BURGUNDY Environmentalism: A rising tide lifts all boats

 

Anne and Arnaud Goisot farm 22 hectares of vines in several appellation areas

 

 

Some of Burgundy’s most storied estates have made a well-publicised stand on organic and biodynamic wine growing. However, the region’s unique tapestry of diminutive vineyards and relatively adverse climate, seem to make this type of farming counter-intuitive, hazardous even. Six Burgundy wine estates reveal how they manage to reconcile environmentally-friendly vineyard management with the region’s idiosyncrasies.

 

By Ellen Budge - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates

 

According to the regional observatory for organic viticulture in Burgundy, there were 310 wine estates certified organic or in the switch-over phase in 2016, equating to a total 2,662 hectares or 8% of regional area under vine. The numbers reflect an increase of 8% in area on the previous year, despite extremely challenging weather in 2016, including frost and exceptional pressure from mildew throughout the growing season. Of the region’s four wine growing departments, Côte d’Or stands out for its high level of commitment to organic farming, with 16% of its vineyards managed organically compared with a national average of 9%. As climate change continues to upset long-standing weather patterns, conditions may become more propitious and encourage more of Burgundy’s growers to make the transition. At the same time, criticism against organic farming is becoming increasingly vociferous, across France and Burgundy, and could ultimately lead to a trend reversal. The jury is still very much out.

 

Domaine Bruno Dangin: A holistic approach from the ground up

Mathieu Dangin is an advocate of organic farming. In fact his family moved from Champagne to Molesme in Côte d’Or specifically to realise their ambition of switching to organic. “Our family estate in Champagne was too big a family concern to be converted to organic so we founded a new estate in the Châtillonnais area, three kilometres from Champagne”, explains Mathieu. “Organic viticulture had been tickling our fancy for a long time. We firmly believe that leaving behind us a legacy that is clean and uncompromising implies viticulture that takes into account the frailties of our shared heritage, and for us that means organic”. Covering just shy of 5 hectares divided between four large plots, the family’s vineyards are farmed using the ‘Geophile’ method aimed at reconstructing the soil and promoting sustainable fertility. Microbial fermented preparations are applied, tillage is used, interventions follow the lunar cycle and a holistic approach is taken to the vineyard from the ground up to strength plant health and reduce the amount of copper inputs, a major bone of contention with organic farming. “We try and provide the plant with all the natural aids we can so that it can defend itself against disease”. The strategy has paid off: “We have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines. We have realised that our organic sparkling wines are more concentrated, richer and more balanced. This is a great source of satisfaction for us because we enjoy our wines, and we are not alone!”

 

Domaine Mathias: Pushing the boundaries

For Gilles Mathias of the eponymous estate producing a number of appellations including Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Vinzelles and Mâcon, Mathieu Dangin is preaching to the choir. Driven by social evolution, Gilles Mathias chose to convert his ten-hectare vineyard to organic, despite constraints such as mildew promoted by the damper Burgundy air. “Rain also makes grass grow faster, implying more tillage”, he adds. These were not the only issues he faced during the switch-over: “Yields plummeted at first and it took several years to get them back to previous levels”. The explanation for this lies in increased use of tillage: “When vines have not been used to ploughing, they develop surface roots, which are then cut due to tillage. Obviously plants that have their roots cut struggle to grow, and they produce less fruit”. Gilles’ Chardonnay vines recovered more quickly than his Gamay but after three to four years, his vineyards were not only back up to speed, but also producing more structured wines. “It is difficult to ascribe this specifically to organic viticulture, but my wines definitely show greater structure now”, he says. Increased observation of his vineyards – one of the prerequisites for successful organic farming – has encouraged him to continue to push the boundaries. He is considering applying for HVE sustainable certification: “Organic is not the be all and end all. It’s not necessarily ecological and we are aiming to ramp up our ecological commitments”.

 

Domaine Anne and Arnaud Goisot: Combining conventional and eco-friendly techniques

Gilles Mathias’ viewpoint is shared by Arnaud Goisot, who farms 22 hectares of vines with his wife Anne in the Saint-Bris, Chablis, Bourgogne Aligoté and Crémant appellation areas. “Our region has a long-standing history of growing cherry trees, for which a lot of Bordeaux mixture was used. When I analyse my soils fifty years on, the levels of copper are still fairly high. Copper does not biodegrade”. He has also noticed that it has a negative impact on thiols, the aroma precursors in grape varieties like Sauvignon blanc. Claiming that “organic farming is the opposite extreme” to the excesses of the past, Arnaud prefers a mixture of conventional and eco-friendly techniques in his bid to preserve the environment. As the use of biocontrol - where hormone diffusers promote mating disruption amongst harmful insects - spreads across the area, he is also a firm believer in grass cover, using a combination of natural grass and dwarf white clover. “There is little competition with the vines, it covers the ground so that I can get around my vineyards whenever I like, it prevents erosion and it doesn’t use a lot of nitrogen, enabling me to control vine vigour”. By reducing yields, grass cover has also had a noticeable impact on the profile his wines: “It gives them more structure and colour”, he says, keen to continue to apply advances in research. “The future depends more on research than on us. We are calling out for progress. If we could avoid spraying our vines altogether, believe me, we would stop tomorrow!”

