Polly Noyce: "It’s a shame that we had to destroy the environment to recognise how important it really is."
Ecological philanthropist and founder of Manor House Agricultural Centre (MHAC), Polly Noyce, outlines the ecological principles of agroforestry and the importance of healthy soils. Since 1984, Polly has dedicated her life’s work to aggregating smallholder farmers and spreading ecological agricultural philosophies to mitigate climate change.
Could you tell us about your background and how you came to live in Kenya?
I’m a Northern Californian girl, I grew up on the edge of Silicon Valley. I rode my horse every day after school and loved going out into nature. I went to the East Coast to do my degree in Physics for two and a half years before realising I wasn’t ready to live in an office through all the wonderful daylight hours. I was getting home too late to water my garden and I thought I needed to go back to school to find my purpose. I decided to pursue Environmental Studies along the Sustainable Agriculture track and that’s what took me to Kenya.
I was also an editor for Energy News – a monthly paper that talked about alternative energy. In August 1981, my sister was studying to be a medical doctor and she was asked by John Jeavons to attend a conference on renewable energy in Nairobi. She didn’t have the time, so she sent the information along to me. It was a great excuse as I could write an article about it for Energy News. I flew out to Nairobi for ten days with my husband at the time, and while I was there, I met some people who were instrumental in the birth of MHAC.
What was Kenya like when you arrived in the 1980s?
It was much less populated than it is now, and large-scale farms operated for the most part. It was part of the White Highlands and when the British left, large pieces of land were turned over to people who were eligible for a bank loan and who could buy property. Forty years later, their children’s children have been educated and don’t want to be farmers, so those big lands are subdivided into small farms.
In 1984, you set up MHAC, could you tell us how the idea evolved into reality?
I had come to Kenya to relay information for Ecology Action, which was valuable to Kenyan smallholder farmers. I was in a session with all men except for this one woman, who stood up and announced that I had something important to say. Afterwards, she invited me to her house for a traditional African meal along with a gentleman I had met, Patrick Peacey, who had been chaplain at Manor House Preparatory School in Kitale. We talked about what he was looking for and what I had come out to represent. There was some unity of purpose, so we kept ideas flowing for another two and a half years before Manor House was born. It was difficult though, as Patrick was living in the UK, myself in California and our founding trustee in Nairobi. The eleven-hour time difference resulted in many calls at inconvenient hours to move our agenda forward!
Patrick had a vision from God, which spelt out to him the terms of a declaration of trust. The original 40 acres of school property would be put to charitable use. With the help of Sir Humphrey Slade, he wrote up a declaration of trust under the Perpetual Succession Act of Kenya. They were looking for somebody to purchase back the school, so I took the information to the board of directors of Ecology Action. We wrote out a declaration, took out the reference to God and replaced it with environmentalism as a better way to meet the needs of people in Kenya. During School holidays at the end of 1981, Patrick flew to California to meet the Ecology Action Board and then we both flew to Kenya so he could show me Manor House. We travelled upcountry to see the site and I fell in love with the place. I was delighted by the gentle environment and the huge plants! We identified three founding trustees, including the woman who had invited me to her house where the whole thing began. By 1986, we had our two-year training programme running and have been pushing out graduates ever since.
At that time, what were the greatest challenges facing farmers? How does this compare to today?
The challenge was getting the necessary agricultural inputs that farmers needed to be successful. Around 80% of the Kenyan population survive on subsistence farming and it was hard for them to meet the demands of the international market. They were unable to buy medicines and anything manufactured outside the country, including tractors. It was hard to get bank loans as they had no collateral.
Today, there is a lot more financing available. The government is working on getting out title deeds to people who recently purchased land through schemes. What’s difficult is the unsustainable population growth, which puts a lot of pressure on agricultural land. There’s a lot of encroachment on forests and rivers, which need protecting because of their value as natural areas.
Can you define the ecological principles and strategies of MHAC?
