50 Shades of Green: Making a Vineyard Sustainable
Updated: Nov 1, 2019
As I waded through the jungle of information (and hot air) on the approaches to sustainable viticulture, I found as many interpretations of green as E.L. James made us believe there were of Christian Grey.
While her book was not a page-turner for me (but at the time, I had just started a new love affair with wine), as a virgin winemaker, I found myself slightly overwhelmed by references to organic, sustainable, ‘raisonnée’, biodynamic and all the various certifications and interpretations thereof. The more I learned, the more I realised that this is not about black or white farming practices but a shade of grey - or rather, green.
Organic (called ‘bio’ in French) has taken the lead in terms of labelling and the consumer thinking they know what it stands for. Whether they actually do, is another debate but undeniably, it has the lead in terms of visibility even though the definition has a number of nuances. It is too easy to put vineyards into two boxes: those who are green by being organic (or biodynamic) and those who are not and therefore must be up to shady practices in a dark place.
As I delved into which direction I wanted to take Château George 7, I found that there is a whole palette of hues of green, and each with merit. Are olive or sage green better than mint or lime? Exactly.
In Bordeaux, we have challenges linked to our high rainfall, which vineyards further south in France or other parts of the world do not have. In the past, to fight that humidity, many Bordeaux farmers sprayed to a fixed calendar irrespective of need and at a chemical strength, which was often unnecessarily high. There has been a full swing to eliminating or reducing to the minimum, chemical treatments and pesticides through finding alternative, natural means which nurture the soil and vine. But is organic the way to go? There is still learning to be done around the use of copper-based treatments which stay on the surface of the plant (‘bouillie bordelaise’ for example), used in organic farming and which we use too. In 2018, recommended levels of copper per hectare were reduced to 4kg because excess copper is also potentially toxic for the soil and in the pursuit of ‘greenness’, many have been using it at levels that are too high for soil health because they have to spray more frequently when rain washes it off the plants. According to some experts I have spoken to, the jury is still out on whether it is possible to keep to the new limit long term in our climate. In a difficult year, more frequent treatments than conventional farming, mean more tractor hours trundling up and down the vines, which compacts the soil and pollutes with diesel. Not simple is it?
I have decided that broad sustainability is a great match with my principles and what I am trying to do. The basic definition of sustainability is ‘meeting the needs of the present while enabling future generations to meet theirs’. I throw improving the land and overall quality in there too. For me, it applies to the vineyard and the winery, from the plants to the packaging.
Not only do I want my vineyard to be safe, but to thrive and flourish. I want to produce wines that taste good, and put more back into nature than I take out. I am a relatively well-informed, health-conscious Mum and I live at the heart of my vines breathing in everything that is around them and handling all that we use in the winery. I want to do what makes sense for now and the future. I believe in taking an holistic view and ensuring Château George 7 is sustainable across all areas.
I believe that being green is about more than not using chemicals but covers 3 main areas which are: Environmental (obvs), Economic and Social. How these are weighted in terms of importance will depend on the context of an individual property. For example, water management is more relevant in some new world wine regions but less so here in Fronsac where no irrigation is allowed. So I have thought hard about what I need to do in these 3 areas to ensure that vines and wine production will be flourishing here another 150+ years from now:
Environmental: When I inherited my 35-year old vines, they needed some TLC. We are taking steps each year to put that right as naturally and gently as possible for long-term soil and vine health. Making drastic changes can put the vines into shock. Yes, honestly!
- We have planted a hedgerow and trees to encourage biodiversity so that we can reinstate and support the natural cycle of flora and fauna to enrich the environment and control pests.
- ‘Confusion Sexuelle’ is used to limit the grape caterpillar (vers de grappe) - insect pheromones confuse the male, mating doesn’t happen and therefore reduces the number of offspring.
- We plant cover crops (secondary crops sown between the rows of vines) that act as decoys for predators, fix nitrogen and enrich the soil when ploughed back in.
- We are sourcing bottles that are lighter and so friendlier to the carbon footprint.
- My 2018 vintage is fermented with indigenous yeast and will have sulphur levels below the recommended limits for red wines for those farming biodynamically i.e. 70mg/l. The maximum permitted by leading organic organisations is 100mg/l.
Economic: These sustainability measures may seem to be about the farmer and his/her pocket but if the vineyard cannot pay its way, then everyone connected to it suffers.
- In 2018, mildew was such an issue in the region, that a couple of well-known Châteaux on the right bank made the decision to forego organic certification by making a mildew treatment to save the crop.
- It is worth mentioning, that if a vineyard does use chemicals to safeguard a crop, the intelligence and tools now exist to ensure that it can be diluted to an absolute minimum to be effective and in France, there is an enforced period of 45-60 days (depending on the product) between an application and picking the fruit which is not regulated everywhere in the world. Losing most or all of your crop in multiple years is not sustainable: the business cannot survive if there is no wine to sell, or yields are so low that you cannot pay your bills or your staff - let alone invest in the vineyard’s future. The producers who have high margins and who can bear a couple of years of no/low production are the minority. Planting hedgerow to encourage biodiversity or installing a water-recycling tank costs money.
- Evaluating you have the right grape varieties for your terroir and making those important changes in lockstep with the climate are key to getting optimum yields and ripeness levels now and into the future.
- Juggling decisions re quality and investment are key too. For Château George 7, I decided that it would make sense to start small, collaborate with a neighbour for him to work a hectare of my vines in return for tractor work, so that I could invest more in the remaining parcels, equip the winery with the best equipment I could afford and manage the vines as gently and naturally as possible to make a smaller amount of better quality wine.
Social: The social impact of a vineyard on employees and neighbours and living in harmony with them is key to long-term sustainability:
- Having moved to live at Château George 7 full-time, I am focused on integrating with my community so as to get involved in supporting and promoting both the Bordeaux region and the Fronsac appellation. Now accredited by the Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux as a tutor, I am also working on helping #Fronsac to better communicate how great it is. I am passionate about getting visibility and a better understanding of what we do and our wines which will help our wines compete with other old and new world regions for years to come. How can you say you support sustainability if you are not part of your community and engaged in how it evolves into the future?
- In some developing winemaking countries, wine producers are sponsoring the training and education of vineyard workers and their families as a way of ensuring sustainability. This is not so relevant to my circumstances, but I am looking at how I can actively support other women who want to take the leap alone and get involved in wine by starting or buying a vineyard as a new chapter in their life – over 50 as I did, for example. If this might be you, do get in touch and we can discuss how I can help. I am putting together a programme for practical support. #winementor
Despite my initial resistance to being handcuffed to a ‘label’, I do believe in holistic sustainability and also in helping consumers understand more about making wine. So I have embarked on a certification that places its focus on broad environmental and sustainability values. It is a French national programme called Haute Valeur Environmentale (HVE) and at the first audit, it became clear that we are already at the highest level, level 3.
So early in 2020, I am looking forward to having a stamp that will encourage more conversation and transparency on how vineyards are working for a sustainable future.
In the absence of a colour-chart interpreting the 50+ shades of green, what should you do to learn as much as possible about what is in your glass? My advice is to get to know the producer – get beyond the label and talk to them about what goes on behind their closed doors. Let’s not whip (back to Mr Grey) those who are not organic but try and understand what the producer is doing across the board to make wine at a vineyard that is sustainable in every way.
So to add to what I have told you here, I would be delighted to talk to you more about what goes on in the vines of Château George 7 and what goes into our wine. Then you should taste it and decide the particular shade of our red that tickles your fancy.
The pleasure, as Mr Grey would say, will be all mine!