (2022), author Jamie Goode describes RV as a toolkit that can be applied in intelligent ways based on the characteristics of a given place. And Alto Adige presents a truly unique location. Its beneficial climate provides good ventilation and low humidity that lower fungal disease pressure and minimize the need for chemical interventions. Yet the need for change is also present; the Alpine heights that have long defined the region’s wines are being challenged by rising temperatures. And the limited area available for cultivation has led to monoculture (grapes and apples) and a loss of biodiversity.
Many solutions aligned with the regenerative view, including a focus on soil care and greenery to give structure, build humus, foster soil fertility, and encourage a diversity of species, were included in Our Path into the Future – the 2030 Alto Adige Wine Agenda, published by the Consortium of Alto Adige Wine in 2020. Patrick Uccelli, winemaker at Ansitz Dornach in Salorno, a small biodynamic producer with 7 hectares of vineyards, describes the agenda as one of many signs of an increasing environmental sensitivity in Alto Adige. Whether the speed of this change is fast enough is hard to tell, but the important thing, he says, is that there is movement. Dornach’s choice to work with regeneration is connected to the will to dialogue, to study, and to leave room for improvement. “It’s a discourse linked to commitment, tenacity, and the desire to see things from another perspective,” he says.
Broggio believes the attention to soil health is greater in Alto Adige than in many other Italian regions. Microorganisms in the soil, she argues, help plants better adapt to climate change and thereby protect aromas and acidity — cornerstones of wines from Alto Adige — from water- and heat stress. Some estates have been able to eliminate their use of synthetic fertilizers completely through regenerative methods such as green cover and no-tilling of the terrain. “While most wineries in Alto Adige that are moving in a regenerative direction are biodynamic, even conventional wineries today are approaching a more attentive soil management,” says Broggio.
RV and biodynamics are both based on a holistic view of the vineyard, are time intensive, and require a detailed knowledge of the environment in which they are applied. Yet, biodynamics is based on the spiritually rooted anthroposophy, whereas RV is more flexible in its practical applications. There is no rule-book to follow, and no need to use specific preparations to enrich the soil.
In regions like Alto Adige, where the cooperative model is predominant, removing the esoteric and cosmic compounds inherent to biodynamic farming can make RV an easier sell. “Training is needed, but all winegrowers can apply the guidelines of regenerative viticulture, and for this reason this model could end up being implemented in all Italian vineyards,” says Carlo de Biasi, vice president of Lien de la Vigne – Vinelink international, an association focusing on technical innovation within the viticultural sector.
Sowing seeds between the vines is a common practice for producers in Alto Adige working with regeneration. While spontaneous greenery in vineyards is an old tradition in the area, over the last decade the intentional sowing of seeds has become more widespread. When applied in autumn-winter, the results are excellent, according to the Laimburg Research Centre for agriculture in Alto Adige. Besides benefits for the soil (such as adding nutrition, retaining humidity, and fighting erosion) the use of green manure/cover crops increases organic carbon, which helps to store atmospheric CO2 in the soils, mitigating some of the effects of climate change. According to de Biasi, there is an increased awareness of the importance of organic carbon in the soil, and he points to a recent study showing good results on the topic.
Alto Adige’s dynamic winemaking scene illustrates how regenerative practices can be applied by wineries of numerous different types and sizes. At the large historical cooperative Cantina Kaltern, work with regeneration has been driven by the capricious climate of the last few years — 2022, for example, offered particularly low rainfall and high temperatures — challenges that motivated them to employ new practices such as soft pruning to limit the impact of pathogens and the planting of cover crops to encourage collaboration between vine and soil and ultimately grapes of better quality.
Rising consumer demand for sustainable wine production
gives an economic incentive
for environmental protection
While Respekt-Biodyn member Manincor, the largest independent winery in the area with 50 hectares of vineyards, admit that biodynamics is not for everyone, they see it as a departure from a regenerative conduct. They merge the two approaches in their vineyard work, where sheep and hens wander freely among trees, hedges, and a wide range
Water management, and the complete abandonment of irrigation, is the next challenge ahead. The winegrower’s cooperative Cantina Tramin, founded in 1898 and today including a total of 270 hectares of member vineyards, have applied soft pruning, green cover, and carefully adapted canopy management to match varieties and micro-zones for many years. Another biodynamic producer is the renowned Alois Lageder, with 100 hectares of vineyards, of which 55 are their own and the rest belong to winegrowing partners. They apply methods such as cover cropping, fertilization of the soil with compost, integration of animals, planting of trees (agroforestry), and hedges to fight erosion and to create habitats for birds and insects. Results that the producers have seen from the mentioned methods include increased organic matter in the soil, vitality and biodiversity in vineyards and surroundings, the return of wildlife, more balanced wines, and positive feedback from customers. And with consumer demand for sustainable wine production rising, the incentive for environmental protection from the producer’s side is also an economic one.
The process of creating a stable ecosystem is slow. It requires time, patience, and hard work — especially as climate change continues to pick up speed. Yet, one significant benefit is that RV does not demand costly machinery or chemicals to achieve a resilient vineyard. Despite the imminent threats of a fast-altering climate, at Tramin the emphasis is on not rushing, but rather choosing well considered and less irreversible methods. Helena Lageder, representing the sixth generation at the Lageder winery, describes this extra time as a long-term investment in nature and the landscape and, in the end, themselves. Producers share durable visions and a focus on quality rather than quantity, together with the realization that, in Manincor’s words, “one needs to give up some hectares of vineyards in favor of a few more biotopes.”
The patience and ability to put things in perspective stems in part from the long winemaking traditions of the area: A culturally strong relation between people and territory, and the will to make the most out of the land. Willi Stürz, enologist and technical manager at Tramin, describes this bond between the earth and the families that have lived and worked their small pieces of land for centuries: “They are literally rooted in their territory and in the nature that reigns. They see themselves as part of the landscape and are interested in achieving common goals.” Goals he believes are exemplified with their own successful incentive system implemented 20 years ago, rewarding growers choosing sustainable viticultural methods.
For many growers in this small Italian region RV is more than just a way to farm, it is a continuing dialogue between land and people, an ongoing conversation for generations to come. “In the end,” says winemaker Uccellli, “regenerative viticulture, or any type of viticulture, is a manifestation intrinsically connected to the attitude one has towards life.” Their choice has, besides external advantages, also led to a more intimate type of gratification: “We love what we do here at Dornach, so the first tangible result is our own happiness and satisfaction. It might seem trivial, but to us it matters a lot.