It’s understood as agroecology, almost the same principles that I was taught at Santa Cruz University back in the ‘70s. In a nutshell, you must give back what you take from the soil, but the way that it is returned matters. Microbial life in the soil makes it sustainable and the continuous process of death and decomposition of microbial life releases nutrients to plant roots. Organically feeding the soil is the way we feed the planet. Carbon levels are essential to soil fertility and anything decomposing or composting acts as a sponge to absorb rainfall and keep the soil moist.
Since 1984, MHAC has trained over 500,000 smallholders. What difference has this made to the lives of these farmers and their local environment?
I only know a small portion of those farmers, but the ones I’ve talked to over many years are happy with what they’ve learned. It has given them a goal, objectives, a methodology and practical experience. They are still committed to what we taught them and give us glowing reviews. We take an ecological agricultural approach that doesn’t depend on capital-intensive farming, tilling, exposing soils to sunlight and speeding up the decomposition process. When you see this put into practise, it’s very rewarding.
What impact have you witnessed climate change having on farmers in Kenya?
It depends on where you are, for us here in Kitale and specifically at Manor House, the rains and winds are heavier, stronger and more destructive. We can manage it to some extent, but we had a lot of trees unexpectedly fall. We’ve had roads wash out and become so mired in mud that we had to find alternative routes. The rainy season is no longer reliable and the changing weather patterns mean we can’t plan as we used to.
How do you see agroecology helping mitigate or even reverse climate change?
It’s more diversified. We are putting plants together that help each other – there’s a symbiosis. In the environment, if a bird is going to destroy a crop and we don’t want that bird to be there, we can plant something else instead, without having to kill the bird or put down poison. It’s really about understanding what the threats and challenges are and taking mitigation measures. You then have several choices, which is where communication amongst farmers becomes so vital. Change comes slowly unless you see with your own eyes something that works - you learn from your neighbours.
How has COVID-19 affected the work you are doing at MHAC?
Last March when the government announced the threat of COVID, we closed the gates at Manor House for nine months. Training continued but we weren’t allowed to be an educational facility. Instead, we had interns, so the gardens and farmlands under production were maintained. Another group that’s still with us now at MHAC, the African Maths Initiative, continued to write computer apps to help Kenyans keep track of their records. It became very insular, even on my farm everybody who worked for me had to stay and we became a big family. We ate together, worked together, found enough space for everybody to sleep and made sure everyone had what they needed. Our employees could still send money home digitally as standard operating procedure and keep track of their families’ needs.
What are your ambitions for the coming year and are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly looking forward to?
I’m really excited about the TreeKenya Food Forest, which is built to emulate a real forest – only we will fill it with the plants and trees that best serve ecological and community needs. I became interested in the terminology a few years ago when it came to my knowledge that one of our graduates was saving rivers in his county through Biointensive Gardening Innovations (BIOGI). He was involving community groups, moving along rivers and showing them how to grow perennials that would be productive and hold the soil in place so the rivers could flow without corrosion. If you live along the river, you need to understand that the river doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to all the people downstream who depend on it. When trying to work out how to save our rivers, I came across the BIOGI example and thought the ideas should be communicated widely.
Protecting the water resources with forests is number one. Another way to talk about food forests is the multi-tiered levels of food production. From underground systems to bushes, to vines climbing a tree and the top-level trees, to the trees feeding the soil nutrients whose leaves supply animals with fodder - who then produce milk - to the trees that are producing medicinal feed, there’s information here. With knowledge handed down from ancestors combined with modern research in the agricultural realm, we can go anywhere. As long as we keep our soils alive. Everything seems to be coming together, which is what we needed after the last year. It’s just a shame that we had to destroy the environment to recognise how important it really is.
Where would you like to see intergovernmental organisations putting their efforts over the next decade?
