Tag Archives: CIVB

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.



Getting technical

One of the challenges of being a wine educator is finding all the details about the different wines we share in the classroom. Every audience is different but as I am usually talking to the trade they love hard data.

Despite touring vineyards with groups and students for over twenty years, I still haven’t managed to visit all 7 000 Bordeaux producers, let alone discover all the many second and third wines produced by each property, and then there’s the negociant and cooperative brands. Of course, each vintage is different so it adds more fascinating complexity to the challenge. So many wines, so little time.

When I am in front of a class, be it in Bordeaux, Asia or like this month, in the US, having the technical details of each wine: the blend for that vintage, the oak treatment and even details such as picking dates are useful.

As a consumer, this nitty-gritty might not appear that fascinating, it is more the stories behind the wines; the people, the places and their history that really engages with consumers. The trade enjoys a good story too, but there will always be a few wine geeks in the audience that want to know the minute detail. Questions are often about how the blend changes each year compared to what is planted in the vineyard. After all, blending is one of the signatures of Bordeaux, and the differences from year to year reflect the changing weather of each vintage and how the wine maker has risen to these challenges.

Preparation is everything; I am supposed to be an authority after all! But how to find this information? Thank goodness for the Internet – many chateaux now share these specific details in technical sheets, vintage-by-vintage, on their web sites.

A tech sheet always comes in handy

Although it can be quite search to find the web site of some less well known properties, don’t be too harsh in your judgement of these smaller properties. They don’t have the financial resources or the manpower to spend the time and money on glamorous websites – they are busy out there growing the grapes and making the wine! Often an e-mail or a telephone call will see a tech sheet arrive in my inbox.

To learn more about lesser known vineyards, the app Smart Bordeaux – developed by the CIVB (Conseil des Vins de Bordeaux – The Bordeaux Wine Council) is a useful resource. By taking a photo of the label or typing in the name of the property, details will pop up. It is down to the chateau to enter the information though, so some carry more detail than others.

The Smart Bordeaux App

Other useful sites include the Cru Bourgeois site where you can search chateau details by name or by using the flash code on each bottle guaranteeing the authenticity of the Cru Bourgeois designation. The Wines of the Medoc site also collates useful information about each vineyard in the region, including harder to find brands and cooperative wines.

The Cru Bourgeois label can be read as a flash code to learn more about the wines.

Chateau websites are often designed more as a marketing tool for consumers rather than for the trade and geeky somms. More style over substance, although there’s nothing wrong with sharing the dream. Others offer a fascinating insight into the philosophy of the vineyard; Chateau Palmer, for example, manages to balance the dream and reality, it is a pleasure to visit the site even when I’m not looking for some specific piece of information.

The new website of Château Leoville Barton is another example showing there’s no conflict between tradition, history and a modern approach to communication.

Château Brane Cantenac has embraced technology, thanks to food and wine marketing an design specialists Taylor Yandell, with their recent mobile web site. Responding to the demand from itinerant geeks needing to access information on the road, it makes the tech sheets for each of their three wines available with a click, clearly showing those percentages by vintage in an easy to grasp graphical.

Château Brane Cantenac tech sheets – with a visual of the blend.

Bordeaux technology is not just in the vineyards and wine cellars; it’s on the smartphone in your pocket.




Are Bordeaux whites one of the wine world’s best keep secrets?

Image CIVB

Bordeaux is red, right? It’s Cabernet isn’t it? It’s so much fun to surprise visitors to Bordeaux with wines they are not expecting. I do not wish to deflect from the glory from some of the great Cabernet-driven wines of the Left Bank but there is often a preconception amongst visitors that Bordeaux is all about Cabernet.
Check out the percentages of current red plantings and you’ll see the error. 63% of Bordeaux planting is currently under Merlot and only 25% under Cabernet Sauvignon. 11% is Cabernet Franc and the remaining 1%, for those if you doing the maths, is Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère.
Given that, as I type, the first white grapes are now making their way into the cellars this is a great time to look at the white wine production. It’s relatively small, only 11% of Bordeaux vineyard land is planted to white grapes. The dry white wine production, coming in at around 70 million bottles accounts for the lion’s share of this (8% compared to 3% for sweet wines of total Bordeaux vineyards).
This is a dramatic change – only 60 years ago white grapes represented half of Bordeaux planting. So why the change? White grapes were originally planted in the 17th century to supply the Dutch, much of which was destined for distillation. The big production area was the Entre-Deux-Mers, which is still uniquely a dry white wine appellation, despite the fact that the area is now the powerhouse for red Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur production.
In 1956, Bordeaux was hit by a severe frost and this area particularly suffered, obliging farmers to uproot vines destroyed by the cold. Responding to the demand for Bordeaux reds (yes the Bordelais do listen to market forces), farmers replanted with red varietals. This also explains the dominance of Merlot mentioned earlier; the soils of the Entre deux Mers region have a limestone subsoil with varying depths of clay and some patches of gravel but it is really clay that dominates the ‘terroir’ making the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon a risky business if you want your red grapes to ripen – which is the objective after all. With the memory of the frosts, there was a push in the 70’s to plant later-budding Cabernet on these soils as they are more frost-resistant, but this was soon abandoned in favour of the Merlot to meet the demand for the more easy-drinking fruit driven wines which it produces on these soils.
Dry whites may be in a minority in Bordeaux but the incredible rise in the quality of these wines astounds newcomers. As for the reds, most Bordeaux whites are blends. The majority of planting is Semillon; 53% against 38% for Sauvignon Blanc and 6% of Muscadelle and again, for those of you with the calculator handy, 3% of a few lesser-known varietals. It was in the 1990’s that Professor Denis Dubordieu and his team at the Bordeaux Faculty of Oenology first identified the molecular structures that give the characteristic citrus and vegetal aromas responsible for the aromatic complexity of Sauvignon Blanc. Once identified, it was then a matter of experimentation to find out how to increase, enhance and preserve these precious molecules, be it in the field, in the cellar or in the bottle.
It’s easy to recognise the influence this research has had by tasting many of the dry whites of Bordeaux from the Entre-Deux-Mers to the Graves and Pessac-Léognan. This is one of the examples of how research and development at the faculty is quickly shared throughout the Bordeaux wine making community by the actions of the wine consultants, of which Denis Debourdieu is one, as well as the training programmes initiated by the CIVB. The Bordeaux Wine Council co sponsors much of the R & D in Bordeaux to the tune of 1.3 million Euros on both the agricultural and wine making side.
Dry whites are popping up all over. Outside of the classic appellations of Bordeaux Blanc, Entre deux Mers, Graves and Pessac-Léognan, don’t forget the Côtes appellations and even in the sacrosanct land of red – the Medoc. Along side the famous Pavillon Blanc and Aile d’Argent, look out for Les Arums de Lagrange and Caillou Blanc amongst others. These dry white wines are delightful young and those that have enjoyed barrel fermentation and battonage offer lovely ageing potential and, in the main, represent wonderful value for money. More and more Bordeaux Blanc are available in screw caps, such as Château de Sours and Chateau Bauduc from the Entre-Deux-Mers, which seems to be the perfect closure for these wines that are best served young, but also some of the more venerable whites from the Pessac Léognan stable of André Lurton , Château La Louvière and Château Couhins-Lurton, are available in screw cap along side his Château Bonnet.

Perfect summer drinking while the fine weather lasts.