Vineyards in Europe are shunning herbicides and pesticides for a natural approach – but the end result can be a mixed bag.
Posted 17 May 2011, by Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald, smh.com.au
Organic and biodynamic viticulture are movements that are growing throughout the world. It might be tempting to dismiss them as trendy and ask why it’s suddenly become so important to grow vines this way.
For the first 25 years of my interest in wine, it was barely mentioned. What’s changed?
I have just visited winemakers in two of France’s less-famous regions, Cahors and Gaillac. There, as in all of France and elsewhere in Europe, people are changing the way they grow grapes. Each property I visited has recently converted, is in conversion or is intending to convert. So, even in France’s most ancient regions, it’s suddenly all changing. Why?
Pascal Verhaeghe and his family produce one of the most celebrated Cahors wines, Chateau du Cedre (available in Australia). Verhaeghe’s father died recently from a type of Parkinson’s disease he says is five times more likely to be contracted by farmers than the general population. He puts it down to the vineyard chemicals his father sprayed all his life – without today’s mandatory protective suits and masks.
Chateau du Cedre has 27 hectares of vines in the best parts of the appellation, all farmed organically. They spray only copper and sulphur and between the rows it’s all green – Verhaeghe says more than 130 species of native plants have been identified in the Cahors vineyards.
He points to a vineyard across the road, which has a strip of dead vegetation beneath the vines. It’s easy to identify which vineyards are still spraying herbicides. ”If you take a spade and dig down 10 centimetres in that vineyard and smell the soil, it’s foul, because there is nothing alive in it,” Verhaeghe says. Compare it with his soil and you will smell a sweet fragrance, he says. The soil is alive with microbes and earthworms.
Verhaeghe and others say their fathers’ generation is being killed off by chemicals. It is a fairly new discovery because the phenomenon is relatively recent: agri-chemicals have only been widespread since World War II. And the effects have taken many years to surface.
Bernard Plageoles at Domaine des Tres Cantous in Gaillac began converting to organic 10 years ago and will put a certification logo on his labels from the 2010 vintage.
Also in Gaillac, Michel Issaly at Domaine de la Ramaye intends to convert to organic in two years, when his term as president of France’s association of 7000 independent vignerons ends. It may seem hypocritical for Issaly to preach organic before doing it but his vineyard is well on the way, with extraordinary care and thought going into his farming.
Issaly admits he has to tread carefully with his message of ”bio”, or biologique, the French name for organic farming. There is still resistance, sometimes hostile, in the independent vignerons association. Many growers are suspicious of bio, even more so of biodynamics, which is viewed by many as a kind of witchcraft. Some worry that to forsake chemicals will leave their crops unprotected and vulnerable to spoilage, which could spell ruin.
Whether you subscribe to biodynamics or not, there seems little doubt the less poison we put into the ground, and the waterways fed by its run-off, the better. Organic farming is simply a return to the way it used to be.
However, we must be careful not to assume wine made this way is inherently superior. It’s not. Some perfectly awful wines are made from biodynamically grown grapes.
I found all Chateau du Cedre wines very good, although the entry-level Cahors ’09 (all malbec) was merely good but good value at €6.50 ($9) from the winery. However, it gets rather steep by the time it’s in an Australian shop.
The top-end wines are expensive but impressive: Le Cedre ’07 ($75, see Tastings) is wonderful and ’08 Cuvee GC is simply great.
At Domaine des Tres Cantous, all the wines are good and well priced. As with Ramaye, the speciality is local grape varieties, including mauzac, ondenc and muscadelle. At Ramaye, Issaly makes reds from prunelart, duras and braucol. While his best red is the €45 Le Braucol and the €25 Le Grand Tertre (prunelart with 10 per cent braucol) is good but rather gassy and a touch jammy, I didn’t like his entry-level red at all. This is a €15 blend of 50-50 duras and braucol, branded La Combe d’Aves and both the ’06 and ’07 were just too feral and sulfidic.
As always, you need to taste before you buy. But on the whole, my perception of Cahors wines was outstanding and Gaillac, which deserves to be better known, patchy but the top wines are very good indeed – and distinctive.