They have to deal with issues brought upon us by climate change. How can the world feed this many people? Where will climate refugees be welcomed and how can they begin a livelihood that helps the Earth to continue to feed humanity and all living things? We need these agencies to be responsive to the people and living creatures who inhabit this Earth, not responsible for a single group of people with the loudest voices because they are the wealthiest. We need to question whether what we do is valuable and whether it is valuable because it profits us or because it makes it possible for our great-great-grandchildren to have a good life.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to add?
As an older person, I respect that my kids can teach me things. They shouldn’t give up on us old folk. We still have a bit of wisdom and sometimes, all we need is a better way to express it. When they help us to express ourselves in a way that they understand, they have empowered us. I would encourage the younger generation to empower the older generation to become better communicators.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Polly Noyce, Director at Crescent Springs Ltd
Roger Leakey: "We don't adequately use natural, human and social capital, or really recognise their existence."
For almost 30 years, Roger has dedicated his life’s work to alleviating poverty, hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. He outlines the importance of adopting a holistic approach to development programmes and the potential to transform the lives of the world’s most impoverished communities.
As a child, what was life growing up in Kenya like?
Kenya was a wonderful place to be brought up. My dad was a forester, so we went to all sorts of interesting places and almost inevitably, I developed a great love for wildlife, the countryside, for Africa and its people. That provided a strong foundation for my career. I have worked in most African countries and, indeed, many others in the tropics in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific.
What drove you to work in Agroforestry and Sustainable Development?
I grew up surrounded by biology, agriculture and the lives of African peoples. I didn't want an office job, so I started my career studying practical agriculture, then went on to do a degree in Agricultural Botany, before doing a PhD in the physiology of regeneration in perennial weeds. My first job was to apply horticultural techniques to the domestication of West African timber trees, eventually evolving to a wider set of tropical trees producing numerous food and non-food products. Throughout my career I have set up field projects around the world to implement such initiatives. I gradually became aware that the techniques and strategies we were developing for timber trees were equally applicable to the wide range of trees that have been overlooked by science. They are the ones which provide everyday products required by millions of poor communities in Africa and around the world.
About halfway through my career in 1992, I organised a conference about this in Edinburgh. Soon after, I applied for the job of Director of Research at ICRAF in Nairobi 'on a ticket to domesticate useful Cinderella trees for agroforestry systems.' I got the job, and I was then responsible for hundreds of scientists from a wide range of disciplines working on this in about 20 tropical countries. I was hooked! Then I applied for a job at James Cook University in Australia as Professor of Tropical Biology. This then changed to Agroecology and Sustainable Development, and I set up the Agroforestry and Novel Crops Unit. Just before I retired, I was chosen to be a Coordinating Lead Author for the "International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development" (IAASTD) to assess the sustainability of agriculture worldwide.
Could you tell us what inspired you to start writing your multidisciplinary research papers on Multifunctional Agriculture?
I noticed that many international leaders in Science and Development didn't understand the issues behind failing tropical agriculture and its impact on low crop production, poverty, malnutrition and social injustice - especially the need for a holistic approach rather than the predominant 'silo mentality' of one issue at a time. I was inspired to think about the moralistic approach to resolving these big issues. I see agroforestry as being about how you use trees to create functioning agroecosystems that then provide products, social and environmental services and economic benefits. This can have a huge impact on the lives of subsistence farmers who don't have any money. Emerging from this, we developed the programme in Cameroon.
We started by asking the farmers what they wanted from agriculture - they were surprised as they said most white guys normally tell them what to do and don't ask them what they want. We didn't want to run a standard top-down development programme, but rather work in ways that allowed farmers to develop the necessary skills and techniques to drive the project and benefit from their own initiatives. We started with 10 farmers in two villages in Cameroon and within 10 years it rose to 10,000 farmers in 500 villages.
From your research, could you highlight a few of the ways in which the lives of subsistence farmers in the tropics, particularly in Africa, could be improved?
In a nutshell, they need to have their day-to-day needs for food, income and social justice addressed. Dominant international policy has instead imposed 'foreign' ideas on what they need and should do.
