"We wanted to see if it could be possible to create a wine garden that is lush - with a high level of biodiversity: plenty of insects, plants, fruit trees and aromatic herbs..."
Mythopia sounds like a mythical land; one where nature and agriculture are not paradoxical. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it.” Planting a vineyard, just like most forms of agriculture, is inherently unnatural, because it creates a monocultural system.
However, with care, it is possible to bring a vineyard as close to nature as possible. There is nobody who has demonstrated this to the extent that Hans-Peter and Romaine Schmidt have with their vineyards in the Swiss Alps. The wine that is born from these vineyards is named Mythopia; from the Greek mythos (tales) and topos (location), while also nodding to Utopia; My Utopia.
It is no understatement to say that this is a true micro-utopia that escapes the circles of agrochemical hell surrounding it. It is a place that proves vines can be propagated to live in tandem with nature; in a manner that upholds biodiversity, rather than oppresses it.
As they say, this is a wine garden, not a vineyard.
“I’ve always been interested in ancient society. The Babylonians and other ancient oriental societies eventually failed due to ecological reasons. In Mesopotamia, they didn’t realise that their irrigation had salinated the soils until it was too late.”
We sit nodding. It’s not the usual introduction to how somebody’s career began. We learn that Hans-Peter fell into wine by mistake; he was studying and working in theoretical ecology, and decided that he needed to involve himself in agriculture in order to fully begin to understand how human beings can work in an agricultural system that will not fail. He is brutally honest:
“Throughout all societies, you find an interesting pattern that shows errors. These errors have been made with regards to the stewardship of the land. You might notice the errors, but you don’t know how to get out of the vicious circle, so you continue until your land cannot produce any more food - not for yourself, not for your family, not for your country.”
He is referring to the modern dilemma: chemical agriculture. He explains that by working with fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, the ecosystem of the vineyard, field, or whatever form of agriculture it may be, will be critically damaged.
“So, we decided to set ourselves a challenge: to create a vineyard that is not hostile to life. In conventionally farmed vineyards, you do not find insects - or very rarely - and no flowers or grasses. In autumn, if you go to those vineyards and want to taste the grapes, you can’t - because they have a layer of carcinogenic substances on their skins. That is a field of agriculture that’s hostile to life.”
The Birth of Mythopia
Romaine, Hans Peter’s wife, is from the Valais; so when the two discussed where to lay their agricultural research roots, this became their home. There are two main forms of agriculture here; vines and cattle farming. Neither of them were particularly interested in cows, so this narrowed down their options. Romaine’s family had made wine and farmed vines historically, so it seemed like the natural choice. Thus, in the early 2000s they were able to find a small one-hectare vineyard tucked in a very high corner with almost no neighbours. This was a prerequisite for working naturally: to avoid neighbours using chemicals wherever possible.
“It had been farmed conventionally for 35 years, treated like most of the vineyards in the region - with herbicides, intensive pesticide regimes and fertilisers to achieve very high yields.”
So, although it may seem a strange notion, their decision to start Mythopia was actually not about wine. Indeed even now, more than fifteen years later, it still isn’t really about the wine; the wine is a reflection of the life found and preserved within the vineyard.
During the early years of leaving the vineyards to recover from their chemical abuse, yields plummeted. This is like going cold turkey; the vines take many years to be able to self-regulate once taken off their metaphorical chemical drip. This brings us, of course, to the less romantic question of finance. Mythopia is not the only Schmitt baby company; there is also the Ithaka Institute, which Hans-Peter founded in 2007. Its primary purpose is to fund and expand research into biomass charcoal, also known as biochar, for soil revitalisation in agriculture - namely in Switzerland, Nepal and Bangladesh, but rapidly expanding to other countries. Not only does biochar improve the function of the soil, but it also sequesters carbon; so in the face of global warming, it is one solution the world is crying out for. As if that wasn’t enough, it can also be used as a building material and as water waste treatment; rendering it a sort of miracle cure. It was only natural for the two companies to meet in some manner; so Mythopia also became home to field and ecosystem trials for Ithaka.
