How hands-off can viticulture be?

A recent Meininger’s article on low-intervention viticulture struck a nerve with some readers. Robert Joseph spoke to Sally Evans, a wine producer, about the need to talk about economic sustainability.
 

Sally Evans, wine producer, Bordeaux
Sally Evans, wine producer, Bordeaux

Sally Evans is a little annoyed. As the owner of a small, three-hectare estate in Fronsac, Bordeaux, she can’t help being struck by the number of articles she reads – often by people with no commercial experience of winemaking – that seem to suggest that switching to organic viticulture is an easy step that is accessible to everyone in the industry. 

Economically, the oenologists she talked to when she bought the estate in 2017 warned her that going fully organic in her region is very challenging. “It’s a lot easier in Alsace, where it’s drier, she says. “Here, the good old Bordeaux climate can be very damp”. At least one major chateau has already lost a lot of its crop this year and last year two right bank chateaux gave up their organic status.” 

Evans says it’s not that she doesn’t want to be organic, “it's the fact that I believe in a broader sustainability agenda and I feel in doing what is right at the time in the vineyard.” She says. “The commercial side is really important not only because I don't want to lose my crop, but what about the commercial and economic sustainability of other people? The guy who’s putting in the equipment to recycle the water from the winery, the one who put the thermo-regulation equipment into my tanks, the barrel makers…”

Evans is very conscious of the commercial aspects of winemaking, having moved into winemaking at her Chateau George 7 estate after 16 years as a business consultant in France for Accenture. She bought her chateau after deciding to change careers and working her way through the WSET courses. The decision to buy in Fronsac was simple. “I wanted to get the best appellation I could afford, and I preferred a small vineyard and a farmer’s cottage here to what I might have had in AOC Bordeaux.”

From the outset, with her consultant, Anthony Appollot, Evans wanted to be environmentally responsible, but the more she looked into the best way to achieve this, the more she discovered, as she wrote in a blog post, “the more I realised that this is not about black or white farming practices but shades of grey – or, rather, green… each with merit. Are olive or sage green better than mint or lime?” 

Her organically certified neighbours have been regularly spraying their vineyards with copper sulphate this year, including on one morning when she might have been sitting outside having breakfast. “You should wear a face mask and be in a closed cabin,” when spraying copper, she points out. Evans uses half as much copper sulphate as those neighbours, thanks to the biocontrol products she has adopted which synthetically help the plants to build up their own resistance. In France, she wryly points out, biocontrol is not allowed for organic wine; in Germany, on the other side of the Rhine, it is permitted.

The broader copper sulphate story has evidently caught Evans’s interest. When the EU reduced the annual legal limits for copper to 4kg/ha from 6kg/ha, she says, France justified its insistence on ‘smoothing out’ the amount used over seven years by claiming that an annually-applied restriction would lead to half of its organic growers having to give up their status. “It’s still not certain that it will work for them over the seven years. Nothing. is clear cut.” She continues, “The chemical used to treat flavescence dorée is really toxic, but they’ve made it okay for organic because they don’t have any alternative. They’re pragmatic when it suits and not when it doesn’t”

Even more infuriating for Evans than the confusion over organic viticulture are the more extreme suggestions – described in a recent Meininger’s article – that there might be a widespread move towards a more hands-off approach to viticulture. Growers who are doing this acknowledge that they are getting far smaller yields, she says. “Will customers pay more than three times for the bottle of wine if we only make a third because yields are right down?” Besides, she continues, “Who’s to say what’s natural? I don’t see a mention of how awful New Zealand winegrowers are for putting nets over their vines to stop the birds eating the grapes – that is the natural cycle of things for the birds to feed themselves, no?”.

Evans, who supports French bird protection charities and actively promotes biodiversity in her vineyards, farms sustainably. She uses sexual confusion to deal with pests, applies no weed killer, and vinifies using wild yeast and low SO2 levels. Indeed, with the exception of the controversial biocontrol, she is probably as ‘organic’ as her certified neighbours. Having herself been certified as a teacher by the Bordeaux chamber of commerce, she also instructs others, acts as a mentor to local estate owners and is working with her neighbours to develop wine tourism within the appellation.

After all of these efforts, Evans says that, “It makes my blood boil to see people implying that we are doing all this harm to the environment to make a ton of money.”  She can only make wine at all, she continues “because I did my 16-hour days in a big consulting company that charged huge margins. And I will still have to complement the wine sales with tourism and courses because of the pressure on wine prices…. Because the consumer doesn’t understand all that we do to make the best wine we can and do the best we can for the land too.”

Robert Joseph

If you would like to read the article on low-intervention viticulture, you’ll find it here.
 

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