I’m back from Bordeaux. Yes, again. How many visits to Bordeaux in a year constitute an addiction? No need to answer; it’s a rhetorical question. But for the record, I’m up to three. Some of my friends are calling me a wannabe Bordelaise. I am happy to report that’s true.
Disclosures aside, the focus of this trip was a little different. The visit was timed to ‘work’ harvest in arguably the finest of the fine-wine regions of the world. I’ve learned from harvests in New Zealand and California that there’s no better classroom than the vineyard and the good people at Domaine de Chevalier kindly took up the challenge.
This time I indulged in one of my true vinous passions – White Bordeaux or respectfully, Bordeaux Blanc. Sémillon paired with Sauvignon Blanc – peut-être a little Muscadelle or Sauvignon Gris – is indeed evidence of Mother Nature’s most splendid work. And what a pleasure doing a deep dive into Bordeaux’s vin blanc heartland and youngest appellation (1987), Pessac-Léognan (Graves sub-region).
In addition to making one of the greatest vins blanc in Bordeaux, Domaine de Chevalier (Grand Cru Classé des Graves – 1959) is transitioning its vineyards to organic and biodynamic agriculture. Clearly the stakes are high. In a notoriously damp, maritime climate where mildew is as much at home as baguette and brie, the challenge of converting to organic agriculture and eliminating all pesticides and synthetic chemicals is the ultimate stress test. While many of us love the movement to chemical-free, pre-industrial agriculture, giving up those trusty herbicides requires years of putting micronutrients back in the soil. Who knew the long-term damage of chemicals? That was an important lesson for me.
“It’s important for the future – organics and biodynamics. It’s the right thing to do. We know that,” says Adrien Bernard, business manager and noble knight of Domaine de Chevalier when he welcomes us to the vineyard. “But the reality is now we can never close the door and say goodbye to the vines for the weekend. The difference between conventional and organic grape growing is we must always be ready to react to the weather and be there for the vines. So we take years to ensure the soils are healthy and resilient, and we must be resilient too.”
Environmentally Conscious Winemaking
So besides the very real practicalities of climate, how are Bordeaux chateaux managing their environmental footprint?
My interest in environmentally conscious wine-making was sparked last year when I visited biodynamic pioneer, Véronique Cochran at Château Falfas in the Cotes de Bourg appellation. Veronique’s vineyards are located mere metres from the Gironde Estuary at the intersection of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. She has practiced biodynamic winemaking on the clay and gravel soils here since 1989. My introduction to Château Falfas was quick and unscheduled, but enough time was spent with Véronique to know this strong, principled community of eco-conscious Bordeaux producers warranted a closer look. Véronique’s father, Francois Bouchet, literally wrote the book on biodynamic viticulture in France (Biodynamic Agriculture: How to Apply it to Vineyards) and her unflinching relationship with the vines and wine at her 16th century Falfas estate borders on spiritual.
Now, in 2019 as we migrate from climate ‘change’ to a climate ‘crisis’ (per IPCC and now acknowledged as a “crisis” by The Guardian based on updated scientific research from the UN in October 2018 & May 2019), there is growing pressure on governments, policy makers and producers in all agricultural sectors to reduce their environmental impact.
As a monoculture, and carbon intensive category, pressure is on the French wine industry to adopt sustainable practices. Conventional winemakers are being asked to practice greener, cleaner viticulture. Less greenhouse gas producing tilling, enhanced vineyard biodiversity, better water management, fewer chemical inputs – to start. It’s fair to say every industry, in every sector is being asked to re-evaluate strategies and actions. And government and industry bodies are expected to lead and must provide enlightened policy frameworks.
As the world’s marquee wine region, expectations for Bordeaux are high. But so are the stakes, as I learned when I visited Jean-Michel Comme at Pontet-Canet and Marie-Hèléne Lévêsque at Château Chantegrive. I’ll be writing about their environmental principles and green strategies in the weeks to come.
My key insight: the economic calculus of eschewing chemical fertilizers and pesticides and doing what’s right by the planet, is a transition requiring deep commitment, lots of R&D, years of implementation and a significant investment. It’s not for the faint of heart. But what choice do we have?
So where do Bordeaux producers sit on the green continuum of eco-responsible, planet-friendly winemaking?
In 2015, Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) director Allan Sichel was quoted as saying 45% of winemakers are “farming with an environmental approach”. In 2016, Bernard Farge, current president of the CIVB, said 55% of Bordeaux’s vineyards are now ‘registered as using sustainable agriculture’. Today, the website says 65% – impressive year over year growth.
