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Why You Need To Know About Biodiversity in Wine

Does biodiversity affect my wine? It does, naturally.

It’s an unfortunate consequence of marketing, but the term “biodiversity” has become something of a buzzword. And that’s a shame, because it gives the impression that biodiversity is a man-made conceit rather than the natural state of the world as it existed for billions of years. 

At RedThumb, our earth-first, do-no-harm approach is best served by biodynamic farming practices. We can’t avoid the buzzwords. It’s better, then, to lean into it and strip the word of its buzz. Once you know what it means, you’ll better understand why it means so much to us.

So What Is Biodiversity, Anyway?

You can probably guess its high-level definition from the word itself: a diversity of biological entities. 

In the context of farming grapes, we’re talking about the biodiversity of the vineyard itself:  the plant life growing on it, the animals living among it and the microorganisms that exist throughout it. Anything that is alive in a given space is a part of the biodiversity of that space. But why does this matter?

Nature has a way of finding balance. If you’ve ever nurtured a terrarium to self-sufficiency, you know what that looks like. Every living thing inside that terrarium is contributing somehow to sustaining the life within it. They are interconnected; all these individual biological processes create a natural system of checks and balances to ensure that no one organism is hogging all the resources. Every living thing gets exactly what it needs to survive, no more and no less. 

All of the natural world works like this, except for one stubborn species: humans. We figured out how to override biodiversity’s balance by introducing our own creations—fertilizers and pesticides designed to nurture only a select few crops at the expense of the rest of the organisms in the ecosystem.

This, of course, has tremendous environmental impacts. That interconnectedness we mentioned means that when one party of the ecosystem suffers, the impact is felt throughout. For example, to streamline operations and ensure their grapevines don’t have to compete for fertilizer, growers often keep their soil clear of any other vegetation. Bare soil has its own issues, though. Heavy rains cause unprotected soil to be carried away with water runoff. WIthout the intricate root systems of a number of plants spread throughout the ground, the soil starts to pack down, affecting aeration. Without aeration, entire microbiological systems can break down, affecting the overall health of the soil. It’s a chain reaction, but also a frustrating loop requiring the continuous application of man-made solutions to compensate for the impact of these man-made solutions.

And What’s This Got to Do With Wine?

In a word: everything. Let’s leave aside the environmental impact of an industrialized approach to growing grapes. Every intervening action taken by a grower moves a grape further away from its natural self. The use of pesticides and fertilizers is a function of prioritizing quantity over quality, so the flavor of the wine is compromised before the grapes are even grown. Think about it: would you rather buy a case of instant ramen, or a single meal at Momofuku?

But these modern methods do have a direct impact on the grapes, too. When you focus all your resources on supporting a single kind of plant, you displace other species and organisms that would otherwise compete for those resources. All of these other living things are very much of the place where they live; the flora and fauna that make up a vineyard in France are not the same as what you’d find in Spain or California, say. Growing the same varietal in these different places imparts subtle differences in flavor. A merlot grape grown in Australia won’t taste the same as one grown in Chile—there’s a reason why wine stores sort wines by region first. 

Biodiversity and RedThumb Natural Wines

Because we started RedThumb as a way to satisfy our own itch for natural wine, finding winemaking partnerships  with a commitment to biodynamic farming practices was a no-brainer. Our search led us to our first partnership with the Quaderna Via winery in Navarre region of Spain. When we traveled there to meet the vintners, we found kindred spirits in Raul and Jorge Ripa, the two brothers who make the wine. It was during their own travels around Europe—a road trip in their mother’s Volkswagen, visiting wineries in places like Germany, Switzerland, and Austria—where they fully understood how a wine can embody the place where it was made and how a region can impact flavor. Their curiosity as to why led them to learn of biodiversity, and the realization that modern farming techniques stripped the land of all those things that gave the wines their sense of place.

“After that,” Raul said, “we started on the certification and conversion of the vineyards.”

It was a steep learning curve, and a lot of work, but Raul and Jorge eventually got their family’s vineyards where they wanted them, earning bragging rights as the Navarre region’s first biodynamic farm. Though it required a lot of upfront work, the vineyard is more self-sustaining than ever before. They put up bird and bat houses all over as a natural means of insect control. Bats alone can eat up to 2,000 insects a night. They’ve also focused some of their energy on growing complementary plants. As Raul explained, “Every three to 10 rows, we plant particular herb flowers that attract small bugs and prevent them from impacting the vines and grapes.” Aside from the fact that they’re not spraying poisons over grapes that humans will ingest, there’s something very charming about simply distracting your pests with tasty flowers instead of killing them.

Some of their initiatives just sound like common sense: for hot spots in their vineyard, they plant shade trees to cool things off and prevent moisture loss instead of using irrigation to battle dry soil. Others solutions may sound counterintuitive, like letting a population of predatory mites loose among their crops. These mites, called phytoseiidae, eat the red and yellow spider mites that feed on the sap from the grapevines. Because all these solutions involve introducing more living organisms (instead of eradicating them), they can live beyond any one growing season. Spray pesticide in regular intervals one year, and you’ll need to do the same every year. Release predatory mites for a few seasons, and they’ll eventually become the dominant species, taking care of other pests for you. 

What this all amounts to, then, is an ecosystem that can sustain itself, and growers who can simply focus on their grapes. For us, as Quaderna Via’s partner, it means bringing you the kind of wine that makes us excited about wine. And for you, our customers, it means drinking a wine that tells you as much about the grape as it does the region it was grown in. 

As we expand our partnerships to offer more wines, you’ll start tasting the differences in varietals and geography. Until then, if you want to try something beyond what we offer, be sure to read your labels and look for those buzzwords. But make sure they come with a certification, too, otherwise they might just be all buzz—and not the kind we expect when having a drink.