 

 

A former international telecoms engineer, Jean-Jacques Coudray-Bizot takes a rational approach to vineyard management

 

Château de Beaufort: Letting nature do its job

As a former international telecom engineer and grandson of a surgeon, Jean-Jacques Coudray-Bizot takes a similar rational approach to his vineyards and winemaking, spurning what he refers to as “a religious attitude” in some parts that he feels goes against nature. “Organic viticulture involves using up to twenty kilos of sulphur and five to seven kilos of copper in the vineyards - these are salts that are not transformed. For billions of years, copper will always be copper!” A custodian of some of Burgundy’s most prestigious and historic growths – including Vosne Romanée Premier Cru La Croix Rameau, Echezeaux grand Cru en Orveaux and Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru Les Cazetiers et Champeaux - Jean-Jacques has a long-term vision of vineyard management. “In around the 17th or 18th centuries, vines lived for 200-300 years because they were cropped at 15 hectolitres a hectare”, he explains, also blaming the “disastrous introduction of clones in the 1970s and 1980s” for their shortened present-day lifespan. Using field selections for propagating his vines and specific pruning techniques to “rejuvenate” them, some dating back to 1900, he also relies on the timely advice of technicians to intervene at precise moments in the growing season. Using a back-mounted spray, he treats his vines when the first five or six leaves begin to open, his manual technique enabling him to use parsimonious quantities of various sprays to control any onsets of powdery or downy mildew or insects. “Intervening ahead of any issues dramatically limits the amount of products used”, he says, admitting that his vineyards are also propitiously sited. “I am fortunate that my premiers crus are halfway up the hillside and therefore have good drainage. When you manage premier or grand cru vineyards, it is more akin to gardening than to viticulture on an industrial scale”. Whilst he recognises that much progress has been made since his grandfather’s era, “when they used to burn tires amongst the vines to keep frost at bay”, he is adamant that his customers should enjoy his wines for their inherent qualities. “I don’t allow my clients to speak to me about my environmental initiatives. I don’t ask them about their carbon footprint, everyone should stick to what they know!” His intricate knowledge of his wines allows him to use native yeasts and avoid enzymes: “I am against high-tech winemaking where yeast is added so that the wines are drinkable after 18 months. A classic Burgundy should be enjoyed after 5 to 7 years. Wine is a living product, that’s how you let nature do its job”.

 

Domaine Edmond Cornu & Fils: Focusing on biodiversity   

Boasting a similar array of top-flight wines, Pierre Cornu of Domaine Edmond Cornu & Fils in Ladoix-Serigny, also believes that “private customers do not necessarily understand the implications of farming sustainably. What they want most is for the wine to be good!” Behind the scenes, though, Pierre has been gradually stepping up his commitment to environmental conservation, and is currently in the process of transitioning from level 2 to level 3 of HVE sustainable certification. “We feel that the HVE scheme is better than organic because it goes a step further. It takes biodiversity into account and the environment. It does not simply involve eliminating the use of synthetic chemicals”. Despite his complex mosaic of small vineyard plots, there is still room for biodiversity: “We have one vineyard along a river bank so we have kept a high hedge to prevent drift from going into the river. Even when you have small plots you can still set aside areas for biodiversity”. Over his 15.5 hectares of vines, mostly planted to Pinot noir, he plants cover crops such as cereals, clover, peas, lentils and sunflowers in the autumn and then either crushes them or chops them finely with cover crop discs in the spring. He has also found that leaf removal has improved fruit health considerably. “By switching from manual to mechanical leaf removal, we can now intervene at exactly the right time – immediately after flowering – and the impact on quality is tangible”. Ultimately, for any winegrower, the quality of the wines has to be the Holy Grail. “Our objective is not to switch to organic but to harvest the best grapes we can and organic is not necessarily the way to achieve that”, he says, even though three-quarters of the products he uses are actually organic. He sets more store by selective vineyard management techniques, like leaf removal and cover crops: “By using grass cover, we have reduced the amount of nitrogen in the plant, making it less prone to fungal diseases, especially rot. The result is that our Pinot noir grapes have become noticeably healthier”.  

 

 

Burgundy’s climate makes eco-friendly vineyard management more challenging than in other parts of France

 

 

Domaine Sangouard-Guyot: A precision approach

Pierre Cornu’s pragmatism is shared by Pierre-Emmanuel Sangouard, who manages Domaine Sangouard-Guyot’s 12 hectares of vines located mainly in Pouilly-Fuissé. He traces his official pledge to sustainable vineyard management back to the national debate on environmental conservation – the ‘Grenelle de l’Environnement’ and resultant commitment to reduce agro-chemicals – though he had already made significant inroads prior to this. “I use a small device on the back of my tractor that treats only the grapes and the leaves, thereby avoiding any drift”, he explains. “By using this device I have been able to significantly reduce the amount of sprays”. Since he took over the family estate in 1997, he has honed his sense of observation, enabling him to take a precision approach to vineyard management. “When flowering starts, around the beginning of June, grapes are very prone to powdery mildew. By using 100% of the dose and a very good product, I can literally nip the problem in the bud”. Understanding when and how diseases are likely to spread implies a thorough knowledge of each vineyard plot. “All north-facing vineyards, where the temperature is cooler, are prone to powdery mildew, whilst the damper plots are susceptible to downy mildew. There are also marked differences depending on grape varieties, rootstock and soil types, and even the headlands where puddles can gather”. Pierre-Emmanuel’s environmental commitment also extends to his semi-underground winery: “I don’t need air-conditioning, and I only cool my wines during alcoholic fermentation. I now also use steam to clean my tanks instead of caustic soda to remove wine tartar”. Pierre-Emmanuel’s sensitive, progressive approach typifies 21st century wine growing and a more critical and holistic attitude to the challenges posed by environmental conservation. An attitude that illustrates the fact that no single solution can be applied, but rather a judicious combination of vineyard and winery management techniques.