Biological complexity in the vineyard: a world of relationships to try to understand.

18 April 2015
Trees and hedges in between vineyards

A few days ago, while walking in the Barla vineyard, I watched the wild flowers that for at least twenty years have grown in different spaces with a precise positioning that allows them to share in the environment’s micro variability that eludes me. So, accompanied by the enveloping scent of violets, I found myself by chance remembering memories of my youth when, just a researcher at Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, I was quickly introduced to the world of research at the Roshamsted Experimental Station (UK), the oldest active research station in the world. Here, they were researching, among other things, grassland systems that had been stable for over a century… along with a soil science for sustainable agriculture that could be traced back to the year 1620.


Wild flora in the vineyard
But my amazement, at the time, was trivially directed to the number of publications that a researcher could produce in order to take part in competitions and develop (that was the rule). I wondered how such complex and lasting topics could be given due credit to those who were totally committed to them.

It was only after a few years that I began to better understand this world and the fact that biological complexity is the norm, while agriculture moves away from this, making instead the planting of a few species the norm, thus rendering the system more fragile and delivering artifice and inadequate ‘agronomic’ interventions for a comprehensive economic benefit (environment and land considered). But if I look at what the ‘school’ of agronomy has taught for the past fifty years, I conclude that almost all crops and livestock breeding methods have followed this logic of ‘simplification’: fields that are increasingly filled with monocultures including orchards and vineyards with high varietal selections. I am not versed in the world of animal husbandry, which follows the same logic with paradoxical situations… but I want to at least mention Michael Pollan, who with The Omnivore’s Dilemma starts a chapter with a thousand ways of looking at a pasture’. To quote him: “the cow opens her lips moist and fleshy, his rough tongue is rolled around the clump of clover… then will devote his attention to the fescues… the grass is at the base of the food chain but beneath it is the soil that houses a community of unprecedented wealth…”.

Perhaps after decades of criminal agriculture, we are being presented with strong economic reasons (loss land use capacity, environmental and human pollution) that should lead to more intelligent and long lasting attitudes.
The complexity of the system should help in this production logic, which cannot have maximum production as its objective (consider the failure of almost all food production sectors: milk, cereals, meat and even wine) while undermining the soil, groundwater and health of producers and consumers.
The butterfly as an indicator of a healthy environment

Plants (that can’t be moved!) continuously activate coping mechanisms, i.e. produce defences (= metabolites) to counteract environmental stresses and those produced by man. Many of these metabolites are favourable for those who nurture them… all herbs and fruits have beneficial properties and are the true pharmacopoeia for animals and us. The most important metabolites produced by the grapes are those found in the skin (which protect the seeds and thus the vine’s reproduction). We’re talking about polyphenols in general, stilbene, resveratrol… all substances that protect the grapes from some diseases and are beneficial to our health.

These mechanisms can foster a cultivation that’s more attentive to the complexity established in a vineyard. Taking good care of the land reinforces nutritional symbiosis like mycorrhizaA mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association composed of a fungus and roots of a vascular plant. In a mycorrhizal association, the fungus colonizes the host plant’s roots, either intracellularly as in arbuscular mycorrhizal and better fights diseases, resulting in more natural harmonies within the physiology of the plants, producing grapes and wines with more complexity, harmony, taste and health benefits.

Vineyard well-suited to a hilly environment

The world of wine, almost by necessity, is partly exempt from the insane objective of mass production because it’s managed to profit from other factors such as the beauty of the place to defeat the impoverishment of taste, to create emotions and intangible values and restore the goodness of places and products offered in conjunction with the best use of soil resource: a true ‘celebration of life’.

Intercropping between vine and grasses

This value is the true origin of wine in its strongest expression, which must be understood and pursued with commitment and knowledge.

It would therefore be expected that Italian vineyards, the gardens of rare complexity, could find new production energy for a more solid, lasting and forward-looking economy.

A summary of the publication “Grapevine root system and VA mycorrhizae in some soils of Piedmont” (1985, P. Nappi, R. Jodice, A. Luzzati, L. Corino, published in the Plant and Soil magazine)“In six vineyards of Piedmont, soil profiles were studied in order to determine root system distribution and endophyte presence in roots and soil. The presence of roots in upper layers was generally high and decreased at increasing depth. Spore numbers were significantly related to root quantity and were found to be higher in top layers of the soil and lower in deeper ones. The highest presence of spores was found in the soil profile where the vineyard was covered with grass and bark mulch. On the contrary the percent of mycorrhizal infection was relatively high even at considerable soil depth. The highest mycorrhizal incidence and the highest index of arbuscules were recorded in those vineyards where nutrients and organic matter contents were lowest”.


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