Breeding cabernet for the cold winters of North America

With all the great wine already made from grapes that are admirably adapted to their soil and climate, why would anyone want to invent a new kind of grape? Shouldn’t we just let nature be?

Fact is, having great pinot from Burgundy (okay, and Oregon, and Sonoma Coast…),  solid cabernets from Bordeaux (and California, and Chile, and…) or amazing sangiovese from Tuscany (and… that’s pretty much it), isn’t a natural thing. It’s the result of centuries of active work in the vineyard to pick the grape varieties that work best in a certain climate, on a certain soil, etc. A lot of nurture to get nature where humans want it to go.

Even more active, in that respect, (more…)

It’s not easy being green: a post about Bordeaux, carbon and biodynamics

Two relatively unrelated bits of reading got me going on the whole question of wine and the environment, yesterday. The first one was a  Decanter News item about the Bordeaux wine industry’s Carbon initiative, and the steps it was proposing to curb the region’s greenhouse gas emissions (thanks to Tim, from Winecast, for tweeting it). The second one is a post on Alder Yarrow’ Vinography blog reacting to a (hard-hitting? scathing? vicious?) article in SF Weekly denouncing biodynamics as “Voodoo on the Vine”.

In the Decanter article, I was surprised to see how little the Bordeaux industry seems to be questioning vineyard practices, in its assessment of its carbon footprint. Of the 200,000 tons of carbon produced, says the report (as quoted in the Decanter article): “45% came from production of materials such as glass and cork,12% through moving personnel around,10% on vinification processes, and 18% on transportation of wines.”

According to this assessment, sales trips would account for more carbon than the chemical components of viticulture (like herbicides, pesticides, etc.). I’m skeptical. One possible explanation is that Bordeaux would only be counting carbon, and not greenhouse gases as a whole: agriculture produces more methane and nitrous oxide (NO2) than carbon dioxide. I’m not sure. But the fact that reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides is an afterthought in this whole assessment seems odd to me.

In the second case, I was a little depressed at seeing how the SF Weekly writer, Joe Eskenazi, described the “aggressive marketing” of biodynamic wines and the “kooky” reliance of biodynamic producers on supernatural explanations. Many of the examples he gives (like some of Rudolf Steiner‘s more esoterical beliefs) are quite striking and troubling – even though his disgust at seeing blood from cowheads is pretty ridiculous too. Eskenazi is clearly out to show that biodynamics is some kind of extremely weird sect, and to do that, he takes the most extreme examples he can find.

Funny enough, though, when I discussed biodynamics with most producers I’ve met, their goal was not to connect with astral forces so much as to reinforce the vines’ natural defences, helping vines dig deep into the soil to get more from the soil, and to get better juice by promoting the health and harmony of the vineyard’s ecosystem. Many will discuss the visible transformation of manure and compost left in cow horns under the ground over the winter, not in terms of the elemental connections of cows to the Earth forces, but because of the mineral qualities that in all likelihood emerge from this change in appearance, smell, texture – in other words, biochemical composition. And in the end, their point is the following: the vines are healthier, the wine is better, and natural life in all forms is teeming throughout the vineyards.

And that’s where I feel a lot closer to Alder Yarrow’s point of view, from his frustration about the “maddening, paradoxical mixture of scientifically sound farming practices and utterly ridiculous new-age mysticism” found in the realm of biodynamics, to the clear qualities he sees in the wines themselves:

Some of my favorite wines in the world; some of the best wines I have ever tasted in my life; some of the wineries that seem to consistently make some of the highest quality wines I have ever experienced are produced biodynamically, and I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Again, maybe a lot of these discussions, whether in Bordeaux’ Bilan Carbone or in the louder and weirder side of biodynamics, are brought on by the fact that being “green” is “cool”. In other words, by an interest in marketing, image, market share, etc., rather than a primary interest in making great wine in a healthy environment. I wrote a first post on my concerns about the potential greenwashing of organic/biodynamic wines (now including some very interesting comments by one Ned Goodwin) back in the spring, a post that, in many ways, corresponds to Alder Yarrow’s take on biodynamics.

I’m still as concerned about the tendency to put marketing and sales arguments above environmental arguments. A recent report published in the magazine of the Champagne winegrowers professional association, is entitled “Carbon assessment: a selling point”, and insists on the fact that going green would be good for sales – and that it may become essential, eventually, to enter certain markets. And here I was, naively thinking that reducing one’s environmental impact was about the environment.

As Alder points out in his blog post about skepticism and biodynamics:

[while] some wine producers are moving to make biodynamic wine because they think it will sell better, there are many more producers who have been making wine biodynamically for years, even decades without ever telling anyone about it, least of all the people who buy their wine.

