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  • April 24, 2013
  • Organic Spraying in the Mosel Valley

  • by Thorsten Melsheimer

schaef_melsheimerEditor’s note: After a visit with Thorsten Melsheimer in Reil, I wanted to know a little more about organic spraying in the Mosel Valley, where he is one of the leading organic growers, along with Clemens Busch. Both of them farm steep slope vineyards and seek high-quality Mosel Rieslings.

Yes, organic spraying is sometimes a struggle on the Mosel. Unfortunately, besides the fungi peronospora and oidium—also known as downy and powdery mildew, respectively—we also have black rot and, the worst of all, Rotbrenner, also known as Pseudopezicula tracheiphila (Roter Brenner). Virtually unknown in other areas, it forces us in the stony-slate vineyards of the Mosel to start spraying when the first green on the vines appear at the end of April and the beginning of May.

It's very tricky, and before every rain in May, any green should be covered with spray. The uncovered parts of the plant are lost for sure. Since copper, sulfur, mineral powder, fennel oil, baking soda, and waterglass (sodium silicate) are mostly washed away after rain and any growth of the vines must be covered over again, 12–15 sprays are not unusual for us due to the early start. Twenty years ago, this was unthinkable. Shitty climate change.

If the now-allowed 3 kilograms of copper (on average I come out with 2.5 kilograms) should be distributed in 12 sprays, the amounts applied per spray are small. But copper is, fortunately, a very high-quality agent. Increasing the amount brings almost nothing. It must, however, be all-encompassing—that is, to be applied with sufficient water.

Unfortunately, the helicopter spraying can't do the job: this is the main reason why organic viticulture on the Mosel is hardly growing. Most of my colleagues are afraid of the considerable extra effort of having to spray with the hose by hand. This concern is not without good reason. On the Mosel, organic farming is in relation to other aspects much more expensive and it threatens the economic viability. So it's asking for a lot of ideology—an ideology, which was originally tainted politically in the 1980s and has its roots in the peace and environmental movements. It now has become a well-established ideology on its own. The agrochemicals never really brought us solutions, only temporary and partial relief.

Mutations in the pathogen require ever-new synthetic substances—for the industry a wonderful state to be in. The knowledge of the mutations of the fungi on the vine is head-spinning, especially if you can imagine what happens when the spray agents reach the soil, and they do. Thousands of known and millions of essentially unexplored microorganisms are being subjected to these non-natural substances. They are all somehow at the beginning of a food chain. It's an incredible carousel. We continually break down doors of which we don't know where they lead (as with genetic modification—but this is another issue). A question that comes up time and again and one I would like to mention here: Where do the growing number of our allergies come from since we industrialized agriculture and food production? The search for answers is worthy, at least, for a thesis. But the complicity of agriculture is quickly visible by just scratching the surface.

So is copper better than synthetic substances? Yes, copper touches the fungus and the fungus dies, but there is no further chain reaction, very simple, but that's exactly the point. Yet there is an accumulation of copper in the soil that we should take into account. As mentioned above, I use on average 2.5 kilograms per year. That's very little, especially when considering that copper, as a trace element, is reduced in many material processes. Yet a residual problem remains. In the nineties, after searching a long time for copper replacements, something new was created: an algae preparation with phosphorous acid. It has shown to have a good effect against peronospora. But only at an early stage of cell growth, and therefore it is only helpful at the beginning of the vegetation period. Until this year, it was allowed in organic farming, but now the manufacturer of this patent has it registered as a pesticide, which, except for sulfur and copper, is prohibited among organic growers. So, once again, it will take a lot of bureaucracy to get it in the EU regulation as organic. Let's see what happens.

Another point of contact between organic and conventional viticulture is the distribution of pheromone vials in vineyards. In my opinion, these were allowed in the organic sector as a modern compromise and useful for enforcing the ban on the pesticide E605, or parathion. On the other hand, the substance in the pheromone vials is produced "naturally identical." I know, it's a spongy word. In many areas of biochemistry, it's a delicate balance between natural and synthetic materials, but nobody wants to talk about yeasts or enzymes, for example. Yet nobody is perfect. I still make compromises, too.

Phew, it's a long answer. But it's important, and I hope that many people, especially my colleagues, read it. ♦

Translated by Lars Carlberg.

Photograph of Thorsten Melsheimer, who is barely visible in my photo, inspecting a dry stone wall terrace in Mullay-Hofberg "Schäf."

  • Thorsten Melsheimer’s post was, in part, a reply to some issues that I list below. It’s important to note, too, that he only addresses spraying against fungi not other important topics, such as soil erosion, fertilizers, and herbicides. (See “Glyphosate Use in the Mosel Wine Region” for more on herbicides.)

    Nevertheless, not all Biowinzer, or organic winegrowers, some of whom have primarily flatland vineyards in the Mosel Valley, are like Thorsten Melsheimer or Clemens Busch. Many of them use cultured yeasts, enzymes, and fining agents in the cellar. This, of course, is not necessarily bad. In fact, Thorsten made wines this way for a while. But it’s different from the so-called natural wines that adhere to native yeasts and low or no-added sulfur, although sulfur is used in the vineyards. (Rita & Rudolf Trossen produce such “natural wines.”)

