Bordeaux winegrowers want to leave chemicals behind to save the environment

The quest for a wine that best expresses the terroirs is a constant concern in the region, where the roots of the vine are pruned underground to force them to draw nutrients and water from the deepest depths.

This article is part of our special report European winemakers grapple with environmental questions.

Fewer chemical inputs tend to make the vine more robust and also ensure the terroir is better expressed in the wine’s aroma, according to experts. France’s vineyard sector is also interested in new grape varieties that are resistant to heat and disease. EURACTIV France reports.

“It’s true that chemistry used to be our friend. But this is now over,” said the president of the Bordeaux Wine Council, Bernard Farges.

For Farges, adapting winemaking to a changing environment, whether in response to climate change or the increased mistrust towards pesticides, has become his mission.

And he is not alone. Although they are not vocal, an increasing number of winegrowers from excellent vintages, such as wines from the Entre-Deux-Mers region, are changing their practices. They want to obtain organic and biodynamic labels, as well as so-called ‘high environmental value’ certifications.

The quest for a wine that best expresses the terroir is a constant concern in the region, where the roots of the vine are pruned underground to force them to draw nutrients and water from the deepest depths. This technique is also a response to global warming, which has brought the average harvest date forward by about ten days since the 1980s.

Better wines, at least for the moment

“The rise in temperatures affects our work. My grandfather and father made a great effort to increase the wine’s alcohol content by having vines with fewer grapes and bringing them closer to the ground. But I do exactly the opposite,” said the Saint-Emilion winegrower Philippe Bardet, who acknowledges that his wines have changed, but for the better.

And this is the paradox of the phenomenon. In the Bordeaux region, one additional degree and a little less water is good news, at least for the moment. This means that the heatwaves and limited rainfall of 2019 are posing a problem of quantity. For some vineyards, winegrowers noticed that by the end of the harvest, the grapes had developed a thick skin but little juice.

“The problem of global warming in many regions is the lack of water. But in Bordeaux, there is no shortage of it,” said François-Thomas Bon, an organic winegrower, who noted that the region does not need irrigation.

Besides, this year’s moderate humidity ensured limited attacks of mildew, a fungus that devastates the vine and requires multiple treatments when it appears, including in organic farming with copper sulphate.

Although the winegrower’s Château La Grace Fonrazade is certified organic, François-Thomas Bon does not boast about this. For him, the Saint-Emilion appellation appears to be sufficient.

However, he is committed to adopting a global approach to ensure his winegrowing operation is less harmful to the environment. So far, he has recycled cardboard and wood from pallets, implemented a boiler that operates with vine shoots and measured the fuel and water consumption of his fields.

Nothing escapes the winegrower’s vigilance.

Now he is even trying to find solutions to recycle the wood from the essential oak wine barrels, the lifespan of which does not exceed six or seven years.

“We are trying to develop straight barrels rather than rounded ones, to be able to recycle the boards… But it’s causing waterproofing problems at the moment!” the winegrower acknowledged.

Organic wines: more heat-resistant and full of aroma

In the longer term, vine professionals agree that Bordeaux wine would suffer from an increase of climatic hazards, which have helped mobilise the profession. With hail, frost, torrential rain and drought, the harvests are exposed to many risks.

“We appear to have far more frost in the spring,” said Philippe Bardet, adding that he is nevertheless “optimistic about the small climate change” observed over the past twenty years.

Bardet’s solution is to reduce the amount of chemical inputs so that his vines can be more resistant. The Bordelais winegrower was one of the first to campaign for the grassing of vines, which makes it possible to retain water and nitrogen in the soil better. Most of the vineyard is now covered with grass, which allows the grapes to resist heat better and prosper with fewer fertilisers.

The agroecology approach is progressing, even if with 10% of the vines being organic, the Bordeaux region is getting closer to the national average.

“In 2018, we had three times more water than in Burgundy. It is much more complicated to limit treatments in our region,” according to Pierre Lurton, who manages the Yquem estate in Sauternes. The estate produces a grand cru, which was one of the first of its kind which will soon be organically certified.

The estate, bought by the LVMH group in 2004, after four centuries in the hands of the Lur Saluces family, already had half of its vines growing organically, mainly for oenological purposes.

“Maybe for organic, or even biodynamic wines, we’ll have even purer flavours,” the expert hopes.

The sector also anticipates global warming by testing new grape varieties. Since Bordeaux is already a blend, adding plants used in Portugal such as Touriga Nacional or Marsellan could ensure the preservation of wines that taste the same within 20 years.

“If we continue to plant Merlot in 2050, we will have less typicity,” warned Kees van Leeuwen, a researcher at the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences.

The centre is also exploring other avenues: vines resulting from crossbreeding between strains resistant to the primary vine diseases and more classic varieties, such as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, the most resistant to climate change.

These hybrids would offer a response to both rising temperatures and societal pressure against pesticides.

However, patience is critical since their potential commercialisation is set to take place by 2030, at the earliest.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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