Nestled in the appellation of Priorat, northern Spain, Franck Massard is logged into Zoom and telling me about a 2,000-year-old Amazonian farming technique that’s being utilized on his vineyard.
100% organic and dedicated to producing wine sustainably, Franck is coaxing new life into his vineyard one vintage at a time.
“They used to call it the black earth,” explains Massard. “Mixing it back into the soil to make it more fertile.”
To create black earth, the ancient Amazonian people would mix manure, charcoal, broken pottery and food waste to produce a nutrient dense compost that would help turn the naturally acidic soils of the Amazon into something capable of crop cultivation.
Back in Priorat, Franck is embracing these methods to create a circular process, making a product known as biochar to restore the soils of his vineyard.
“Most areas in the world burn their vine cuttings,” explains Massard.
“There’s always a worry about disease or mildew spores developing in these cuttings and to eliminate the risk, it’s usually burnt, releasing carbon into the atmosphere – and there’s a LOT of cuttings from a vineyard!
We use a process called pyrolysis where the cuttings are exposed to high temperatures of 600ºC.
The fire has minimum anaerobic conditions with no oxygen and instead of burning the wood, it creates a type of charcoal.”
It’s this charcoal, also known as biochar, that holds the great secret of Massard’s black earth.
As well as being a great source of carbon storage, Massard’s biochar is mixed with compost and reintroduced to the vineyard.
As well as storing carbon securely in the ground, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, biochar’s carbon load is also delivering huge benefits to the soil.
“Biochar helps to retain water, air, and nutrients,” explains Massard. “The carbon is sequestered and kept within the cavities of the charcoal, and water is also retained in these cavities too.
When I mix it with my compost the soil has better humidity from rainfall, which means microorganisms stay longer, colonizing the cavities and improving overall soil quality. On top of all this, it also makes the soil more resilient to fungal disease.”
Black earth is a nutrient rich resource charged with carbon, calcium, manganese, magnesium and nitrogen, making it a powerful process in regenerative agriculture. “It’s about taking a very old technique and bringing it back into our farms,” says Massard. “This goes beyond making quality wines. We have a responsibility to improve our practices.”
As well as biochar and black earth practices, Massard has long championed organic viticulture and methods to increase biodiversity on the vineyard.
From installing beehives and building ponds to adding plants that attract pollinating insects…
….the broader the biodiversity on the vineyard, the more the ecosystem can self-regulate, and the need for chemicals to control pests and disease is removed.
“The purpose is to keep a healthy number of communities within our managed area,” says Massard. “But at the end of the day, I’m happy to eat the grapes whilst harvesting as I know that no chemicals are used.”
“There’s definitely a trend towards organic wines right now,” says Massard as our conversation draws to a close.
“Organic viticulture adds to the process, making it a virtue in my opinion, Massard says.
“If we can develop other strategies like developing our biodiversity, keeping the canopy well-aerated, and nurturing healthier soils, then the wine consistency in the long term can work better in an organic or regenerative vineyard than in a conventional one.”
Follow Franck Massard at Naked Wines
Nick Baines is a food and travel writer based in London.