    In the Mosel’s steep vineyard sites, organic farming is very difficult, especially if the grower’s plots are small, terraced, and spread out in various sites. The climatic conditions don’t make it any easier. Unlike in other regions, a Mosel grower in the steepest sites can’t drive a tractor, which saves on labor costs but also compacts the soil and pollutes the air. Today, the many quality-conscious Mosel growers, who are not organic but farm naturnah, or “close to nature,” are concerned about rot and the over-reliance on copper, a heavy metal, especially to fight against peronospora, also known as downy mildew. On a drive to Paris several years ago, Clemens Busch talked about the use of copper among some of his organic and biodynamic colleagues, especially in France, where controls seem lax. (Oddly, in France, the dependency on nuclear power doesn’t seem to be a big concern either, despite the dangers.) I remember, too, that Clemens was concerned about black rot in his vineyards.

    Another gray area is phosphorous acid, which is also used by organic growers to fight against fungi, but it’s not natural. Likewise, many of them use pheromone vials, such as RAK® 3, produced by the chemical company BASF. The pheromones confuse the mating of target insect pests—namely, vine moths. In his book titled Terroir (Kosmos, 2009), Reinhard Löwenstein of Heymann-Löwenstein brings up some of these gray areas, as well as other points. At the end of his piece, Thorsten addresses these issues.

  • John Ritchie says:

    Thorsten, thanks so much for writing this piece and allowing it to be posted. I’d first like to point out that Melsheimer is an estate that’s grossly under-appreciated in the U.S. and hope that that’s soon rectified. To be completely transparent, I had a lovely tasting with Thorsten last year at Chambers Street and do offer some of his wines to our customers.

    Now, a few questions for Thorsten, or maybe Lars, or anyone else that may know the answers or choose to opine:

    1. What exactly is meant by “an ideology, which was originally tainted politically in the 1980s and has its roots in the peace and environmental movements?” I know little of the history of organic viticulture in Germany, but the renown of Mosel and Rhine wines in the 19th century and first half of the 20th show that there was no problem producing excellent wines without the use of agrochemicals. Clearly, the chemical industry gained a foothold (as it did in most of Europe) and dominated farming well into the 1980s. While many growers throughout Europe eschewed chemicals all along, more and more growers have been abandoning them since this time; what was the “political taint” that occurred then?

    2. “Unfortunately, the helicopter spraying can’t do the job: this is the main reason why organic viticulture on the Mosel is hardly growing.” Why can’t helicopter spraying do the job? Is too much copper wasted and it would end up far above the legally allowed limit? Or is it because more of the plant needs to be covered, including undersides of leaves that the helicopter wouldn’t reach?

    3. “2–15 sprays are not unusual for us due to the early start. Twenty years ago, this was unthinkable. Shitty climate change.” Are you saying that in cooler times, prior to the longer growing season brought on by climate change, that spraying (organic or otherwise) was required less frequently? Relatedly, prior to the invention of agrochemicals, were organic sprays (including, but not limited to Bordeaux mixture) even used on the Mosel? If so, in what amounts? I’d imagine some estates have records.

    4. “As mentioned above, I use on average 2.5 kilograms [of copper] per year.” Per hectare or total?

    5. “Once again, it will take a lot of bureaucracy to get [the phosphorous acid/algae mixture] in the EU regulation as organic. Let’s see what happens.” This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing this. Lars, phosphorous acid is a naturally occurring compound, but it isn’t an element, such as copper or sulfur. Is this why you describe it as “not natural”? Nikki Saahs recently declared sulfur as a natural ingredient in winemaking since it “can be harvested from a volcano,” but I think we’re all aware that no one is harvesting sulfur or copper for their spraying from naturally occurring mines.

    6. “the distribution of pheromone vials in vineyards.” Perhaps my understanding of the science is flawed, but while these may not be necessarily “natural,” their excretions aren’t being collected on the grape skins and they aren’t affecting the character of the wine in any way (technically, they are affecting the wine positively in that they are preventing insect damage to the grapes, but that’s not really the issue here). .

    7. “but nobody wants to talk about yeasts or enzymes, for example” I do! Organic considerations are at least twofold: they ideally are both better for the environment and produce better, more terroir-expressive wines. Why muck up what you’ve worked so hard to produce in the vineyard with dodgy cellar work?

    8. Certain growers in France are also not pleased with the over-reliance on copper and are constantly seeking out different, natural methods to combat fungus and disease, including experiments with different cover crops that can affect the chemical equilibrium of the vineyard. Didier Barrouillet at Clos Roche Blanche is a leader in this field. Is anyone in Germany investigating similar paths? Is it hopeless to imagine a way to combat fungus that doesn’t involve excessive use of copper or synthetic chemicals?