But is sustainable, good enough? It’s a message easily communicated by chateaux and easily absorbed by consumers but is it leading to action? Are chateaux changing tilling practices, planting crop cover, encouraging biodiversity, practicing carbon sequestration, adopting eco-friendly pest management strategies? Where’s the conversation around emissions? And are Bordeaux producers researching Bordeaux consumers’ environmental behaviours and practices/fine wine wants and needs (i.e. user research)?
One Bordeaux executive I met with agrees environmental concerns are important, but argues ‘quality’ is the critical attribute demanded by Bordeaux grand cru consumers. Does that mean the high-end, classified estates in Bordeaux are off the hook? Would….could, delicious, Bordeaux wines produced in an environmentally sustainable way be the ultimate brand offer? Or is that just true of millennial and Gen Z wine consumers inheriting a planet in crisis and empowered by climate activist, Greta Thunberg?
For now, Sichel’s statement – “farmed with an environmental approach” – has dictated my itinerary for this trip to Bordeaux. Environmentally respectful practices are at the heart of Domaine de Chevalier’s operations. That – and their incredible pedigree in the world of Bordeaux wines – makes them a great ‘les vendages’ fit. I’ll be writing about that experience in my next post.
And, when I’m not working harvest, I’ll ….okay, we’ll (I’ve dragged friends along) be exploring châteaux and vineyards that sit on the eco-conscious spectrum. There are MANY environmentally sustainable certifications in Bordeaux. Making sense of them all? Not easy!
Some estates practice ‘lutte raisonnée’ – reasonable prevention; using chemical inputs only when necessary. Others, self-audit for environmental ‘best practices’ using industry frameworks. Some are certified sustainable – see descriptions below – and some….indeed many, are certified organic under the French Agricultural Ministry’s broad agricultural umbrella. The most ardent are certified for biodynamic viticulture and agriculture and many more are now marching toward the three-year organic and biodynamic certification process and smart enough…realistic enough…pragmatic enough to gain the necessary experience before the three year clock starts ticking. See? Confusing.
I’ve shared my take on the most important frameworks and certifications below. Of course, there are many winemakers practicing organic viticulture who prefer not to secure formal, third party certifications at all – they just farm that way because it’s better for the wine and it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps that’s the agenda for my next trip!
In the meantime, this was my itinerary for visiting environmentally-conscious vineyards. I’ll share much more on these properties in the weeks ahead.
- Domaine de Chevalier, Domaine de la Solitude, Clos des Lunes – transitioning to organic and biodynamic
- Château Guiraud – AB (organic)
- Château de la Dauphine – AB organic, HVE and EMS, transitioning to biodynamic farming
- Château Chantegrive – SME, 2013 ISO 14001 :2015, HVE – Level 3
- Château Pontet-Canet – Biodyvin – certified organic and biodynamic
Bordeaux’s Green Certification Spectrum
Below are the key environmental certifications and certifying organizations in Bordeaux, as approved by France’s National Institute of Origin and Quality ( INAO).
There are admittedly MANY more (and yes, the focus here is on grape growing vs wine-making which is a much larger conversation), but this should help get you started on your Bordeaux eco-savvy journey.
HVE – France’s ‘High Environmental Value’ or ‘Haute Valeur Environnementale’ Certification
The French Ministry of Agriculture created this HVE certification in 2011 to promote their commitment to environmentally respectful practices.
The three-tiered system encourages farms and vineyards to reduce their use of ‘phyto-sanitary’ inputs (aka pesticides, herbicides, fungicides), limit their use of fertilizer, increase biodiversity and improve water management systems. Once a farm or vineyard has attained the third and most demanding level of the certification process, it receives the title “High Environmental Value” (HVE). Look for Level 3 certification – it requires a much more significant commitment vs level 2. Managed by the trade organization Vignerons Independants de France, the organization has grown to include many high profile chateaux. Note: a complete list in the Gironde/Bordeaux region can be found here.
Some HVE certified chateaux include:
Pomerol: Château Petite Village, Château Bon Pasteur / Saint Emilion: Château Figeac, Château Soutard / Fronsac: Château la Dauphine / Pauillac: Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Lynch-Bages / Margaux: Château Kirwan, Château Marquis la Terme / Léognan: Château Carbonnieux, Château Olivier / Graves: Château de Chantegrive / Pessac: Château Haut-Brion, Château Pape Clément / Sauternes: Château Guiraud,
- Some proponents argue HVE certification promotes a more environmentally conscious approach to agriculture with a bigger emphasis on biodiversity (vs organic certs)
- It’s more flexible than organic certifications that prohibit the use of any synthetic inputs
- The broader agricultural category adds heft and credibility
- It doesn’t use the word “organic” (bio in french), which – some argue – still carries a stigma. HVE allows winemakers to implement organic principles without risk of consumer backlash
- It doesn’t have the teeth that organic certification has and is therefore less stringent about reducing chemical inputs
- It doesn’t have the word organic in it, which many would argue is a significant weakness, especially as consumer sentiment for sustainable and organic products grow
- Note: The 2019 IWSR Organic report shows all growth in the dry wine category in the next three years (2017 – 2022) will come from the organic segment at +9.2%. Europe is expected to account for 78% of that market…..
