Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Helicopters and Root Days

I went down to Vertus this afternoon to taste vins clairs at Larmandier-Bernier. Having failed to check my biodynamic calendar (I actually do keep one on my desk), I was unaware that after 4pm, today is a root day, meaning that it’s prime time for treatment of the vines. As I arrived, Pierre Larmandier was finishing up the preparation of a tank of 501 (horn silica, used to strengthen a plant’s resistance to pests and help it to better assimilate nutrients and light), and was on his way to spray it onto his vineyards by helicopter.

Larmandier-Bernier is the only biodynamic producer in Champagne to spray by helicopter, although there are many other producers who use helicopters for chemical treatments. The Larmandiers have been using helicopters since 2003, and have been very pleased with the results. “For conventional viticulture a helicopter isn’t nearly as good, because it’s not very precise,” explains Sophie Larmandier. “But for biodynamic viticulture it works very well. It spreads the preparation very evenly over the parcel, in a sort of cloud. You don’t need a high concentration of the tisane in the vines, so this treatment works perfectly.”

She notes that another advantage of using a helicopter is that it gets the job done much more quickly and efficiently, which is an important issue with biodynamic treatments since they are time-sensitive. “There are only so many root days on the calendar, and with 16 hectares of vines, we couldn’t get to all of them in time,” she says. “It wasn’t until we started spraying by helicopter that we were able to work the entire domaine biodynamically. The helicopter covers the whole estate in one and a half hours, whereas by tractor it would take us two full days to cover the same area. Also, the less we have to use the tractors the better, to avoid compacting the soil. It’s expensive to rent a helicopter, but if you consider the cost of two days of labor, plus gas for the tractors and whatnot, it’s not really that much more. And it’s an improvement in quality.”


spume said...

I think next time you need to go for a ride in that helicopter!

(Also, where did you get you BD desk calendar?)

- wolfgang

Brooklynguy said...

wow - somehow biodynamic farming and helicopters seem like odd bedfellows to me. sort of like grandma on a motorcycle. her explanation makes sense though. and i guess there are plenty of grandmas who ride motorcycles.

Peter Liem said...

Hey Wolfe,

I would happily have taken a ride over the vineyards of Vertus, but due to the spraying equipment involved, there was room for only one person in the cockpit. Unfortunately the pilot insisted on taking that seat. (These French are so demanding.) I did have a helicopter ride over the Champagne vineyards once, courtesy of Champagne Mumm. We flew over Bouzy and Ambonnay, then went down to tour around the grands crus of the Côte des Blancs, back over Epernay and Aÿ, took a turn to Dizy to see my house, then flew over the Montagne de Reims to Verzy and Verzenay. It was fantastic. You have a completely different perspective from the air, and of course it helps you to understand the terrain much better. For example, I drive through the forest of the Montagne de Reims quite frequently on my way to visit various wine villages, but it wasn’t until I saw it from the air that I realized exactly how big it is.

I use the Calendrier des Semis, a book based on the research of Maria and Matthias Thun that is published annually by the Mouvement de Culture Bio-Dynamique, a French organization based in Alsace. It’s what most biodynamic growers use here in France – I don’t know if it’s specific to France or Europe or the Northern Hemisphere or what. There’s an organization in Oregon that I’ve purchased some literature from, called the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. (Their website is www.biodynamics.com.) You might give them a call and see what they have available.

Peter Liem said...

Hey Neil,

I know -- initially you think, a helicopter is way too much technology for biodynamics. But after talking to Sophie it really does make a lot of sense. Anyway, didn't Leonardo da Vinci invent a helicopter 500 years ago? The technology is old-school.

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