    9. This piece is a valuable resource, and as a repository of all things Mosel-related, I’d love to see here another post that offers up the typical spraying regimen of a more conventional estate, say a J.J. Prüm, Willi Schaefer, Fritz Haag or Lieser. Are they forced to spray as frequently as the organic growers? What role do helicopters play, and how frequently are they employed? What is the price difference per hectare between hiring a helicopter and hiring a team of employees to spray the area by hand? What synthetic chemicals are utilized and in what amounts?

    Ok, nine is many more than a few points. I apologize, and should stop.

    • John, I still need to reread all your points and hope that Thorsten can reply as well. As for your first point, Germany’s Green movement was political as well. We have the Green Party in Germany today. This grassroots movement was about social justice, democracy, and nonviolence, not just about the environment. Unlike many environmentalists in the States, the German Green Party is against nuclear power. In the eighties, the Greens, like many other Germans, didn’t want American nuclear arms (Pershing missles) in Germany either.

      In the 19th century, both peronospora (downy mildew) and oidium (powdery mildew) came to Europe from North America and wrecked havoc. The grape growers even sprayed arsenic or nicotine. They also didn’t know how to deal with phylloxera, which also came from North America, even though it was less of a problem on the Mosel than in other regions of Europe, where it wiped out many of the vineyards.

      As Thorsten writes in his article, few growers are willing to work terraced sites with a hoe for little money in return.

    • Your second point about helicopter spraying is also an issue for non-organic growers, many of whom lost much of their crop in 2012 to peronospora, because the vines needed to be sprayed by hand.

      By the way, I found this article from a biotechnology source on combating mildew in European vineyards.

    • Is phosphorous acid “a naturally occurring compound” (point 5)? A grower told me that it’s chemically produced and registered as a fertilizer, though the authorities want to list it under pesticides against the wishes of organic growers. Perhaps Thorsten or another grower can clarify this point.

      I don’t see an issue with pheromone vials (point 6), but the “natural wine” dogma criticizes BASF and the chemical industry. That’s fine, but should they use pheromones, too?

      I agree with you that “[organic viticulture is better] for the environment and produce[s] better, more terroir-expressive wines” (point 7), but it shouldn’t be dogmatic.

      A number of Mosel growers, both organic and naturnah, use various cover crops. For example, Karthäuserhof and Maxmin Grünhaus in the Ruwer Valley have done more of this in recent vintages, even though neither is organic.

      • John Ritchie says:

        Phosphoric acid appears to be naturally occurring while phosphorous acid does not, thus there’s been a bit of confusion. We need some chemists!

        • Sorry about that, John. I mistakenly wrote phosphoric instead of phosphorous acid in my initial translation. Yes, we need some chemists who are also Mosel winegrowers. Where’s Ulli Stein when you need him?

  • Bill Hooper says:

    Hi John,
    Here are a few thoughts on your questions:

    3. Earlier bud-break and subsequently earlier shoot-growth requires that spraying for Peronospora is started a few weeks prior to historical norms. The fungus cannot penetrate the leaves until the shoots reach a length of 10 cm (or about 5 leaves) because of the size of the openings on the underside of the leaves (used for gas-exchange) aren’t large enough until then. Peronospora also needs a temperature of at least 10 degrees centigrade to thrive.

    4. 2,5 kg is per hectare.

    6. Pheromone capsules have been one of the greatest developments in fighting the grape-berry moth, which used to be very problematic. The use of Pheromones has completely eradicated the need for insecticides in the vineyards of Germany (or much of Germany -70% is the last I’ve heard) and has allowed other beneficial predator insects and mites to again bolster their populations. Some people don’t like handing a large check to BASF every April, but this is an extremely positive development.

    7. For the most part, organic and especially Biodynamic producers eschew the use of cellar-aids like enzymes and yeast nutrients. There is a movement to limit which of these additives are allowed in the cellars of certified organic and Bio-dyn Weingüter.

    8. We have done experiments with making compost preparations to fight Pero and Oidium in the vineyard. We have a couple of parcels that are not reachable by tractor and don’t spray Sulfur or Copper there. The idea with the preparations is to encourage so much biodiversity of micro-organisms that nothing in particular can take hold. It is like a constant battle-royal on the vines for supremacy. We had very little problem with both mildews last year in these parcels. The work is very encouraging.

    9. I can’t speak to labor-hours in a Mosel vineyard, but in the Pfalz, where the climate is considerably drier with less fungal-pressure, the spraying on our Biodynamic estate is about once every 8 days between the onset of Pero-season and the last spray before the harvest (there is a mandatory waiting period in Germany for spraying usually commencing at the beginning of August.)

    Great article btw,

  • Uwe Kristen says:

    Truly fascinating article and responses. Thank you.

  • Today, in the Trier archives, I came across an article in Weinbau und Weinhandel (1898) about a new peronospora spray, which the grower could carry on his back. The common treatments were copper sulfate and Bordeaux mixture.

  • Another important topic is energy sources. I’m against nuclear power, but the burning of fossil fuels is changing the climate. See my piece on “Cattenom.”

  • Knebel, Materne & Schmitt, and Weyh, despite farming mostly terraced vineyards, don’t spray any type of herbicides—not just glyphosate—in their vineyards.

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