This article is part of our special report European winemakers grapple with environmental questions.
Since the 16th century, the Gosset family has been passing on vineyards from generation to generation in the Champagne region. Today, the incoming generation is starting to implement more environmentally friendly practices. EURACTIV France reports.
On the slopes of Aÿ in the Champagne region, the harvest has just ended, and vineyards in the mountains of Reims are still flourishing under the September sun.
While walking through his various plots of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, the three main grape varieties of the Champagne appellation, the young winegrower Paul Gosset described the changes he made to the different plots since 2016, the year in which he began working alongside his father.
“Here, I planted oats between the Pinot Meunier vines to decompress the soil. This makes it possible to mulch without competing with the vines,” he explained. Another fallow plot will next year welcome new vines, the first to be selected by Paul Gosset himself.
Even if the vineyard does not produce wine made with certified organic or biodynamic grapes, Paul Gosset does adopt a few good practices. And he is compelled to take into account certain factors that are not required to be bio-certified, such as greenhouse gas emissions.
“The most polluting part of our job is the transport of wine, but also the corks and labels,” explained the winegrower.
“So we buy cotton labels, which are less polluting, as well as aluminium-free caps. These details are important. I will also try to sell mainly in France,” he added.
Paul Gosset’s first own-name vintage will be ready by 2020, and the young man’s produce is gradually gaining ground across the estate.
“Today, we were able to work without any weedkillers or insecticides,” Paul Gosset said. “The contents of this canister have not changed in the past three years,” the young winegrower laughed when pointing to an old can of Round-up, Monsanto’s criticised weedkiller.
The transmission from one generation to the next is often an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of more environmentally friendly practices, mainly when the family’s reputation is at stake.
A gradual reduction in inputs
However, the transition could not be achieved within a day.
“This is a step forward that I implemented quickly because my father had already done a majority of the work. You can’t move to a crop without weeding on an unprepared vineyard,” the young man explained.
“I took over the vineyard in 1981, at a time when the activity was in deficit because of the oil crisis and several poor harvests,” explained Paul’s father, Michel Gosset. Gradually, the family business developed and became profitable, under the leadership of Michel Gosset and his brother Christian.
“In the 1980s, we were offered plant protection products that we used without really knowing that they were harmful to us and the environment,” Michel recalled.
Although these products have been banned progressively, Michel decided in the early 2000s to start “ploughing two-thirds of the vineyards without using weedkillers”.
“I had seen my parents exhaust themselves when ploughing the land, so it was not something that came back intuitively. At the time, I was most likely alone in making such a choice,” Michel recalled.
As a result, the use of inputs has gradually decreased across the vineyards, with the ‘so-called’ frequency treatment indicator (FTI) falling to 5.6, compared to the index reaching an average of 16 for vineyards across the Champagne region.
“Sometimes I didn’t treat and took a risk, while the majority of winegrowers will treat to protect themselves against the risk of loss,” he continued. For Champagne winegrowers, the risk of loss can be very damaging because a kilo of grapes sells for a globally unequalled sum of €7.
For Michel Gosset, reducing the amount of plant protection products was primarily motivated by a search for quality. “We have never highlighted our environmental practices, but rather the quality of our tillage,” he explained.
A double-edged reputation
For the renowned Champagne vineyard, reducing the use of plant protection products is a challenge.
Across the 30,000 hectares of the prestigious Champagne vineyard, independent winegrowers must resist the pressure of the major wine dealers. Independent winemakers are also facing hikes in land prices, which are reaching new heights.
This land price is one of the reasons making it more challenging to reduce the use of plant protection products, also called ‘phytosanitary products’. Especially when it comes to small vineyards that are more financially exposed to the risk of a poor harvest and fear that they will be brought out by large companies. LVMH, for instance, already has a 22% share of global champagne sales.
Amid a national debate on untreated areas or so-called ‘pesticides-free zones’, the general union of Champagne winegrowers mobilised against the introduction of a 10-metre-wide pesticides-free zone near residential areas.
According to the union, this measure would threaten 1,000 hectares of vines in the Champagne vineyard, where the cost of land has risen exponentially to around €1.1 million per hectare.
“There are solutions that exist such as confined sprayers or grape varieties resistant to vine diseases, but they are expensive and take time to implement,” Paul Gosset explained.
Among the grape varieties resistant to mildew and powdery mildew, the two most dangerous parasitic fungi, Voltis for example, could be planted in vineyard plots near residential areas.
Such a solution, however, would have to be accepted by the stringent specifications of the Champagne appellation.