Along the way, a respect for microbiology and nature’s patterns saw the duo create strikingly unique wines with zero additives that age for around four years; over double the amount of time wines usually spending aging. Born from a place with complex fauna and flora, and granted long periods of time for stabilisation, these have become amongst the most unique wines found not just in Switzerland, but in the world.
The first aforementioned one-hectare plot of Mythopia is named Clos des Martyres; Romaine’s father had joked it was so steep that only martyrs would work there. It is surrounded by forest.
“There, we worked to reestablish an ecosystem that is the most robust and sustainable. We wanted to see if it could be possible to create a wine garden that’s lush - with a high level of biodiversity, with plenty of insects, plants, fruit trees, aromatic herbs… We wanted to see the vineyard get into a balance that doesn’t need chemical interference, and where you can go between February and November and always find something to eat, without worrying about intoxicating yourself.”
That simple goal of preserving life was the goal of the whole Mythopia adventure. Many people had told them that this would not work - that they couldn't grow vines amongst other vegetation, because the hydric stress and fungal pressure would be too great. They didn’t listen. Despite its decades of abuse, life began to return to the vineyard already after the first three months of halting the chemicals. Although the soil was still in a state of complete disrepair, grasses and flowers were able to grow.
“This brought a major difference into the system - statistically every new type of plant attracts ten species of insects, if you install sixty species of plants you should already have 600 species of insects. So by seeding our cover crops and by planting trees and shrubs, the goal was to increase biodiversity. To see it happen so quickly was really inspiring.”
As expected, the vines struggled from this new competition. They had been the only plants in the vicinity for so many years, so to suddenly have to share their already-depleted source of nutrients and water was a shock.
“They were used to fertiliser and water being fed to them from above, so they grew roots that spread out at the top of the soil, not the bottom. It was a real hardship for them in the first years, but from an ecosystem point of view this was a major step. As we’re in the mountains, life returned quite quickly, including birds and all types of animals. Suddenly, they found this place. They didn't have anywhere else, so they all came to our one hectare. It was like paradise - you could see the life from very far away.”
Life at Mythopia
Over the next few years, things gradually began to look up, and soon they began to see a healthy crop - still small, but healthy regardless (these days, their yields are approximately one-third of the average yields of conventional vineyards). In addition, the vines began to better self-regulate, so vineyard management tasks like shoot thinning or hedging no longer became necessary.
They also began to collect other vineyards, to eventually extend Mythopia to 3.5 hectares over three separate parcels, all with different expositions, elevations and grape varieties. Their highest parcel sits at 850-900m elevation, and is planted to Pinot Noir. The other two sit between 750-850m elevation and are planted to white Swiss varieties (such as Fendant and Chasselas) as well as some disease-resistant hybrids such as Solaris. The vines are on average 50 years old (except the Solaris, which Hans-Peter planted). This was a slight worry, as the older vines become, the less they are able to regenerate, so they lost around 10% of their vines.
Of particular interest was the manner in which the vines would respond to disease over the years. Downy mildew and powdery mildew are the big enemies of the European grapevine species, vitis vinifera, and while vines propagated via grafts from massal selections cannot develop complete resistance, Hans-Peter explains that their ability to fight off fungal infections can improve greatly.
“Over the years, the plants have become more resistant. From the start we’ve been organic, but even copper and sulphur - which are permitted in organics - can be toxic to the ecosystem. So, we’ve reduced these applications year on year, and usually now we no longer need sulphur and in some years we don’t even use copper.”
