Organic wine growing gains ground in France
Switching to organic methods of agriculture have seen a return of flora and fauna and insects to vineyards.
Sun, Mar 25 2012 at 1:15 PM
Photo: Patrick Bernard/AF
BORDEAUX, France — Organic wine growing is gaining ground in France where a Bordeaux Sauternes "grand cru", the highest classification level, has just been awarded the official biological farming (AB) logo.
Chateau Guiraud 2011 will be the first of the region's top Sauterne wines to carry the logo, some 15 years after one of its owners, Xavier Planty, first started to experiment with organic farming.
The sweet white wine — made from a mixture of semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes — has been grown for hundreds of years in this southwestern French region, but production today involves neither artificial pesticides, nor fertilizers, nor herbicides.
It all started in 1996 when Planty decided he was fed up with constant chemical treatment of his cornfields and of his own private 15 hectares (37 acres) of vineyards.
Two years earlier, a friend of his who spent his whole life treating fields with chemicals, had died of cancer, and he decided "to work differently."
He started off with a 12-hectare (29 acres) vineyard to "learn the ropes" and suffered a number of setbacks.
But working alongside an agricultural engineer, he began to "regenerate the soil" with liquid manure to replenish the grassy vegetation that grows naturally around vine stock.
"Rather than feed the soil with fertilizer we feed it with bacteria, traditional underground fare. It's easy to go bio," says Planty.
"Illnesses such as mildew (a mushroom which nearly wiped out French vineyards in the 19th century) are closely monitored, and with weather conditions known up to a week in advance treatment can be giving preventively," he said.
"It's incredible to see how the fauna and flora have returned", he said, speaking of his pleasure "at seeing butterflies and insects I hadn't seen in a long time."
An insect census of Chateau Guiraud's 100 hectares of vineyards found 635 different varieties, compared to fewer than 200 in "conventional" vineyards.
To help expand biodiversity, some six kilometers (3.7 miles) of hedges have been planted "to help protect insects and feed them in the spring."
The multiplication of insects which feed on vine predators has allowed Planty to dispense completely with insecticides since 2004.
While Chateau Guiraud was the first Bordeaux "grand cru" to experiment with organic growing, Chateau Fonroque, a Saint-Emilion "grand cru", was first to win the organic label in 2006.
The Aquitaine region, around the Garonne river, is today the third largest in the country to experiment with organic vineyards, behind Languedoc-Roussillon and Provences-Alpes-Cote-D'azur, respectively in southwest and southern France.
Aquitaine now has 300 organic-certified vineyards and 400 working their way to it, even though few of these include top wines.
But change is afoot, according to many vineyard owners.
"There are people who grow organic but don't say so" because some consumers are still prejudiced against the idea of organic wine, according to the Aquitaine bio growers association.
"Others, who aren't certified, say they are doing it, but forget to mention they are just testing a few rows of vines," it added.
French organic vineyards doubled between 2007 and 2010 and then increased again 28 percent between 2009 and 2010 to reach 50,268 hectares (124,214 acres). These vineyards were run by 3,945 producers, up by 30 percent between 2009 and 2010, who made some 322 million euros ($426 million) from their wine.
"For us, it's not marketing, it's our philosophy. We want as many people as possible to follow suit," said Caroline Blondeel, in charge of customer relations at Chateau Fonroque.
Chateau Fonroque offers advice to all wine growers who want to try their hand at organic farming "not only to protect the environment, but to protect people who work in the vineyards."
As a for the wine itself, "natural treatment allows for greater effect from the soil itself, which allows for more aromas," according to Blondeel.
Copyright 2012 AFP Global Edition