SME – Environmental Management System for Bordeaux Wine /Système de Management Environnemental du Vin de Bordeaux
The Environmental Management System (EMS) for the Bordeaux wine industry is a voluntary collective environmental initiative and framework incorporating all players in the Bordeaux wine industry: winemakers, traders, negociants, production co-ops and more. Program management and accreditation is provided by the CIVB (Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux Wine) and supports the ISO 14001 international standard (see below).
The key objective is to accelerate change and the adoption of more respectful vineyard practices in Bordeaux.
The EMS is essentially a sustainable business tool to help companies continuously improve their environmental performance. These businesses do not have to practice organic or biodynamic agriculture or viticulture as part of the SME, so it’s more about being a good corporate/environmental citizen.
The company must:
- Evaluate the impact of its practices, location and activities on the environment
- Set objectives and commit to practices based on scale and financial means
- Gradually work towards reducing its impacts
- Join an industry peer working group, and agree to have results audited (and published?)
- Key performance indicators for the company include a frequency of treatment index (FTI), biodiversity index, energy index (indexed to Bordeaux community or to KPI optimum standard?)
- Measurement criteria: (1) reduce water consumption (2) limit energy consumption and dependence and therefore reduce carbon footprint (3) sort and improve waste management (4) limit the use of chemical inputs based on best practices (5) preserve biodiversity (6) preserve living & working environment (7) involve employees in environmental plan (8) manage business in a sustainable way i.e. pool resources with complementary businesses (9) innovate (!!) to better your environmental impact (10) share your sustainable expertise and commitment
The website currently says “65% of Bordeaux vineyards are committed to an environmental approach”. The objective targeted by the Bordeaux wine industry is – as it should be (editorial comment) – 100%.
ISO 14001 : 2015 Corporate Sustainability
The World Organization for Standardization (ISO) international standard is woven into the Bordeaux wine industry’s voluntary EMS goals. The international standard goes beyond agriculture and viticulture to include all industrial, manufacturing, trade and service organizations’ products, services and processes. Some wine estates identify the ISO family of standards independent of Bordeaux’s EMS. Independent, accredited third party auditors provide industry specific certification. Verification is annual and an audited renewal takes place every three years (i.e. https://www.certificationeurope.com/certification/iso-14001-environmental-management-certification/).
Published on August 29, 2017, ISO 14001: 2015 is a tool that helps businesses support the Paris Climate Agreement and the 17 Action and Sustainable Development Goals that make up the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ISO 14001 is one of a number of International Standards that help support better environmental management and tackle the climate crisis.
Other ISO standards focus on the management of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and helping organizations report their GHG emissions or reductions in order to comply with applicable national regulatory requirements, participate in the carbon emissions trading market or demonstrate their commitment to corporate social responsibility.
- Implemented in more than 180 countries
- More than 300,000 certificates issued worldwide at the end of 2015
- 8% increase in certifications compared to 2014
Certified Organic Agriculture & Viticulture
The AB certification logo, like the European organic (bio) logo, identifies agriculture and viticulture products that are 100% organic, or in the case of processed food, contain at least 95% organic agricultural products. My sense is the AB logo is the most used and recognizable ‘clean and green’ signature in the French wine industry. It’s on bottles, brand packaging, tourism materials and retail price catalogues. Despite the proliferation of newer (and some would argue, less stringent) certification tools, it appears producers keen to advertise all their hard-earned organic certification, still prefer to communicate it through the AB trademark. (According to research from Agence BIO, 97% of French consumers recognize the AB label and 12% of French consumers purchased organic alcohol and wine in 2018. CIVB reports 10% of Bordeaux producers farm organically.)
Key tenets – natural and authentic products, respect for animal welfare, no synthetic chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides), soil fertility enhanced by fertilizers obtained from renewable and composted resources, sustainable development, a commitment to future generations. Those advocating this certification claim it is the most successful approach to protecting the environment, biodiversity and animal species, giving it a special status and a solid foundation for the future.
A quick history – In July 1980, the French government recognized the existence of an agricultural movement questioning the methods of modern agriculture. Recognition acknowledged agriculture “that does not use chemicals or synthetic pesticides” within the framework of the Agricultural Orientation Act. The oil crisis of the 70s and early acknowledgement of the planet’s limited resources helped spur on this legislation.