Instead, they have had great success with products they create themselves from the vineyard, such as fermented vine leaves - sort of like a Mythopia kombucha. From year to year the vines become more and more stable. Hans-Peter also credits the other plants in the vineyard for this, saying,
“I don’t have scientific proof, but the vines change their expression when they’re grown together with other trees and grasses and plants. We can see it in the quality of the grapes, and we notice that they cope much better with all types of environmental stress. By growing vines this way, you create a more robust and balanced ecosystem. We see the plants react positively - it’s like a treatment to give them pleasure.”
“Maybe the variety of plants are in contact with the vines, making them more resistant, or maybe they just have more experience facing difficulties. It’s like poetry, you can’t prove it, but from an ecosystem point of view, it’s very clear that a system can only be robust when you have a large variety of species altogether.”
The only interference that they cannot avoid in some years is that of irrigation. With such a healthy cover crop, it will also demand water, which means less for the vines. The Valais can experience severe droughts between February and June, sometimes without a drop of water. Therefore, they installed subterranean drip irrigation with water that comes from the glacier. It isn’t necessary every year, but it is a lifeline for the vineyard in tough vintages. This is something Hans-Peter thinks should be applied to other regions; if water can be stored naturally and applied to vines, irrigation shouldn’t be deemed as bad for a vineyard.
“About 70% of the quality of a crop is from water. In France, viticulture must be one of the only examples where quality management is managed through prayers for a good vintage. Can you imagine any other industry that just waits to see if rain will come or not, to decide if you make a great wine or not? When you know how to do it better and more economically, by storing water and giving it to the plants when they need it? This comes back to the initial discussion - why don’t we change things in agriculture and stewardship?! - Because there are people outside of the realm of agriculture that are making the decisions for us. No farmer would come and say, hey don't irrigate because I'm waiting for God to give me water.”
In addition to the kombucha, they also work with ‘petits laits;’ a milk-based preparation proven to combat powdery mildew. By having a robust ecosystem which is naturally more defensive, they have been able to replace sulphur with the milk preps.
“When it came to harvest, the question was - how do we want to make the wine? We came to the same conclusions. Professionals always say they know how to make wine by adding a lot of things and with a lot of interference, but we had these fantastic grapes that came from a natural garden-style vineyard - so why should we add this or that? Could we not try to make wine just with the grapes, to continue the work we started in the vineyard in the cellar, without so much interference from technology or substances?”
He chuckles as he continues;
“We didn’t know if it would work or if the wines would even be drinkable - everyone we spoke to said it’s impossible, but we weren’t educated enough to believe them, so we tried... Back then, in 2004, the natural wine scene didn’t exist yet, so we couldn’t follow the paths of people who knew better - we were just ignorant enough ourselves to somehow try to reinvent the wheel.”
The only year they added sulphur was 2004 - because Romaine’s father had told them it was impossible to make wine without doing so, but by 2005 they had already decided to also drop the use of sulphur.
“It was driven by an interest - it wasn’t to do everything differently to show others were stupid or anything like that. Rather, it was a type of fundamental research - what is the basis for winemaking? How does it work? How is a wine made before we intervene?”
The wines are aged in old oak barrels to ensure no flavour is imparted onto the wine. They also have a new project in Spain, where they use clay amphorae instead.
“Here, we’re in mountain forests. We make cold wine, and wood seems to suit this. In Spain, we use the clay - it seems to suit hot wines more.”
Every wine is aged for around four years, after which they are bottled from the individual barrel, rather than the norm of blending the barrels together before bottling. This is to leave them as untouched as possible.
“Time is the key: the wines need to find microbial balance. Four years is a lot of time for microbes to change the wine. Even if you fill exactly the same wine into different vessels, it will become two different wines. Each will have their own character, their own genetics and their own microbiology. The small things can make a big difference.”
After three or four years, the wines are named according to the emotions or feelings they evoke. Jadis, for example, is the French word for something that no longer exists; a nod to wines of the past.
They have defied both their early critics and convention; and succeeded in doing so. These are compelling, mystifying wines that leave wine lovers and winemakers bereft of speech. These are wines that vibrate with the life they came from. Hans-Peter smiles, saying,