After talking to African farmers, it was clear that they needed to establish appropriate techniques to improve soil fertility and the health of their small holdings. To address this, we developed a generic model, which can be adapted to any part of the tropics. The first step was to improve soil fertility. During colonial times, under the Green Revolution, people were encouraged to cut down their trees and grow monocultural crops. If they could not afford the fertilisers, they had to cut down more forest to access land to feed their families. So, as an alternative, we sought to help farmers restore their soils, without the need for money. The simplest way to do that was with leguminous shrubs and trees, which extract nitrogen from the air and put it back into the soil. This increased fertility then raised maize yields from roughly 1 tonne per hectare up to 3-4 tonnes per hectare.
The next step was to help those farmers living on the brink of the cash economy to generate income. We agreed to help them domesticate their trees using simple, low-cost, low-technology horticultural techniques, by establishing village-level training schools. The farmers could apply these skills to different species best suited to their particular family or community. With the money from the sale of plants and products, they could then purchase inorganic fertilisers and so raise maize yield still further – up towards its potential yield of around 7 tonnes per hectare. Once these farmers start to integrate those sorts of species into their farming system, you diversify the farm ecosystem, the diets of the family and give them a better lifestyle. This programme rapidly became highly successful in Cameroon. If we can get donors, development agencies, politicians and policymakers to see this different way of looking at the developing world, we could indeed have a great impact.
Could you tell us about your global programme to domesticate wild fruit and nut trees in developing countries and its impact on the well-being of people?
Based on the Cameroon experience, ICRAF initiated tree domestication projects in other countries. In order to be as successful as the Cameroon model, it is essential to follow a truly 'bottom-up' approach, driven by the farmers themselves so that they are the beneficiaries of their own work and initiatives. For historical and political reasons, this is not always recognised and understood by those seeking to go down this domestication pathway. Nevertheless, where it is appropriately implemented it is very successful and farmers can start to integrate a wide range of tree species that produce domestically useful, locally marketable and often highly nutritious products, that diversify diets and diversify the rural economy. From this, new cottage industries are emerging in local towns, trade has expanded, and it creates new employment opportunities. All of this is having important and highly beneficial consequences on livelihoods. I think we can say that we now have a highly adaptable, species diverse, generic model that, given the political will, could transform the lives of millions of impoverished people in rural communities around the tropics and sub-tropics.
In your experience how are 'socially modified crops' a gamechanger?
What I have just described is what I now call the 'social modification' of tree crops (SMO’s). It is done by small local communities in a highly decentralised and appropriate way to meet their specific needs. When GMO’s became very fashionable 10-15 years ago, they were sold to people as the answer to all the world's big problems. But if the issues are social and environmental, then tweaking the genetics of potential yield production will not have any real benefit. The problem is not to increase potential yield, but how to cultivate the crops sustainably – in other words it is all about the husbandry needed for higher yields. We generated this term SMO to illustrate a different approach.
Hunger-related issues kill 25,000 people daily and the UN estimates the number of chronically hungry is rising by 4 million per year. Globally, what are the most important steps we need to take to combat this?
The most important thing that has to happen, is to recognise that crop failure, hunger, malnutrition, poverty, social injustice, environmental degradation, climate change, illegal migration, social conflict, and even the emergence of pandemic disease, are all the consequence of a complicated set of intertwined environmental, social and economic factors. They arise from the failure of the international community to address the failures of tropical agriculture to meet the needs of the poorest people, by feeding them with nutritious and culturally acceptable local foods. These foods should be marketed to generate income and allow these communities to climb the ladder out of poverty and social injustice. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals illustrate the 'silo mentality', but we need to bring all of those together into a single issue. The approach that we've been developing in Cameroon has a positive impact on 14 of those 17 goals!
What is your advice to those who want to help fight hunger and poverty issues within their own communities?
