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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.