| Shifting to more sustainable viticulture in Champagne could see a drop in yields of up to 20 percent.
Environmentally sustainable wine might sound great, but what if only rich producers can afford to make it?
It’s wonderful, isn’t it, to imagine France at the center of a green revolution?
After decades of poisoning their soils with every synthetic chemical known to man, growers in Champagne, Provence and Burgundy are increasingly seeking organic certification. The poster boy for this movement is the Languedoc; according to ex-rugby player turned winemaker Gerard Bertrand, the Occitanie region is the largest producer of organic wines in France. “It represents 38 percent of French organic vineyards and 7 percent of the global organic vineyard,” says Bertrand.
“In Occitanie, 16 percent of the vineyards are either certified organic or in the conversion process. The region hosts the annual Millésime Bio, the world’s number one marketplace for organic wine, if that’s any indication of its vital role.”
Elsewhere, however, the figures are less encouraging. The CIVB released a set of statistics in 2018, which showed that 608 producers of AOC Bordeaux had received organic certification, while just 47 had converted to biodynamic viticulture. The authorities are keen to point out that, over the past 10 years, the use of synthetic inputs in Bordeaux has declined. Yet there is still a critical mass of producers in the region who rely on pesticides and herbicides to achieve a substantive yield.
There are a few conclusions to draw from this – the hype over France’s viticultural revolution has been ludicrously blown out of all proportion, largely by wine journalists. France is a major agricultural power still heavily reliant on synthetic chemicals to earn a living. Cash-strapped producers working in the nation’s more inclement zones cannot be expected to sacrifice their livelihoods for a high-minded philosophical stance on “ecological” winegrowing. You might as well ask France’s vignerons to bet their ranch on an octogenarian sloth winning the Kentucky Derby. It’s hardly an enticing sales pitch: invest greater funds and run the risk of a paltry crop, if the weather turns nasty.
An inevitable development
But its proponents remain unwavering in their singular devotion. Gerard Bertrand recently told a collection of writers that organics needed to become the “new normal”. A laudable goal, although one that is obviously easier to achieve in clement climes. But he’s right about one thing: France needs more high-profile conversion stories to tempt others into the fold.
It is in this spirit that I mention Domaines Barons de Rothschild. According to a spokesperson for the company, Château Lafite and its partner estates have been experimenting with organic practices and biodynamic approaches for five years now. L’Evangile will be the first to receive its formal organic certification later this year.
“Our estate Château L’Evangile in Pomerol will be certified as organic in 2021 and all our French estates are now on this path,” said the representative.
“On biodynamics, we have been conducting comparative trials on 13 hectares in Pauillac since 2017, to assess the impact of certain preparations on criteria such as maturation and acidity. Other elements in our project to develop sustainable ecosystems in all our vineyards include planting covercrops and uprooting vines in key areas to reintegrate hedges and trees, in order to create biodiversity and freshness and limit erosion.”
When Lafite finally receives its certification of organic merit, it will join a small but expanding club of Cru Classé estates. Angelus, Climens, Latour, Margaux, Palmer and Pontet-Canet have all gone down this path – with, admittedly, little financial risk to themselves.
The wine industry has been very candid about the expense incurred in pursuing greener viticulture. “There is no doubt that complying with organic certification costs a producer more,” says Louis Roederer‘s cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. He underlines the point that Champagne growers can face lower yields (about 20 percent less), and that the risks are amplified in difficult vintages.
So will other Bordeaux properties emulate Lafite’s example? If they’ve got the resources at their disposal, then it appears to be a prudent choice. In 2019, sales of organic food and drink in the UK grew by 4.5 percent to a ground-breaking £2.45 billion ($3.57bn). Consumers in the US followed suit. “In 2020, the global consumption of organic wine was about 349 million bottles. Next year, the market will move close to one billion,” says Bertrand.
Combating climate change
Organic viticulture also has an important role to play in the fight against climate change, according to Lécaillon.
“By having deep-rooted vines on a very resilient soil without pesticides, our vines are more linked to the soil than to the climate. And this is our challenge: relying on a strong and healthy soil to minimize the extreme conditions of a deregulated climate,” explains Lécaillon. “It is clearly playing a strong role maintaining freshness in the wines. Also, having less yields, our vines have more energy to face the pressure of diseases.”
Speak to any proponent of organic and biodynamic viticulture and they’ll proselytize until you’re dying of boredom. Speak to any producer contemplating a shift to organics in France’s wetter regions and they always highlight the same impediment: cost. Louis Roederer understands this only too well. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to follow its example.
“Grapes are only bought in for the Brut Premier NV from long-standing contracts with growers who are offered a financial incentive to comply with ‘Coeur de Terroir’ requirements [parcel selection with two visits a year by Roederer] and environmental certification, which can be HVE-VDC, AB or Demeter,” says Lécaillon.
As it stands today, the pursuit of a viticultural revolution can only exacerbate the gulf which separates expensive brands from their ignoble peers, operating on tight margins and a prayer. Do we really want the adoption of organic practices in regions like Bordeaux to be (generally) limited to a relatively small handful of classified estates? Will oversight bodies like the CIVB be able to muster enough resources to sponsor a widespread conversion?
France could be the next Saul of Tarsus, moving towards a paradigm that is both environmentally sound and commercially pragmatic. The key to unlocking this change will be significant financial incentives, and more than a little patience. If French bureaucracies pony up the dough, I’d be the first to celebrate.
Otherwise, green viticulture will remain a rich man’s indulgence and a poor man’s dream.