This may be the most difficult question to answer, as these communities are not heard by international agencies who could provide the help outlined above. So, others have to advocate change on their behalf. There is now a growing network of organisations starting to do this, but it seems the political will to think differently and with a new mindset is still lacking at the international level. Having said that, there are small charities, like the one that I assist (the International Tree Foundation), which provides 'start-up' funds for community tree nurseries in Africa - currently it supports about 39 such projects.
How does climate change affect the lives of farmers in Africa?
Climate change, as increased prevalence of droughts, floods, famine and environmental disasters, is exacerbating all the negative issues we have addressed. I believe that we have to stop seeing it as a single problem. As I have said, its causes are part of a much bigger and more complex set of factors. The best way to address climate change is to take the pressure off trees, forests and woodlands by resolving the problems of failing agriculture which drives farmers to clear forests for fertile land to support their farming. We can produce much more food from much less land if we start to restore degraded farmland by planting useful food and non-food producing tree crops and by default simultaneously sequester carbon in tree crops, which also restore wildlife habitats.
How has COVID-19 impacted hunger, poverty and social issues in developing countries?
Interestingly, we don't hear too much about how COVID is affecting developing countries in the international press. People's lives in the tropics and particularly in Africa are seriously impacted by the environment. Many of these communities, because they don't have access to money for health services, suffer from all sorts of diseases, particularly because they don't have a nutritious diet. Undoubtedly, we need to take both short-term actions by proving vaccinations and health services; as well as long-term actions to address the agricultural issues already discussed.
Could you tell us about your upcoming projects for 2021? Have you set any specific goals?
After 15 years of retirement, my on-going work seeks to raise the profile of all that we have been talking about and hope that the powers are listening! So, I have several current writing projects in hand.
I'm currently writing two papers for the journal Sustainability, one of them is a review of progress over the third decade of tree domestication. That has been incredible, as I said earlier, we started with 10 farmers in two villages and a conference in Edinburgh in 1992. Looking at the last decade, there have been about 540 research papers relating to nearly 60 tree species from different parts of Africa, published by scientists from over 400 African University departments and research institutes. So, it's both being picked up by African academics and adopted by them and being done in a multidisciplinary way that looks at this holistic approach, which is extremely encouraging. The second paper goes on from there and looks at how we can encourage African governments to adopt all of this more actively. It looks at the importance of “African foods for African people”, through advocacy at the political and policy-making level. We are trying to see if we can encourage them to stand up for approaches appropriate to farmers in Africa rather than accepting pressures for industrial approaches from Europe and America.
Where do you hope to see governments and intergovernmental organisations putting their focus over the next 10 years?
I wish I knew! I hope they respond to the points that I have been raising above and in my writing. Some of these research papers and books get through to the people that are in positions of power. There has definitely been a shift over the last 15/20 years - The African Union has signed several agreements between African countries, for example one promotes the restoration of 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. That is a huge step. Things are changing but we need it to happen quicker.
Are you optimistic about the planet's future?
I believe that we do now know how to turn around our current failures to address the needs of the planet, its natural resources, its people, and its wildlife. Slowly, slowly, I now see positive steps in the right direction. So I have to be optimistic. But the depressing part is how slow it is to get people in positions of power to understand it. That is partly due to education and the popular view of agriculture as needing to have the intensive model in which trees are cut down to make way for monocultures. So, there is resistance and I guess the change will eventually come with the next generation where there is more interest and understanding of the environment.
If you were Bill Gates or Elon Musk, how would you improve the biosphere?
