But here is the proof that whatever they are doing – or, more accurately, not doing – it’s working.
I arrive at the estate, 50km from Thessaloniki, on the eve of the family’s Assyrtiko harvest. I walk the vineyard and check the grapes with Thomas Ligas, who launched Ktima Ligas in 1988, and his daughter, Meli. Some of the weeds are taller than the vines. Thomas says he’s deciding whether to mow them or roll them to make life easier for his pickers tomorrow.
He tastes a grape and urges me to take one too. The seeds are brown and the grape tastes great. It’s the only test he needs to confirm the timing of the harvest.
I notice the bare soil under the vines. Thomas says he turned the soil over a month ago, so the weeds wouldn’t block the flow of air through the fruiting zone. Generally, though, it’s “hands-off” here – or, as Thomas and other followers of Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) call this approach, ‘do nothing’.
Fukuoka – whose philosophy has been described as ‘Steiner without cow horns’ – was a Japanese researcher in plant pathology who subsequently became an experimental farmer and promoter of natural farming.
The idea for this style of farming came to Fukuoka when he was about 25 years old and was gazing at the sunrise across Yokohama Bay. He realised that nature is pretty perfect as it is and that problems only tend to arise when people try to improve upon it or use it for human gain.
Unable to convince anyone of the validity of his ideas, he returned to his family farm and put them into practise. He gave up tilling, weeding, pruning and the use of fertilisers and pesticides. After 30 years of experimenting, he found playing the role of caretaker rather than active participant didn’t harm the quality of his crops or yields – that “the earth cultivates itself, and there is no need for man to do what roots, worms, and micro-organisms do better”.
'We are receiving that which nature decides'In 1975, he put his ideas down in a book, The One-Straw Revolution. After its publication in English, Fukuoka travelled around the world giving seminars to explain his philosophy of permaculture.
“Many people think that when we practise agriculture, nature is helping us in our efforts to grow food. This is an exclusively human-centred viewpoint,” he said. “We should, instead, realise that we are receiving that which nature decides to give us. A farmer does not grow something in the sense that he or she creates it. That human is only a small part of the whole process by which nature expresses its being. The farmer has very little influence over that process, other than being there and doing his or her small part.”
Thomas met Fukuoka in Edessa, Greece, along with many local farmers, and attended workshops led by a disciple.
“Most of the people abandoned it because it’s not so useful for their cultures, but for vines it’s very, very good,” Thomas explains.
'You intervene but only to maintain the equilibrium'“I try to apply it my way. The Fukuoka philosophy is not something straight. But you maintain the natural equilibrium. You intervene but only to maintain the equilibrium. This is the philosophy.”
Thomas, who studied biochemistry in France before switching to oenology, believes this “harmonious equilibrium” in the vineyard leads to “balanced development” of the vines – and a balance between quality and quantity.
In practice, it means:
- Farming “beyond organic” – spraying nettle and horsetail infusions, using sulphur only “when absolutely necessary”, avoiding the use of copper.
- Vines drip-irrigated for their first two years but dry-farmed after that.
- Preventive intervention to minimise the need for remedial treatment.
- Using beeswax to cover pruning wounds.
- Powering the winery and family home from solar panels on the roof.
- Growing native varieties – Assyrtiko, Roditis and Kydonitsa for white wines, and Xinomavro and Limniona for reds.
- Harvesting by hand (mid-August to late September).
- Washing barrels with steam and water.
I’m still getting over the amount of growth between the rows. "The vines are happy - not stressed," Meli says.
“We maintain the green carpet that nature gives,” Thomas adds. “We let nature be friends with the vines.
“For us, it is very easy to cultivate like this. Less diesel, less machine.”
He doesn’t see the growth as competition for the vines because “these plants don’t have deep roots – no more than 40cm – but vine roots go deep to the mother rock, suckle on the rock and take metals from it.”
He also believes the grass roots help the ground to breathe by taking oxygen into the soil, as well as drawing moisture from the air at night. “There is moisture on the ground in the morning,” he points out.
With bare earth, he believes, the sun bakes the soil and chokes the life in it.
To compensate for the exuberant cover crop, the vines are trained high and, in some vineyards, on a pergola system.
The “natural approach” in the vineyard extends to the cellar. “We produce wines without any addition, and I’m very proud of that,” Thomas states. The wines are not filtered either.
The wines I tried were clear but it doesn’t matter to him if the whites are hazy. “It’s not so good to the eye but it’s nature,” he shrugs.
Some do, however, have the aromas and flavours produced by oxidation.
Thomas tells me of an experiment he carried out 22 years ago with an Italian professor. They oxidised the must until “there was nothing more to oxidise”.
“It was dark,” he recalls, “like coffee, but suddenly all the polyphenols come down and the juice was clear, and we fermented this juice and it was clear. The product didn’t need the protection of SO2. There was nothing to oxidise. The power of oxidation was settled down.”
The Assyrtiko grapes we’re looking at will be used in three styles of wines. For all three, the grapes are destemmed, crushed and tumbled in an open horizontal screw press (with the pressed juice going to make a table wine or grape spirit). The juice goes into stainless steel tanks to chill at 5°C for two days (to clarify). The main differences in the range are that the fermentation and maturation take place in either stainless steel tanks, French or Austrian oak barrels, or locally-made amphorae, with different lengths of maceration: one week for the orange wine, three weeks for the amphora version.
'Skin full of natural elements'“We have the advantage to have the skin full of natural elements,” Thomas says, as we taste the wines.
Thomas is helped in the winery by Meli, with son Jason developing his own wine business on the island of Samos.
Jason worked at his parent’s domaine in Giannitsa for four years and is returning for the harvest. Thomas hopes he will return permanently once the family business has expanded. They currently have 8ha and produce 32,000-35,000 bottles a year. But they have planted another 10ha on nearby Mount Paiko over the past four years, including the rare local grape Negoska.
They were also planning to bury a 120L amphora in their mountain vineyard, in time for its first harvest.
Next stop on our #harvest19 tour: A large winery in North Macedonia where everything is strictly controlled.