Ben Darnault’s love affair with slow viticulture
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When working on a vineyard where the soils were very much depleted, a young Benjamin Darnault began questioning how vineyards were being farmed.
“Many years ago we bought some vineyards where the soil was compacted and barren,” explains Darnault. “They’d been conventionally farmed, but when we did some analysis it revealed the soil was nearly dead.”
The thing is, the whole industry had been using herbicides and pesticides since just after the war and it has caused a lot of problems. We stopped that immediately – and began bringing in biodynamic principles to restore the vitality of the vineyard.”
Darnault has since been a powerful advocate of biodynamic farming practices and embraces a number of techniques to encourage a diverse ecosystem in his vineyards.
“Modern agriculture has created a lot of damage in our soils over the past 70 years,” continues Darnault. “Farming in a biodiverse way is a more costly approach, and it takes time, but if you have healthy vineyards and healthy fruit, then you have to do less in the winemaking.”
Darnault plants a wide range of plants and trees in his vineyards including cereals and flowers. The root systems of those plants help to naturally open up the soil, while above the surface these plants bring in bees and other pollinators.
“We’ve also been planting lots of trees around the vineyard to help bring back more insects and birds. We’ve repopulated bats nearby too, and each bat can eat around 50,000 bugs a night including grape moths, which are a pest, and that balanced environment is just better for the vines.”
As well as creating a vineyard that’s teeming with life, this approach can also deliver wonderful results in your wine too. “
Healthy soil results in a healthier plant,” says Darnault. “Which can give you more vibrancy in the fruit, and more vibrancy in the wine.”
Ben goes on to explain that farming this way can also give you more balanced fruit, and when it’s more balanced you don’t need to use winemaking tricks to remove sugar or alcohol. “I’m a technical person,” tells Darnault. “I like funky music, but I don’t like funky wine, and if you don’t do anything at all you will end up with a lot of faulty wines, so we are constantly monitoring everything.”
As well as embracing a broad range of biodynamic tactics, Darnault is constantly looking at what else is interfering with his wine. This includes working to remove electromagnetic interference during maturation.
“When the wine sits for months during the maturation, we like the wine to be very still. But for example, when you use steel tanks, there is a temperature reaction that creates convection. Instead of the wine staying still, it tends to always move, so the wine never rests.”
Biodynamic farming goes beyond organic methods, and partnered with Benjamin’s scrupulous attention to detail, he’s producing wines that are not only helping create better ecosystems in the vineyard, but hit that sweet spot of complexity, vibrancy and depth.
“I’m not esoteric about it,” explains Darnault. “But I want to make great wines, and to make great wines I use the most appropriate techniques.” It just so happens the most appropriate techniques are helping to restore a natural balance in viticulture to boot.
Nick Baines is a food and travel writer based in London.