I think all celebrities have a responsibility to use their influence on the media, and on the public, to advocate for change along the lines of our discussion. It seems odd, but they are listened to while others, perhaps more knowledgeable about the detail, are not.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
One point would be to do with capital. There are five forms of capital that we recognise: financial, human, natural, physical and social. Most of the world is interested in financial and to a lesser extent physical/manufactured. We don't adequately use natural, human and social capital, or really recognise their existence. The more holistic approach I have outlined tries to bring all of the five forms of capital together to see how we can develop better forms of land use in a way I have called 'land maxing'. It seeks to sustainably maximise the benefits – “profits”, if you like - from those five forms of capital. This is an important point to get across to people - instead of exploiting natural and social capital, we need to make them work for the planet and its people.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Roger Leakey, Vice Chairman at International Tree Foundation
Being a top wine producer involves a visceral relationship to the earth. Taking pride in the quality of the product, is about respecting what you use and return to the land. Christian Seely, long-term wine connoisseur and Managing Director of world-famous vineyards for 27 years, illuminates how viticulture is the embodiment of our ecosystem.
Growing up, what influenced you on your passion for wine?
My father was a passionate wine journalist and writer, who owned various wine and restaurant businesses. From an early age, he shared some delicious bottles with me, I just had a real love for the product and everything around it right from the start. What fascinated me is how wine takes its character from a particular place, its expression unique and individual. Making wine is a way of allowing the earth to speak and express itself. When you make wine, you can make a product with a unique personality. The other thing is, of course, the influence of nature - every year is completely different.
Could you tell us about your venture with your father when writing his book 'The Great Wines of Bordeaux'?
After quite a bit of journalistic writing, my father decided to write his first book in 1982. I had just left university, where I spent three years reading English, wandering around reading poems, and dreaming. I was then horrified to find that there were no marvellous jobs available to people whose principal talent was reading poems. So, my dad offered me to join him on his journey and help with the historical research. We were going to visit 159 Chateaux to taste all their wines and write about them. It was like a prolonged holiday with my dad, but it changed my life because it was a baptism by fire in tasting. We visited a Chateau in the morning to taste at least ten vintages and then we'd have lunch with the proprietor who'd serve more lovely vintages. Then we'd get in the car and visit another Chateau where we'd try ten more vintages, followed by dinner with more lovely wine. When we got home in the evening, we had to write it all up as we quickly learnt that if we didn't, within two days everything had gone blank. It was huge fun to do with my father and I learned a great amount in a very short space of time. I discovered the region of Bordeaux and what life was like for people looking after vineyards and making wine. I thought to myself, I've got to get into doing this one day.
In 1993, you were named Managing Director for Quinta do Noval in Portugal. What was Portugal like, and could you share with us your experience of the first few years?
It is one of the greatest vineyards in the world and historically has been making wines for a very long time. But it had gone through about 20 years of making wines that were perhaps not so great as before, and the vineyard was a bit run down. I was parachuted in as MD to give it lots of love and attention, which I have been doing now for 27 years. Portugal at that time was old fashioned. The roads were terrible – now, it takes you an hour and a half to drive to Porto, back then it would take three and a half hours. There was one telephone at the house. I would be out on the vineyard all day, which is vast, so if anybody tried to call me on business, somebody in the house would answer in Portuguese, and by the time they'd found me, the caller had given up. It was almost impossible for anyone from the outside world to contact me, which was incredibly nice and unimaginable today. It was like stepping back in time, I just concentrated on the magical place, looking after the vineyards and making wines.
What are the perks of the job?
When you're involved in looking after vineyards and making wine, you're working with people who share your passion and aim. It's almost impossible to work in this business of producing wine and looking after vineyards if you don't love it. Every year, the goal is to look after the vineyard as best you can, grow the best grapes, and then make the best wine. The verdict of the work is in the bottle and that bottle is the result of your year's work. Every year is a new beginning, and you see the results of what you do together. Some years are better than others because of the weather or how you choose to do things. There's always something to learn for the next time and there's the endless pursuit of a dream, which is to make the most beautiful wine. When you have a great year, then open that bottle to taste, it's a wonderful feeling.
When you've got a historic vineyard like Quinta do Noval, you've got the evidence from the sublime Vintages of the past – 1931 is one of the most beautiful wines in the world and I've been fortunate to taste it. These wines express something of the personality of the place. I fondly remember tasting our 2017 Vintage Port and recognising characteristics from the great Noval wines of the past.
