Bodega, bees and bottles of wine: natural farming at La Alondra Infinita

This update is long overdue, and I apologise for the delay. As usual we have been very busy, but at last we are now seeing, and enjoying, the fruits of our labours and investments over the last year: the wine we drink is the wine we make!

Our natural style of farming

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When we bought the farm in 2009 it had a small woodland in one corner which had been badly damaged by a fire, and many small trees had been cut down for firewood.  Over the last 4 years we restored this area by cleaning out dead wood, by encouraging the native trees to expand and by adding a few specimen trees to add diversification. The woodland is now spreading along the side of an irrigation ditch and it has almost joined up with a newly planted area of acacia trees by our house 125 yards away! In summer, when temperatures are in the late 30’s this area is a lot cooler than the rest of the farm, and we ofter use it for picnic lunches and lunchtime naps.

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The main woodland is now around 2 acres in size, with a much smaller woodland growing close to one side of our house. Here is our house nestling in the trees as seen from the meadowland. In spring the acacia trees are white with blossom and the noise of the bees feeding on them has to be heard to be believed! Our wooded areas have oak, acacia, mora (mulberry), bay, apple, pecan nut, pear, poplar, walnut, apricot and peach trees which have attracted a large insect and bird population. We leave the leaves that fall on the forest floor to rot so the soil is turning a rich, almost black colour.

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We have chosen an area of 13 acres that is now used only for grazing by the horses. The area looks untidy, but with over a year’s worth of horse manure and a little watering, it has started to turn itself into a meadowland full of wild flowers and bushes. A huge variety of seeds come down in the irrigation water and we have discovered wild celery, sunflowers, evening primroses, asparagus, fennel, rocket, mint and even garlic growing here! Graciela collects the seeds from the wild flowers and these are scattered over the meadowland to encourage further growth. But as we live in a semi arid area there is always an attendant fire risk on unploughed farmland , so I have had to plough a number of firebreaks across the meadow.

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In keeping with our natural style of farming, the addition of Graciela’s beehives into the meadow has paid off with our first small harvest of honey which has a lovely clear colour with a distinctive taste of its own from the huge selection of wild flowers surrounding the hives. The wild flowes and bushes keep the bees busy outside of the fruit tree flowering times. Graciela plans to put more beehives into this area as well as by the main woodland. Opening up a hive for inspection is still a ‘worrying’ time for me, but Graciela has no problem at all – maybe why I have been stung a number of times – the bees sense my unease?

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During the year we adopted (or rescued) Waggy and Toba, both of whom were abandonned dogs. Toba, who looks like a cross between a Doberman and a Pointer was very timid, but now she is getting more secure she is turning into a very good guard dog. Waggy, a real “Heinz 57” is not the brightest creature on the farm, and when we were building he ran into a roll of metal mesh, ripping open his shoulder. Undaunted, he continued to run around the farm chasing the lapwings ( and other dogs). But the cut was so bad  it needed urgent attention.  Graciela operated on him, literally, “in the field”. Such is life here in the remoter regions!

And the wine?

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Our biggest need on the farm, apart from finishing the inside of our house, was a barn to store items and a bodega (winery) to make our natural Malbec wine in quantity. So in October we took the decision to draw up plans for a two storey building that would be a barn on one side and a bodega on the other. Construction of the main structure started in November and finished in February. The bodega has space for a small laboratory for the analysis of wine as well as a bathroom/shower/toilet facility. Our six wine fermentation tanks, each of 950 litres capacity, were ordered and delivery was promised for mid February. The fermentation tanks were a little late in arriving and I could not weld up the stands to hold them and fit the valves and pipework in advance. So we were getting worried as harvest time approached.

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However nature came to our help. We had a very wet and cool period when the grapes were ripening which pushed our harvest back almost 4 weeks, to the end of April. Despite this appalling wet weather our Malbec grapes reached 13.8 Baume and we were ready to harvest.

Just before harvest time we were hit by a hail storm which damaged many of the bunches of grapes, and as a result, our harvest was only a fraction of that planned. But I can’t complain, a neighbour lost his whole vineyard in the same storm when his vine plants were reduced to match sized pieces of wood sticking up out of the ground.

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The harvest went well and although we only harvested 2 tonnes it was a delight to see our handpicked grapes go straight from the vines to the bodega for processing and crushing. There were  a few minor handling glitches or areas where we could make the process smoother, so for next year we have a few alterations planned. Despite these few glitches the design of the bodega, totally our own idea, has turned out well and we are extremely happy with it. Now the wine is fermenting and maturing, we need to look at our bottling and storage facilities to see how they function.

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On the farm our policy has always been one of working alongside nature and in as sympathetic a way as possible. To that extent we clean irrigation ditches, the vineyard and around the fruit trees by plough and by hand. We DO NOT use weedkillers, herbicides or any other chemical means to clean the land. Experience has shown that our tolerance for a certain level of natural weeds around and amongst the crops has paid off. These areas fill with insects and birds and apart from helping the bees, these ‘untidy’ areas also help us keep down pests. We have a balance of good and bad insects and we noted this year that we lost no grapes at all to insect damage, and our fruit trees are largely untouched by pests too. The only insecticide we have is ant powder, carefully applied by hand, to combat the soldier ants that can  destroy 4 or 5 grapevine plants overnight. In our arsenal of good insects are praying mantices, and the vineyard is full of them, all hunting down insects to eat. This one crawled onto me whilst I was working in the vineyard – I don’t think it found anything in my beard thought!

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Autumn arrived and our alamo trees seemed to lose their leaves in just a few days. The weather was all wrong for this time of year and we saw both wild flowers and ‘domestic’ flowers bursting into bloom when they should have been going dormant. This is the view from our kitchen window – almost winter and our Flowering Yuccas are in full bloom. It is worrying because if these plants are hit by frost/snow they will not have had a chance to produce seed for spring. Rain, an unusual feature here, hit us for 3 days solid and turned the farm into a lake. Then it all dissapeared in a short while. Looking at the Andes in the distance, there is very little snow on the peaks, so it looks like we may be short of water in 2015 as our irrigation water comes from the lakes high up on their slopes.

 

Of our 2013 vintage wine, all that remains is my ‘special reserve’ which is slowly dissapearing as time passes. This reserve is for our own personal use, and it is still a delight to open up the bodega and liberate a bottle to have with a meal. It is not just the flavour of the wine that gives me pleasure, but the knowledge that from vine to glass, every single stage was done with our own hands. Cheers!

 

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