There are many ways in which vines are grown in the UK and around the world - these range from the conventional approach which can involve weekly spray regimes of fungicides, pesticides and herbicides through to full biodynamic which eschews all such interventions. St Martin's Vineyard has always been managed with minimal inputs since its inception in 1996, and in 2020 we are taking the next step towards full organic production with Soil Association certification.
St Martin's Vineyard is rather a unique site in the UK - on south-facing slopes just a stone's throw from the sea you find our vines nestled in small fields with tall hedges to protect them from the wind - very different to the open rolling monocultures of vines you might find in some of the larger vineyards in the southeast. The tall hedges, known on Scilly as 'fence', provide a fantastic home for wildlife with flowers producing nectar for pollinators in the spring and a wide abundance of nesting sites for our incredible songbird population through the summer. Even our largest field has only 380 vines so the interplay between crop and hedgerow found in pre-industrialised farmland is very much still present here.
There are old banked dry-stone walls filled with cracks and crevices where bugs and beetles can live, along with our native 'Scilly' or lesser white-toothed shrew whose only home in the UK is on the Isles of Scilly, Jersey and Sark. At the top of the site, beyond the last post, the vines give way to wilderness; elm groves contend with wild honeysuckle and blackberries as the land rises up the hillside - some of these are old woodland remnants with bluebells and foxgloves in the understory.
We are also looking for ways to reduce our carbon emissions and hope to have solar power installed by the end of the year. Rather than burning the prunings, we have buried these in Hugel mounds - these lock away the deadwood to mitigate any disease risk whilst creating a great habitat for invertebrates in the short-term, generating highly nutritious soil for growing crops in the medium term, and locking up organic matter in the soil to improve our carbon footprint in the long term. These are small steps in the grand scheme of things, but we are exploring all the ways we can make the vineyard more sustainable.
In between the vines themselves are native grassland avenues with an abundance of nitrogen-fixing wildflowers including the rare hairy bird's foot trefoil as well as clovers, medicks and vetches which naturally improve soil fertility. We use no herbicides on the site, instead mowing or strimming by hand where necessary but leaving the grass long for the wildflowers where we can. Check out our Wildflowers blog post for more about the unusual wildflowers which find their home on the vineyard.
All of these diverse habitats result in a vineyard buzzing with life on every level - from the pipistrelle bats and swallows zipping overhead to the meadow brown butterflies bouncing between the flowers. This abundance of wildlife means that there are plenty of species which can act as controls and checks on others - it is perhaps a little counter intuitive but complexity and stability of ecological systems are highly linked. If you have a wide open site without perches and nest sites for birds, they won't be around to eat the insect pests which might have arrived. Similarly removing all other vegetation beneath the trunks will leave no other food for a herbivore who has their eye on your vines. We believe that a vineyard filled with life is one which will produce the best wines with the least inputs in the long term.
The organic conversion period for perennial crops such as vines is three years, so it will be a little time until you see the Organic certification stamped on one of our bottles, but in the meantime we will be taking good care of the wildlife as well as the wine here on St Martin's Vineyard!