Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Eco Bordeaux

Bordeaux vineyards, like other agricultural sectors in France, have recently come under harsh criticism for their pesticide and herbicide use. An article in the local Bordeaux paper Le Sud Ouest last week, showed a tractor spraying vines with the headline ‘Pesticide use increased by 12% in two years in France’, implying that vineyards were primarily to blame. It’s worth taking a closer look. These figures show an increase in pesticides of across all agriculture and across the whole of France, and this despite an ‘ecophyto’ plan put into place by the French government in 2008.

Consumers are rightly concerned about residues in the final product and the negative effective on the environment, but wine makers, vineyard workers and the populations surrounding the vineyards are also worried about the more immediate effects of the treatments themselves.

In the spring of 2018 Allan Sichel, the President of the CIVB, (Conseil des Vins de Bordeaux – The Bordeaux Wine Council) underlined the importance of sustainable development in the vineyards and outlined how Bordeaux was rising to the challenge.

Bordeaux suffers from a particularly damp climate thanks to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. This means that diseases such as mildew and odium are rife. Organic treatment of these diseases is particularly difficult as they are washed away by rain and must be reapplied after each downpour, a task made even more difficult on heavy clay soils when they are wet.


Misty mornings may be great for Sauternes but also encourage Mildew and other fungal diseases

Although only 8% of the Bordeaux vineyard currently adheres to an organic certification, many more use organic methods, eschewing certification allowing them to treat with non-organic methods in dire weather conditions. Others feel that the higher levels of Bordeaux Mixture which contains Copper, a heavy metal allowed in organic production, goes against their philosophy. There is no easy answer, especially given the diversity of soil types over such a large region.


Vineyard spraying is under closer control

There is a plethora of other environmental friendly certifications in France (and Europe), which makes tracking the progress towards eco-friendly practises tricky. According to the CIVB, 60% of vineyards in Gironde were cultivated in ‘an environmentally sensitive way’ in 2017 (this includes organic, biodynamic, integrated and sustainable agriculture) up 5% compared to 2016.


Trees and hedgerows in the vines encourage biodiversity

Despite their good intentions the CIVB cannot force the hand of producers; they are an independent bunch, but it can encourage them. So what is it doing?

The CIVB invests about €1.2 M pa into research on reducing chemical use, including researching disease resistant strains of grape varieties, treatments that stimulate the natural vine defences and obtaining a more intimate understanding of vine disease to avoid blanket treatments.

Alongside the French Government they are pressuring Agrochemical firms to develop alternative solutions to CMR (carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction) products, updating their professional website with alternatives as they become available

The CIVB’s most successful project has been the Système de Management Environnemental (SME) (environmental management system) Since 2010, 773 companies (vineyards, negociants and cooperatives – including 98 crus classés) have signed up to this collective process of transition from traditional to an environmentally friendly certification, be it organic, biodynamic or sustainable agriculture.

Gironde is top of the class in France with the High Environmental Value (HEV) certification, 223 of the 841 certified French producers were in the Gironde at the beginning of this year.

The 1SO 14001 certification has increased dramatically from just 32 in 2014 to 200 in 2017. A total 6675ha of vines are certified organic with another 1335ha under conversion (it takes 3 years) and almost 1 000 ha are now in bio dynamics. Other sustainable certifications such as Terravitis, Area, RSE, etc. cover about 20 000 ha.


Weather stations in the vineyards give accurate data helping to decide when and what to spray – reducing chemical input

To protect neighbouring communities, the CIVB has created a tool allowing winegrowers to better visualise their plots close to sensitive zones (schools, hospitals, care homes), asking winegrowers with plots near these sites not to make treatments during the week to avoid exposing children in schools for example. This goes a step further than the 2016 local government decree outlining measures to protect such sites.

In 2016 the CIVB set an objective of a severe reduction of pesticide use. Has there been any change? Contrary to the national figures cited between 2014 and 2016 sales of CMR pesticides in the Gironde region were down 50% and herbicides sales fell by 35%. (Source DRAAF Nouvelle Aquitaine). On the other hand sales of organic products for use in vineyards represented 35% of the tonnage of total sales of vineyard supplies in 2016.

A bigger deal is the recent vote by wine appellation bodies Organismes de Défense et de Gestion (ODG) representing over 80% of the Bordeaux vineyard, to change the specifications to qualify for appellation status to include environmental measures. This includes a ban on weed killers, the requirement for winegrowers to know and measure their Treatment Frequency Index (TFI), a key indicator in the use of pesticides, and, thanks to the introduction of resistant varietals, decreasing the use of pesticides (maximum 5% of the surface area). This must now be approved by the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité) and will require a change in European Community regulations. Non-adherence will then result in the loss of appellation status and wine being sold as Wine Without Geographical Indication (VSIG). The Margaux ODG is investing heavily in research and encouraging biodiversity through a campaign of hedgerow planting.


