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Recycling Vineyard Waste to Improve Our Soil

With 62,000 vines on its 55-acre vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stratus Vineyards has a lot of vine cuttings, specifically trunks, to dispose of every year, and this year in particular due to the extreme cold winters of 2014 and 2015. True to its environmental commitment, the vineyard team is now pursuing a centuries-old method to repurpose vineyard waste, benefiting both the vineyard and the environment in general.

Renewing trunks is a prudent practice in cool climate viticulture where two trunks are grown per vine – a practice sometimes called “spare parts viticulture” – to hedge against loss due to cold damage. When these trunks are cut in the spring, the cuttings are typically burned in the vineyard to dispose of them. Attempting to find a less detrimental practice at Stratus, the vineyard team began to research alternatives. What the team found is biochar – a contemporary solution, conducted in an ancient style, with positive outcomes for the future. Biochar is produced through pyrolysis — a process of heating biomass (the vine trunks in this case) in an oxygen-limited environment. The result is a finely grained, highly porous charcoal that can then be used as an amendment to improve soil structure. The biochar also acts as a “sponge” in the soil, retaining water when it is plentiful, and releasing water in drought conditions.

Unable to find any local vineyards or farms currently making biochar, Stratus’ winemaker J-L Groux and vineyard manager Dean Stoyka began their research and, among other resources, they found videos from Jamaica of charcoal-making for cooking fuel. This prompted Stoyka to take the idea to Stratus’ Jamaican vineyard workers, where he found biochar expertise right in his own “backyard.”

Due to the need for an oxygen-restricted process, most biochar around the world is made in specially designed ovens or kilns. But Stratus has looked back further to the techniques used over 2,000 years ago. The “ovens” are built up from the trunks themselves, carefully placed so that the burn achieves the necessary temperature. Then this is covered with grass clippings, and then finally by soil. “It’s an exacting process,” says Stoyka, “and the Jamaicans’ knowledge of the proper technique is invaluable.” The Stratus team takes one day to build the oven, three days for the burn and one day to take it apart. The resulting biochar is broken up and added to other organic matter (mostly grape skins and stems) in the compost pile. This will be spread in the vineyard this autumn. “With this method, we’re not putting carbon into the air – we’re putting it into the ground,” explains Groux.

For Stratus, the benefits are threefold: turning a former waste product into a useful soil amendment; improving not only the vineyard but also the greater environment in the process; and recognizing and valuing the initiative and expertise of the Stratus team. “We think we are on to something that could be of wider benefit in the region, where we have an abundance of this biomass, and we are eager to further enhance our learning and our method with time,” says Stoyka.

Stratus Vineyards produces VQA wines on its 62-acre estate. Planted with 16 varieties, the vineyard is dedicated to the art of assemblage. Its signature wines, Stratus Red and Stratus White, are considered benchmarks in the Canadian wine industry. Stratus is also recognized for its leadership in sustainability. In 2005, Stratus became the first LEED™ certified winery in the world.

“The wine we grow is dependent on the health of the land on which it is grown. We farm our vineyard and guide our winemaking as though our children’s future depends on it. Each vintage bottled is a reflection of this ongoing commitment.”  – Environmental Mission Statement

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