In my opinion, the same applies to green initiatives in the wine world in general. Let’s just hope that, over time, we see (or actually, don’t see) more of the latter and that the former stumble and fail because their focus is in the wrong place. A healthy environment and better wine should be the main motivation here.

A vineyard in winter

I’ve been exchanging e-mails with Tom Lubbe at Matassa, this fall, and it has only reminded me of how much work there is to do in a vineyard after harvest is done, and after the wines have been laid to rest in the barrels, to mature over winter through secondary fermentation and all.

In late October, it is time to spray the vineyards with preparation 500, the most important biodynamic treatment, seen as essential in (more…)

When wine turns green

There’s a lot of talk, these days, about wine and the environment. Conferences about climate change and its effects on winegrowing and winemaking. People who calculate the carbon footprint of a particular wine bottle, and aim for carbon-zero wine production. Decanter’s November issue is largely devoted to a report asking “Is wine bad for the planet?” (accessible with a free registration), and exploring everything from packaging to water usage, corks, chemicals and the regulatory mess that surrounds the very variable definitions of sustainable viticulture in several regions, like New Zealand or Oregon.

Sometimes, these questions are mixed up in many ways. The “conventional” (i.e. chemical) winegrowing techniques are, for instance, attacked as much for their negative impact on the environment as for their negative impact on wine quality. The well-known American wine writer and merchant Kermit Lynch, for instance, favored traditional methods for taste and quality, first and foremost. On the other hand, Alain Brumont, the famous Madiran producer, confessed, during a lunch where I had the pleasure of being a guest, to converting to sustainable methods after seeing that years of copper anti-mildew treatment had left some of his former vineyards barren, to the point where cereals would wither before reaching maturity. Treatments have since been reduced tenfold on his domaines.

It all depends what you look at, of course. If you’re looking at the local impact of winemaking and viticulture, dry farming and biodynamic practices are obviously better, environmentally speaking, than chemicals and irrigation in, say, dry areas of Australia. But if you look at the wine trade, packaging and transportation are pretty much the same all around. Mind you, wine has been traded around the world for thousands of year: it’s not the trade, it’s the intensity and the transportation methods in general, and not just for wine, that play a part in the whole climate change issue.

That makes me think of an old trick question: what’s heavier, 50 tons of lead or fifty tons of feathers? If you’ve answered feathers, you may think that it’s better to carry 20 cases of biodynamic wine across the Atlantic than 20 cases of industrial wine. ‘fraid not.

But even then, there are some comforting aspects to this whole environmental analysis. The Decanter report, for instance, pointed out this, about water usage:

Carmel Kilcline MW, who wrote her Master of Wine thesis on the wine industry’s use of water in Australia – the driest continent – says evidence suggests that when it comes down to consumption, viticulture is less culpable than other thirsty businesses such as cotton, pasture and livestock. ‘While 99% of the water used in winemaking is used for irrigation rather than in the winery, grapes are still a relatively modest user of water,’ she says. ‘In Riverland, 290 litres of water are used per 750ml bottle of wine. Rice, by contrast, requires 2,380 litres per kg, and cotton 5,020 per kg of cloth.’

In French, we have an expression that says “quand on se regarde, on se désole, quand on se compare, on se console”. Freely translated, it means that when you look at yourself, you feel bad, but when you compare, you feel better. From an environmental standpoint, you should feel less guilty about drinking a glass of imported wine than about wearing a cotton shirt. Cheers to that.

More Pressing Matters at Matassa – and a walk through the vineyards

Instead of picking a few grapes in the vineyards of Domaine Matassa, I spent more time in the cellar making myself as useful as I could, and truly learning just how physical winemaking can be.
Let’s just talk about one of the many tasks I took part in during the end of my stay there : transferring a cuvee from its original tank and taking it off the marc (the grape skins, pulp and pips that are left to ferment with the red wines after the juice has originally been pressed out of them), before the wine is put into oak barrels to continue maturing over several months, often well over a year. The cuvée in question was El Sarrat, a combination of syrah and mourvèdre that is a new addition to the Matassa line-up (the first vintage, 2006, fruity, supple and balanced, was just bottled and a large shipment sent to UK chain Waitrose – lucky Brits !).
I assisted Cédric, a quiet, careful vigneron who has been working with Tom Lubbe at Matassa since the very beginning, in 2002, in first getting a new stainless steel tank ready, and a pump to transfer the wine from one tank to the next. While the wine was being pumped away, I also pulled some leftover juice from another tank of grenache, so that those few dozen liters could be added to the El Sarrat we were transferring.
After the fermenting juice was run out of the tank of El Sarrat, I climbed in and (more…)

First steps in Matassa

I’m spending some great time with Tom Lubbe at Domaine Matassa in Calce, at the heart of the mountaineous back country behind Perpignan, in the Roussillon. I was hoping to do full days of harvesting, but the forces of nature decided otherwise. More precisely, boars had started to eat their way through the two mountain vineyards that Tom had been keeping for last, and the grapes had to be brought in earlier than ever before, to avoid losing the lot. There are still a few grapes here and there, which I’m looking to get to tomorrow, but the huge, eighteen-hour days of harvesting are done with.

