Wine Tastings & Tours

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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Animals in Viticulture

Now, you may be wondering why the Wine Anarchist has a photo of some guy and his goats (and if you look carefully, chickens) in his blog.  Well he has been a bit quiet in recent months, which doesn't mean he hasn't been drinking any wine at all.  In fact the WA has launched a new big project, which he will be reporting on over the next few months on this blog (or rather his anonymous ghost writer will...).  He has decided to combine his two main passions and areas of knowledge, namely wine and permaculture, to write a book on the permaculture vineyard.

Now permaculture is not something that is easy to define in a sentence or two, but essentially it is a design system, usually but not exclusively for land-based projects.  It aims to imitate nature as much as possible, increasing biodiversity and thus building a more resilient system for food production, whilst at the same time reducing input and increasing yield by creating a closed-circuit system.

Now the WA has noticed that most people involved in permaculture like a tipple of wine, which almost exclusively comes from monocultures, even if it is certified organic or even biodynamic.  He feels there must be another way of doing things to be truly sustainable as has been shown by various systems used in history too, and is now actively researching methods that are in accordance with permaculture and can be used in modern viticulture.

This has led the Wine Anarchist on another trip to the east, where he met Bulgarian winery owner Philip Harmandiev (pictured above) of Damianitza winery in Sandanski in south-western Bulgaria.  This winery is currently undergoing a period of transition.  Philip used to be the editor for a financial magazine in Bulgaria, but always had a passion for wine.  Back in 1998 a banker friend of his asked him to look at this flagging winery with severe problems adjusting to the post-communist realities of Bulgaria.  He took over this run-down winery, concrete tanks and mediocre wines all included.  He then invested in the winery to bring it up to modern standards and bought vineyards in various locations all over southern Bulgaria.  A few years ago he moved the winery to a new location, which left him with the old winery in an industrial estate near the main Sofia to Thessaloniki highway without knowing what to do with it.

Some 3 years ago he had a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus revelation, realising that the way we conventionally grow our food and our grapes for wine production is not sustainable on the long run after he saw the move Food Inc.  The documentary talks about the way modern food is produced and how it harms both the environment and humans themselves.  As an alternative it features an animal farmer, Joel Salatin, who wrote the bestselling book 'You Can Farm'.  Philip was so inspired that he translated the book into Bulgarian and decided to turn the old winery into an animal farm along the principles described by Salatin and at the same time converting his vineyards to organic methods.

At this particular point in time the two systems only touch marginally, as his vineyards are scattered around the country whilst the animals are only on one location.  Moving the animals around would take to much effort to fully integrate them as part of the vineyard management.  However, Philip has experimented with having sheep graze between rows of vines to keep down vegetation, attract beneficial insects and fertilise the soil.  Grape stalks get fed to goats who love that stuff and in return it as compost much quicker than if you were to just leave them.  Grape skins after fermentation are fed to wormeries to turn to compost.

The animals in the meantime are kept on mixed pastures such as cows and pigs together, the pigs  eating the cow dung and at the same time destroying any intestinal pests lurking in there, thus lowering the risk of re-infecting other cows.

Chicken tractors follow cow grazing areas for the same reason and to re-fertilise the soil.

Egg-laying hens get larger mobile homes offering space for several hundred birds, whilst having all the space to do what they like best, foraging free range.

Pigs get to roam free and do what they like best: roll in mud

All enclosures are protected from predators by electric fences and dogs.

Slaughter of animals happens on site under as humane as possible conditions.  Philip's attention to detail goes beyond the welfare of his animals.  In an effort to reduce the environmental footprint of his operation he recycles as much as possible.  For example he uses scrap aluminum printer sheets as roofing for the animal shelters.  Not only do they not conduct heat like other metals and stay nice and cool, it also gives the animals inside something to read when they're feeling bored.

The whole operation is now a successful business as people come back and even pre-order meat, eggs and dairy products of far superior quality than the conventionally available AND production costs are actually lower.  In the future Philip wants to consolidate his vineyard holdings to fully integrate the two systems with sheep, chickens, ducks and geese grazing the vineyards and fertilising them.  A project to keep an eye on.

In the meantime, yes the Wine Anarchist did get to taste some wine too.  The main brands currently produced by Damianitza are No Man's Land, Uniqato and ReDark.  These are the thoughts of the WA on 3 of the wines he got to taste:

  • UNIQATO Rubin 2009: Big hefty wine, deep ruby colour with slight orangey tint on the edge, showing some age; rich nose of milk chocolate or rum'n'raisin, blackberry and morello cherry; the palate is very warm and rich with some spicy notes and lots of ripe fruit. A bit overripe perhaps at 14.5%, big in your face lacking subtlety, finesse.   Rubin is a Bulgarian cross of Syrah and Nebbiolo. It certainly has the power of those two varieties.

    UNIQATO Melnik & Ruen 2010: Med. ruby in colour with a pale rim; the nose reveals savoury notes of bay leaf, eucalyptus and basil as well as ripe blueberry and lush plum fruit and a hint of vanilla; The palate is full with some distinct peppery spice, more blueberry fruit and some well balanced tannins.  The finish is long and juicy.  Very nice indeed.  Melnik is the native variety of south-western Bulgaria and Ruen is another Bulgarian cross between Melnik and Cabernet Sauvignon.

    ReDark 2009: This is the flagship wine of the winery, their super-premium, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Rouen and Rubin.  The colour is still a youthful ruby with purple fringes; the intense aromas display floral aromas of sweet violets and lilac as well as spicy leather and vanilla notes; the palate still has a big tannic backbone, plenty of peppery spice, but balanced by some ripe blackcurrant fruit.  The finish is long and spicy with hints of liquorice.  A classy wine, which will continue to develop for the next 5 years at least.