Only the products that come from it can bear the European bio logo and the AB mark.
In March 1985, this alternative agriculture is officially called “organic farming”, and national level specifications, and the AB logo is created to communicate production and environmental values to consumers.
The European Regulation was adopted on June 24, 1991, incorporating the principles and definitions of the French legislation and their application to crop production. In August 24, 2000 an organic framework for livestock production is added. Organic products, certified in a European Union country by a designated authority or certifying body may now be marketed in any Member State. Organic farming is finally defined and recognized throughout Europe and consumers are reassured of the EU harmonization though logo identity and labeling information.
The European Union “organic farming” logo is called the Eurofeuille. My own straw pole/informal research suggests the French wine industry rarely uses the second EU logo.
Biodynamic certification is a private certification standard (set of rules) whereas organic certification is a national standard regulated by the government or in the case of Europe – the EU (since 1992).
Demeter – is the international organization that has regulated biodynamic farming since it was first introduced in 1924. They regulate and certify a wide range of crops, including wine grapes.
Biodyvin (SIVCBD) is based in France and only certifies wine.
Organic certification is a pre-requisite for any form of Biodynamic certification, whether from Demeter or Biodyvin. Critics see regulatory certification as a potential barrier to entry for small producers who are less able to manage the increased costs, paperwork, and bureaucracy.
Key Tenets of Biodynamics
Biodynamic farming, and viticulture, is at the top of the ecological hierarchy. Environmentally respectful values drive all practices. The viticultural commitment and focus on soil fertility, soil microbiology, holistic biodiversity and reduced environmental impact is fundamental to this approach.
Modern biodynamics is one of the great mysteries of life. Doubters love to mock the rituals and practices. Winemakers may disagree with some of the foundational practices because of their terroir idiosyncrasies (i.e. soils are already silica rich). But in the end, it’s hard to find a producer who argues with the results. Most advocates don’t know why or how the preparations work, but admit they do.
As mentioned above, for vineyards to be certified biodynamic they must be organic first, and follow the philosophies and practices of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was an Austrian spiritual scientist and philosopher who worked in areas as diverse as drama, education, architecture and agriculture. In 1924, he produced a series of lectures for the Austrian farming industry on ecological and sustainable agriculture that promised rich soil fertility and fields alive with microbial life. Steiner eschewed the growing work of chemical scientists and their push for labour-saving, cost-effective artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which he argued depleted the microbiological life of the soil.
Steiner advocated for a holistic approach to farming that increased soil fertility by returning to more traditional methods and working closely with nature.
His research described a process where every organism contributes to the “circle of life”. His key messages: farms should encourage biodiversity, be self-sustaining and resist monoculture through cultivation of a variety of plants. The regime he proposed combines a planting, sowing, harvesting and pruning regime that aligns with the position of the sun, moon and planets.
Steiner recommended nine preparations: 500 – 508 are made from cow manure, quartz silica, and seven medicinal plants. Three of the preparations are sprays and the other six are applied via solid compost. Sprays are mixed with water and go through vortexing – liquid is vigorously stirred in one direction and then another for up to an hour before use.
The nine preparations include:
Cow Horn Manure – Preparation 500 – buried in cow horns over the winter. Horn is dug up and contents stirred in water and sprayed in the afternoon. Stimulates soil life and root growth.
Horn Silica or Quartz – Preparation 501 – ground quartz is buried in cow horn over summer and then dug up and contents are stirred in water and sprayed at daybreak. Silica increases photosynthesis in the vine leaves by concentrating sunlight.
Yarrow – Preparation 502 – is hung in summer sun, buried in winter and added to compost in spring. Encourages uptake of trace elements.
Chamomile – Preparation 503 – is hung in summer sun, buried in winter and added to compost in spring. Stabilizes nitrogen and calcium and enhances soil life.
Nettles – Preparation 504 – is hung in summer sun, buried in winter and added to compost in spring. Stabilizes sulphur and stimulates soil health.
Oak Bark – 505 – buried in watery environment over winter and then dug up and added to compost. Provides healing forces to prevent disease.
Dandelion – 506 – is hung in summer sun, buried in winter and added to compost in spring. Stimulates the relationship between silica and potassium so silica can attract cosmic forces to the soil.
Valerian – 507 – sprayed or added to compost. Stimulates compost so phosphorous is properly used by the soil.
Horsetail – 508 – is used as a tea or a fermented liquid manure. Applied to vines as spray or to soil as liquid manure. Reduces the effect of fungus.
https://infographies.agriculture.gouv.fr/english (some interesting graphics from the Ministry of Agriculture on farming, sustainable farming best practices, impact of climate change, food industry production and exports, viticulture – all translated to english)