Rewilding wine: should vineyards let nature take its course?

Most wineries strive to exist in harmony with nature, but some have overstepped the mark, says Adam Lechmere

Words by Adam Lechmere

fox runs through a wild vineyard
When it comes to rewilding in the wine world, it isn't necessarily as simple as “nature good – humanity bad", says Adam Lechmere

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma bought Château de Sours in 2016. Over the next few years there were flurries of interest over what he planned to do with his purchase. We had to wait until last year to find out: Ma had bought Château de Sours, in the lovely Entre-deux-Mers region to create a 200-hectare (ha) natural paradise where “humanity is capable of being an environmentally healing force, respecting the balance of a natural ecosystem in perfect equilibrium,” as its website says. “Château de Sours brings nature, animals, and humans together to restore that balance.”

When journalist Jane Anson visited the property, she found a giant (and somewhat surreal) experiment: “mile after mile of carefully constructed landscapes,” security fences, watchtowers, guards, all masterminded by a Cohiba-smoking Belgian agent called Tom Vercammen, who said things like, “We are not destroying nature, we are upgrading it.”

Vercammen left the property earlier this year. The château itself will not answer any questions, but former owner Martin Krajewski, who sold Château de Sours to Ma in 2015 and remained as a consultant for two years, is outspoken about what he considers the despoliation of a vineyard he had nurtured for two decades.

He claims that thousands of mature trees have been felled, carefully maintained hedgerows grubbed up, ground cover and brambles cleared, the lake enlarged, the river diverted. Vines in prime terroir have been removed up to build a winery, visitor centre and boutique hotel. Non-native species have been planted to replace razed woods and de-grassed meadows. “They’ve taken up the grass behind the château to plant 17,000 lavender bushes, half of which die every winter because it’s cold and wet down there. It’s not Provence.”

Altano rewilding wine
The Rewilding Edition of Altano's Douro red, for which the Symington family has partnered with Rewilding Portugal

Ma is known to be deeply interested in conservation – in 2015 he bought 28,000ha of wilderness in upstate New York to turn into a wildlife sanctuary, and he maintains a wetland paradise in his hometown of Hangzhou. But the diminutive tycoon has fallen foul of the Chinese communist party and is allegedly under house arrest. It’s not known how involved he has been in what is going on at Château de Sours winery.

Over the past few decades, the desire to return our landscapes to a more natural rhythm has become a powerful movement. The publication in 2018 of the book Rewilding, about the spectacular results of a natural experiment at a Sussex farm over two decades, caused an upsurge in interest.

Taken at face value, rewilding should be uncontroversial. “It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats,” the Rewilding Europe project defines it.

Rewilding Europe, a pan-continent initiative which aims to “to create large, rewilded landscapes in at least 10 different regions across Europe”, has many high-profile supporters – its Portuguese arm is sponsored by the Symington family, for example. “Rewilding Portugal are natural partners for us,” Johnny Symington said. But it’s not always as simple as “nature good – humanity bad”.

Wild Horses At Oostvaardersplassen
Wild horses roam at Oostvaardersplassen in The Netherlands, one of the most controversial rewilding projects

There is vocal and widespread resistance to some rewilding projects, notably by sheep farmers in the Pyrenees, where the reintroduction of brown bears is bitterly opposed, and Wales, where shepherds are similarly against bringing wolves back to a habitat they were hunted out of more than a century ago. It’s impossible to guard a flock against wolves, they argue; sheep farming, a way of life that has endured for generations, will be threatened with extinction.

One of the most famous rewilding projects, Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, was severely criticised and effectively halted three years ago. The 5,000ha tract of land near Amsterdam was set up in 1968 as a natural utopia where herds of wild-living deer, cattle and horses would roam alongside flourishing bird populations and naturally controlled vegetation.

The problem was that the grazing animals became too successful and herds outgrew their food sources. Many starved. In the harsh winter of 2018-19, newspapers carried horrifying photographs of emaciated horses and corpse-strewn landscapes. Now under government directive, Oostvaardersplassen is tightly controlled, with animals culled to keep populations in check.

The vigneron knows that we are as intrinsically a part of nature as the birds and the bees

Both the Dutch experiment and the Château de Sours project would seem to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship of human beings and the natural landscape – both too little and too much control. The vigneron knows that we are as intrinsically a part of nature as the birds and the bees.

As Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is fond of saying, “Terroir is the three Gs: the ground, the grape and the guy.” Some of the most extraordinary vineyards are created out of landscapes that have never been cultivated – the Atacama desert in northern Chile, for example, or the arid, stony foothills of Ningxia’s Mount Helan in China.

Many winemakers have little patience with rewilding. “I don’t really understand the concept,” Thomas Duroux of Château Palmer told me. Yet Duroux has spent the better part of a decade returning the Margaux property to an Eden-like state of oneness with nature.

When I visited some years ago, he took me straight out to see the cows, reeled off the names of the wild flowers in the cover crop, and said he was more interested in expanding the vegetable gardens than the vineyards. Now they have sheep and bees, peach trees, cherry, fig and pear, and miles of restored hedgerow. There are wild areas, of course, but as he says: “If you do agriculture, you can’t really let nature take its own course.”

Back at Château de Sours, Krajewski – who still owns vineyards which abut his old property – says it has been turned into Disneyland. “The idea of completely destroying everything that was there to start again makes no sense. Rewilding? It was already wild.”