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Bordeaux's St.-Emilion Mandates Sustainable Viticulture

New provision guarantees grapes from four Right Bank appellations will be farmed using organic, biodynamic or other sustainable methods
Photo by: Courtesy St.-Emilion Wine Council
Vineyard workers harvest grapes in St.-Emilion.

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: November 9, 2017

Starting with the 2019 vintage, every bottle of St.-Emilion wine will have been made from grapes grown with sustainable farming methods, such as organic or biodynamic viticulture. The local wine council for four Bordeaux appellations has passed a measure mandating sustainable farming. Any wine not farmed sustainably may only be bottled as generic Bordeaux.

The decision impacts nearly 3.85 million cases of wine made annually within the St.-Emilion, St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Lussac St.-Emilion and Puisseguin St.-Emilion appellations. The bold move has sparked interest from other appellations and builds on St.-Emilion's existing environmental initiatives.

"The logic was already in place," said Franck Binard, director of the St.-Emilion Wine Council, which represents 973 winegrowers. "This is a continuity of our earlier projects like GEDON [Groupements de Défense Contre les Organismes Nuisibles], which works collectively to reduce the use of insecticides, and biodiversity projects like Tulipe and BioDivine."

St.-Emilion's picturesque landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage site, added an extra impetus. "We know we need to be worthy of our UNESCO status," said Binard.

Under the new, ambitious strategy, winegrowers choose from a list of state-approved certifications, for example, organic, biodynamic or HVE 3 (Haute Valeur Environmentale). The options allow for philosophical differences.

"We didn't want a dictatorship," said Philippe Bardet, owner of Château Pontet-Fumet and a longtime environmental activist. "We accept all doctrines, so long as they are officially certifiable."

The new requirements include measures like treating vineyard and winery waste products and a ban on blanket herbicide use. "We want everyone to move in this direction," said Binard. "When you start, even at a small level in terms of sustainability, then we find one step leads to another step."

The project began two years ago. At the time, the council conducted a poll and found that 45 percent of the growers already had a certification in place, driven by a concern for the planet, a safe work environment and quality.

"I try to make the best wine possible from my terroir. When you farm organically, you become a vigneron again. You are pro-active and observant," said François Despagne, owner of Château Grand Corbin-Despagne, a St.-Emilion Grand Cru Classé, as well as Le Chemin in Pomerol and Ampélia in Castillon-Côtes de Bordeaux. He farms all 94 acres organically. "For me it started as personal conviction, not a fashion. I have a PhD in microbiology and I live here. I want to live in a place that respects the environment, our health, and the soil."

The vote on the project came at an inauspicious time. It was during the St.-Emilion Council's general assembly on May 16, just days after a cold snap crippled many vineyards. "It would have been easier for us to step backward, but we said, 'No, let's go forward,'" said Binard.

The 25 percent who opposed the measure expressed concern over the cost and risk. "The frost—and its huge economic impact—reinforced their fears," said Despagne. "But the first level of certification isn't very demanding and the syndicate will help them."

The council has already begun training sessions for the growers. Some of their fears should be offset by the increase in demand for wine made from organic or sustainably grown grapes, particularly from Nordic countries, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and certain regions in China and the U.S.

"In the last two to three years, I've seen my revenue double. I've had very significant demand from the West Coast and New York," said Thierry Valette, owner of Clos Puy Arnaud, certified organic in 2006, and located in nearby Castillon.

A Bordeaux Trend?

Castillon is another indicator of a wider evolution in Bordeaux. "Castillon is the appellation with the greatest percentage of the vineyard surface area in conversion to organic farming in Bordeaux," said Valette. "There are people pushing for a 'green' Castillon."

Valette acquired his estate in 2000, and initially he was the person who bought and prepared the chemicals. "I was immediately conscious,” he said. "I looked for less toxic alternatives, and decided on [copper sulfate]. In the 1950s and 1960s, the soils were toxic because we used massive doses. Today we use [0.1 grams per acre]."

On a regional level, the Bordeaux trade group CIVB announced earlier this year that 120 châteaus had obtained the HVE 3 certification, including well-known estates like Château de Chantegrive in Graves. HVE 3 is France's highest level of certified sustainable farming, demanding water and fertilizer management, a biodiversity program and reduced pesticide and fungicide use.

"Starting this last summer, all of our bottles will have the HVE logo, so consumers know we've made this commitment to the environment and we're certified," said Elodie Sodes, spokesperson for Chantegrive.

Meanwhile in St.-Emilion, the new rules are not legally binding until the national appellations authority has modified the specifications for the appellations. "We are the first syndicate to do this in France. So for us it's going to be a long process, but for others it will go much quicker," said Bardet.

Other appellations may follow suit. When word of the vote circulated in Bordeaux, phones in St.-Emilion started ringing. "They contacted us to find out how they can make the same progress," said Binard. "I think we've created a movement."

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