There’s plenty of other work to be done in the cellars, though. Bottling and packing cuvées from previous years, moving wine from one tank to the next, or from tanks to barrels, or doing the pigeage. Pigeage consists of punching down the chapeau (the hat, litterally) of grapes, skins and pips that is fermenting in the tanks with the juice. It notably helps control the temperature of the fermentation, as the chapeau gets hotter than the juice. And it helps work the tannins and flavor components into the juice.

In a small domaine like Matassa, an exceptional biodynamic operation whose wines show freshness rarely seen in such warm climate, this is done by hand. Or rather, by feet. And legs. The technique consists of (more…)

More news from Cornas

Here’s a short follow up on my two previous posts (here’s the first one, and here is the second one) regarding the Cornas municipality’s plan to develop the Les Mazards vineyards by ripping up 100-year-old vines and setting up buildings instead.

According to recent communications received from the Association Cornas les coteaux d’abord (Cornas vineyards first, literally translated), the fight is getting organized and being played out at the local, regional and political level. The Association is contesting the development plans submitted by the municipality, and has succeeded in getting a “commissaire enquêteur” (investigating commissionner – again, my poor translation) to come to Cornas for three days to hear what people have to say about the project. A local member of the National Assembly has sided with the association, and the region’s Conseiller Général is also coming to town this week to hear more about the situation.

It seems like a tough fight, though. The municipality seems to want to finalize approval for the project before the end of the year – which is also, interestingly enough, before the next municipal elections in March 2008. Lots of work to do in order to stop this: in total, 3.5 hectares of prime vineyard could be affected, it seems, and built up with 4-story buildings in an area where there are only individual houses, so far.

If you feel like joining in to this struggle to save these vineyards (including some by legendary producer Auguste Clape), you’ll find the instructions for adding your voice to the petition launched by the association or for writing the mayor of Cornas in my previous posts.

Published in: on September 3, 2007 at 10:56 pm  Comments (1)  

More about the Cornas struggle over Les Mazards vineyards

After writing my post, last week, about the Cornas mayor’s plans for erecting big buildings in the middle of his commune’s prestigious vineyards, I read more about the whole crazy thing on JancisRobinson.com. She mentions that you could join an e-mail petitition by simply writing to Vincent Paris, the copresident of the local producers’ association. The address is: vinparis@wanadoo.fr. And the e-mail should say something like:

Sauvez les Mazards! En tant qu’amateur de vin, je suis contre le projet d’urbanisation à Cornas.

Do include your name, address, e-mail address and, if you want, your profession.

I did write Vincent Paris, and he answered me with thanks, pointing out to me that Les Mazards is an exceptional site with hundred year old vines, and that he and his colleagues are ready to go to court, if need be, to make sure the project doesn’t go ahead.

So do join in, if you believe protecting such an exceptional patch of viticultural heritage matters. And even if you add your name to the online petition, that shouldn’t stop you from dropping an actual note, by actual post (you know, with stamps, paper, and all that stuff), to Gilbert Garnier, the mayor of Cornas. He apparently doesn’t have an e-mail address…

Published in: on August 8, 2007 at 2:54 am  Comments (1)  

Cornas threatened by… Cornas?!?

I just read something unbelievable on a Vinography post by Alder Yarrow. Apparently, the mayor of Cornas has decided that he wants a 4 or 5-story building erected on a site called Les Mazards, in the middle of the top vineyard sites in this remarkable appellation. This decision would entail the construction of an access road through some of the best vineyards of Auguste Clape, one of Cornas’ most renowned producers. John Livingstone-Learmonth, probably the world’s greatest expert on the Rhône region, also rang the alarm about this situation.

Both suggest that a note can be dropped to the mayor of Cornas, Gilbert Garnier, to tell him a thing or two about this outrageous proposition. I’m certainly planning to put pen to paper and to send my thoughts to:

Monsieur Gilbert Garnier
Le Maire de Cornas
Mairie de Cornas
07130 Cornas
France

The situation is a useful reminder that the wine world’s greatest sites cannot be taken for granted, and that they are not immune from threats. A similar kind of fight has taken place in Margaux, in the Bordeaux region, against plans for a new highway that would have gone through this legendary appellation. Many excellent vineyards in lesser-known appellations will probably be ripped up as France and Europe try to resolve their overproduction (or is that underselling?) problem.

Local producers and wine-lovers have to rise up to protect and enhance such remarkable heritage which cannot be moved elsewhere. And the Syndicat des producteurs in Cornas is doing just that. So it’s certainly worth lending them a hand.