How do you manage your time between multiple vineyards for AXA Millésimes group?
Before COVID, I divided my time between Bordeaux and the Douro Valley. Quinta do Noval is a big operation - it's 200 hectares of vines now. We've got a couple of vineyards in Bordeaux and I often go to our vineyards in Burgundy. I sometimes go to our Hungarian vineyards, and we also have one on the top of Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley. I then have my vineyard in England called Coates and Seely, where we make sparkling wine in Hampshire, so I spend a lot of time going from vineyard to vineyard.
Now, I can manage things by talking to people on Zoom. We do Zoom tastings and blendings these days as I can't get to the vineyard. I also talk about the wines we make, and we've done quite a few Zoom tastings with wine lovers from all over the world. I sit in the tasting room or my house with different bottles in front of me, everybody around the world sits with theirs, we open the same bottles together, drink and talk about them. It's not as much fun as being all together in the same place but it's not a bad substitute.
Are there any wines that you are particularly pleased with?
As you can imagine, you become particularly fond of the vineyard you look after, which happened with Noval. All I've done is work with the people who work with me, we are the servants of the place, we look after the vineyard and the vineyard then produces great wine. Above all, Noval is known for Vintage Ports and has been making them for a long time.
Over the last 30 years, one of the most exciting things happening in the Douro Valley is not only are the Port houses making their finest Vintage Ports, but the whole region is reinventing itself in making red and white wines. In the 90s at Noval, we started doing experiments and released our first red and white wines in the early 2000s. In 2018 we had a wonderful harvest, and the red wines are some of the best we've made so far. I'm happy about that because first of all, they're lovely and secondly, it's a dream that we've been pursuing for 25 years to express this great 'terroir' with red wine. This 'terroir' found its expression in the Vintage Port, but I believe that we are now making red wines that give you an idea of Quinta do Noval’s personality.
Could you tell us about your experience making sparkling wine with Coates & Seely in England?
It's great fun. Looking after vineyards like Quinta do Noval, or Pichon Baron has taught me about the importance of place. When you spend time looking after vineyards, you realise that different parcels in the vineyard will give you different qualities and personalities of wine. Some years ago, I realised that there are certain areas in southern England which geologically are more or less identical in terms of the soil makeup you have in Champagne, France. Finding parcels of land with this unique combination of chalky and clay soil meant it could be possible to plant a vineyard with Champagne grape varietals, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and make great English sparkling wine. Although I've made my life in Portugal and France, I remain an Englishman and the idea of trying to make world-class sparkling wine in England was fun. My friend Nick Coates and I found perfect soil in Hampshire and planted it with the Champagne varietals. We had our first vintage in 2009 and today we're making about 70,000 bottles of English sparkling wine a year. I think we've started to prove our point that it is possible to make high class sparkling wine in England. It's exciting to be part of something new that is going to go on forever.
Which growing region do you see emerging/taking off next?
The Douro Valley is rediscovering itself as a producer of non-fortified red and white wines. Paradoxically, although the Douro is ancient, it's also an emerging region. Southern England for sparkling wines is also a thrilling emerging story. I'm enthusiastic about Beaujolais – it's probably best known for Beaujolais nouveau, which is a cheerful fruity drink but not really what you'd call a great wine. Yet, there are some great vineyards in the Cru Beaujolais - like Fleurie and you can make great wines from those places. The wines are still quite cheap, but the quality is rising, and people are becoming more interested. That would be my hot tip for the next decade.
How do you feel about biodynamic wine and its reduced/ positive impacts on soil?