Wildflower planting in the vineyard is good for the birds and the bees as well as the tourists

As if to remind us that Bordeaux weather doesn’t help, 2017 was a particularly painful year for many producers with the historically damaging frost in April. Several vineyards lost most or all of their production. Total volumes were 39% lower than 2016, the lowest since 1991, another frosted vintage. 2018 also saw hail damage in spring and summer across several appellations in particular Bourg, Blaye, the Southern Medoc and Sauternes, followed by a severe attack of mildew. Producers can do little about these climatic crises, although recent changes will now allow the use of hail nets. At least with Mildew, odium and other pests and diseases there are options, albeit expensive with the necessity for multiple treatments this year.

Travelling through the vineyards there is a more obvious demonstration of this change in philosophy. More hedges and trees are being planted and more cover crops between vines, all encouraging bio diversity as well as controlling vine vigour. Touring Bordeaux you will see fields of wildflowers planted where plots are left fallow between planting as well as the occasional horse drawn plough. There is a better understanding of terroir, leading to plot-by-plot cultivation and precision viticulture.


A horse drawn plough near the Gironde estuary at château Latour

Progress may be slow but it is in the right direction. The continued research into alternative treatments and resistant grapes, alongside a willingness of more informed producers to change, holds some of the answers to a more environmental approach to both vine growing and wine making.



Come to your senses at Château Smith Haut Lafitte.

Château Smith Haut Lafitte is no stranger to contemporary art; the owner, Florence Cathiard, shares her collection with visitors as they wander through the vines and the château – one of the leaders of wine tourism in Bordeaux. She has been systematically adding a piece a year to her collection over the last twenty-six years since they purchased this classified growth of the Graves.

It is no surprise then that the Chateau has taken a step further into the world of art, opening a new ‘Land Art’ installation – The Forest of the Five senses. This new venture is hidden away in eight hectares of woods between Château Smith Haut Lafitte and neighbouring Château Le Thil, which was acquired by the family in 2012 and is now a ‘guest lodge’ for clients of Les Sources de Caudalie.

The entrance to the Forest of the Five Senses walk

I stumbled upon the project a couple of weeks before it opened when visiting their ‘stealth cellar’ built in these woods, with Wine Maker Yann Laudeho. This completely carbon neutral winemaking and ageing facility was created for their second wine, Les Hauts de Smith, for the 2013 vintage. With its vegetal roof and hidden in an old gravel quarry, it is completely integrated into the natural environment.

I asked what the new raised pathways being built were for. “All will be revealed” he said and it was; a couple of weeks later, they opened their new natural sculpture walk.

View of Château Le Thil from the Forest path

It is designed as a walk through the woods, accompanied by local artists whose pieces are installed here. It takes about two hours to wander through, especially if you pay attention to all the surprises. The park of Château Le Thil, with its classified collection of old trees, can be seen at the end of one alley, a contrast to the contemporary pieces.

The Vortex by Durante and Segond – more affectionately known as the spiders web

These include ‘The Vortex’ by Durante and Segond; a giant spider web of stainless steel hanging between two trees and the creations of José Le Piez on the singing island, which uses your sense of hearing as well as sight (and balance to get across on the little ferry). He has also created an ear trumpet installed above one of the little streams that amplifies the sounds of bubbling water.

Jackpot keeps an eye on the raft while José Le Piez makes the wood sing

Listen to the bubbling brook

Its not all new art. Tucked away are old vestiges:a witches seat from an old tree, the old drainage channels, what looks like the remains of a chapel above a spring.

There is also a ‘palombiere’, the traditional hide built by hunters to catch the seasonal doves. They are too eco friendly here for hunting but it shows the old skills using wood and bracken to create a dwelling that is perfectly hidden away.

The Palombiere made of bracken

And they have nothing if not a sense of humour; Gulliver’s Skis by Cyrille Menei is a nod towards the past career of M & Mme Cathiard as ski champions and talking of giants there’s an enormous footprint created by the gardeners. With the goats, lamas and chickens in the farmyard and the majestic working horses used to plough the vines, there is something for all ages, guaranteed to bring out the wonder of nature and the child in us all.

Yann with Gulliver’s skis

There is a nod to wine of course, as well as being a showcase for young artists, it is also a shop window for the Cathiard’s respect for the for biodiversity in their vineyard. Towards the end of the walk, there is a cottage ‘The Tisanerie’, where the herbs and wild plants, used in biodynamic preparations for the vines, are dried and stored. Close by is an aromatic garden planted with herbs and flowers that represent the different aromas found in their red and white wines as well as some of the ingredients used in the creation of the Caudalie cosmetics.

La Tisanerie

It is altogether a peaceful antidote to the rush of everyday life and a welcome change of pace from more classic cellar tours and chateau visits. Follow the path on your next wine tour of Bordeaux.

Follow the path