Anyone involved in looking after a great vineyard and striving every year to make great wine from it is aware that wine is an expression of the soil, but it also relies entirely on nature. You can't make great wine if the soil and environment are not healthy, and serious winemakers are aware of the need for environmental protection. It is something that I've seen evolving over the last 27 years. There was a period in the 70s and 80s when people discovered various systems to help control pests in the vineyard and were enthusiastically applying products in a way that they certainly don't do today. The problem with viticulture is that you have various diseases like odium or mildew, and if you do nothing about it, they will destroy your crop. It's a question of doing the minimum necessary to make sure that there will be grapes because it's only sustainable if you're making wine.
Biodynamics is a specific approach - I manage a vineyard biodynamically in Burgundy, Domaine de l'Arlot. It is a very coherent system of looking after a vineyard in a biological organic way. It’s built on a rather mystical approach to viticulture and agriculture, based on the work of a wonderful, eccentric Austrian philosopher called Rudolf Steiner. For example, part of it is putting quartz crystals into cows' horns and planting them in the soil so that cosmic energy will radiate into the roots of your vines. However eccentric it may seem, it works. You can be sure that a biodynamic winemaker spends an enormous amount of time in the vineyard.
How is climate change impacting the wine industry?
Viticulture is the canary in the coal mine about climate change in that we tend to notice differences as the evidence is there in the bottle. Harvesting dates are changing, getting earlier and the Douro is particularly sensitive to this because it's quite a dry region anyway, but we're getting less rainfall and warmer average temperatures.
In the vineyards, some grape varietals resist drought better than others and need more sunshine. In the Douro Valley, we are trying to manage the canopy to have as many leaves as possible to protect the grapes from sunshine. So, there are various techniques you can use to resist the problems, but we need to be respectful of the climate accords and put a stop to global warming.
What steps do wine producers need to take to be more sustainable?
From my own experience, I think that many things can be done. Even just introducing systems of limiting water usage can make a gigantic difference. Using unharmful products on your vineyard is vital, or instead of using weed killer in between the vines, you can grow grass. Wine producers are becoming more aware, which is encouraging. Even if they didn't care, which would be a big mistake since you can't produce great wine if nature is in poor health, consumers care and consumer awareness helps to drive sustainability as much as the personal convictions of winemakers.
How has COVID-19 affected winemaking?
Last year when it was all new and uncertain, I was worried there would be an outbreak just before the harvest and people would get sick. But we made sure that everybody took the necessary precautions to ensure their health and safety, so we didn't have that problem. It's been difficult, but people still seem to be ordering wines and drinking them at home, which helps wine producers keep going. We worry not just for ourselves, but for all our friends in the restaurant business who have been hit incredibly badly. Restaurant and wine bars are so much a part of our culture and sharing a glass of wine with friends is a wonderful celebratory thing to do. We just hope it will come back soon.
As a conscious consumer, what should we look for in a wine?
What I'm looking for in wine is personality. The wines that I most admire and enjoy come from the attitude of the winemaker looking after their vineyards and doing their very best to allow the vineyard to express itself. Nobody wants to drink a bland wine that's made like Coca-Cola, so by seeking out wines of character you'll increase your enjoyment because each one is going to have a different personality. You're also actively encouraging and helping the individual winemakers who subscribe to that sort of idea. It's important in the choices we make of what we buy to encourage people who do their best to look after their vineyards and make the best wine they can.
Finally, if you could drink one vintage bottle what would it be and who with?
I have four sons, who range from 19 to 4 years old and I'm expecting another baby in two weeks. My ideal is to drink a vintage bottle of wine with all of my family, which means that I can't drink it for at least 18 years, and it has got to be a wine that's going to be ready in that time. It must be a wine that I love that comes from a place I love, so I would choose the Quinta do Noval Vintage Port from 2017. 2017 was a difficult year in terms of climate change, but miraculously produced one of the most outstanding Vintage Ports of the vineyard. It would need to be a magnum because I have so many children. So, I'd like to have a Magnum of 2017 Vintage Port, lay it down now, and open it in 20 years with my family.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Christian Seely, Managing Director at AXA Millesimes