As storm clouds closed in and a light rain fell this morning upon the Parc des Expositions, it hardly mattered for the 1000s of participants of Vinisud 2014. Safely inside the many expansive halls, for seven hours the world was to be found here. Having wandered lost on Monday, many starring blankly at a map printed for those only with keen eyesight, by this morning,Tuesday, the paths and byways to each and every Mediterranean producer and their country had been collectively understood. We now knew where we were going, and so it was that foot traffic flowed smoothly and orderly.
The South West, Provence, the Rhone Valley, the Languedoc and its sparkling companion, Roussillion; Tunisia, Crete, the Lebanon, Corsica, Spain, Italy, and countries coyly labeled as ‘other’ in Hall B4, (yes, there were more), now had the full attention of the teeming professionals all on their game.
Mystery locations still remained, however, such as a conference hall for which no current map given us showed the way. Indeed, my first responsibility today was to participate on a panel discussion hosted by Wine Mosaic, a group dedicated to the preservation of Mediterranean grape and wine diversity. The panel was to tackle the question “Why and how to preserve original Mediterranean varieties?” Not so easy, we reluctantly agreed. (Much more to come on this subject in a later post.) Meanwhile the august Andrew Jefford led a bright tasting of both experts and initiates through the intricacies of one of the Languedoc’s most celebrated regions, Saint Chinian in another hall. Elsewhere presentations concerning the nuances of Châteaneuf du Pape and the Côtes du Rhône, Orange wines, the application of smart phone and touchpad technologies to marketing, dozens of specialized tastings, all events, great and small, hummed along like high tension wires in the rain. For the spirit and energy of international marketing ingenuity on display more than overwhelmed the weather outside.
Ears glued to phones, bodies pressed close to share a latest release, noses deep in Riedel, Spiegelau, or plain glass, the day marched on. Pessimism is global; optimism is local. And today, the second of Vinisud 2014, we were optimists.
Ken Payton, Admin
Professor Alain Carbonneau is likely an unfamiliar name to much of the wine world. But like researchers and educators everywhere, he is among the most important figures in his field. A viticulturist with a specialty in canopy management, he pioneered the widely used Lyre vine training system. With over 400 publications to his credit, he has expanded not only the science of Viticulture but of Vine Physiology and Adaptation, Vineyard Climatology, Sustainability, and he has deepened our practical understanding of terroir. And though he may have recently retired from INRA and Montpellier SupAgro, he is busier than ever, as you will read. More, I know many will find his remarks on the pending move of the treasured vine holdings at Domaine de Vassal to Pech Rouge especially interesting.
My apologies for the length of the interview, but when introducing so important a figure in the science (and the poetry) of the vine, it is right and proper to give due deference, to let him have his say. And so we begin…
Ken Payton So how are you, Professor ?
Alain Carbonneau Very well. I am a busy retired man with a lot to do ! I am still in charge of GiESCO (Groupe International d’Experts en Systemes viticoles pour la CoOpération) and I am in charge of our historical review, Le Progrès Agricole et Viticole.
Looking over your CV, I noticed you felt strongly enough to mention your lasting interest in Literature and Philosophy, Culture and Poetry. Can you tell me a bit about this ?
AC I love to write. Sometimes I use the classical Alexandrine poetic form. When I was a student I liked that form very much. And last Saturday I presented two or three poems, one was a dedicated to encouraging students to go on in their studies and another was on a grape variety, Syrah.
So Viticulture was a way of summing it all up, the poetry, philosophy, science…
AC Yes. The vine was the entrance, the door to imagination.
That would seem so with the naming of the Lyre system of vine training you pioneered. And the importance of an aesthetics of vineyard architecture.
AC We realized vineyard architecture was very important; first to control the real micro-climate of the leaves and berries and also, indirectly, to assist root development. About 30 years ago we were surprised to find the vine responds to that. We now consider that the training system, or vine architecture in general, is part of the terroir. It is not an artificial element. It is actually something like a filter of different natural elements: Light, temperature, water, wind and so on. Even the wine can be determined by this architecture. Not just the soil and the climate, but the training system also makes a difference.
Traditionally the Goblet was dominant in this region…
AC Yes. Actually the Lyre system is a very open and high goblet. If you compare the Lyre to the traditional goblet of Chateauneuf du Pape, for instance, the Lyre is more linear, more uniform in its architecture, but the general shape is similar. And in my opinion it is the best for quality, at least for temperate climates.
What is Ecophysiology ?
AC The idea is to control the response of the vine with respect to growth regulation, fertility, and above all the maturation of the berry and the different components of maturation. All those elements, what I call Ecophysiology, respond to the vine architecture. [See chapter two of the linked article]
About rootstock selection, have you done research in that area ?
AC Yes. The key point for controlling the type and quality of the wine is to find the optimal water limitation. So you play on different keys: the rootstock, soil management, the variety to some extent, and the architecture. Those elements interact with the general climate and the general water balance. At the moment there is no scientific model explaining the art, but with experience we can find some good solutions. So, yes, I work a little bit on rootstocks, but principally in terms of water regulation.
About that, there is limited use of vineyard irrigation in France. Do you believe that climate change will require a rethinking of the regulations governing organic grape growing, for example ?
AC Yes. After all, water is a natural product ! Twenty years ago irrigation was taboo because the region was trying to increase quality recognition. Most of the growers were afraid that irrigation would destroy that image. And in fact, due to the certainty of climate change, because summers are increasingly dry – for at least 20 years here – the key to maintaining a regular yield is to control the water uptake. Of course we have to control water stress. If the stress is too much then we lose the proper expression of the vine. We can produce concentrated wines rich in alcohol or with some smoky taste or cooked fruit, but in general we are not looking for that. We prefer to produce wines with better balance, with some floral and fresh fruit character, mixed with spices.
And to achieve that we have to control water. So if the water stress is too much then we have to add water. This is the same for nitrogen deficiency. Everybody agrees that nitrogen deficiency does not enhance quality. Therefore irrigation is sometimes necessary. Then there is the question of competition for water. But that is a matter of vineyard and territory management. We encourage growers to capture water when it rains and to create networks of small dams and ponds. We can also use waste [gray] water from the winery and cellar. Wineries use a lot of water. So combining these sorts of water sources we can avoid competition with other users of water such as cities.
And by using the Lyre architecture we increase the exposed leaf area and the transpiration demand. Initially we thought the Lyre was not suitable here because it can increase the severity of the water deficit. In fact the opposite is true. In contrast to VSP and other canopies, the Lyre maintains better water comfort for the plant. There was less stress. How can this be, we wondered. It turns out the answer is that we have to deal with the vine in all seasons, not just during the driest week in winter. In spring the Lyre intercepts much more light, produces more sugar and encourages the roots to grow and strengthen, to grow deeper and explore a larger water reservoir in the soil. The root growth stops between fruit set and veraison, and that corresponds to the beginning of the driest period. Now, the Lyre may then exaggerate the demand in transpiration, but because of better root development, it is able to withstand this period of water stress.
Because you want to encourage roots to grow deep, do you mean to discourage drip irrigation, for example ?
AC No no no. This is a legend. That is only true if irrigation is the only source of water for the vine. Additional irrigation doesn’t modify the root morphology or the root distribution in the soil. To be sure there are a few more surface roots under the grapes, but not too much. And this also depends on the texture of the soil. If the drainage is good then right after irrigation the water sinks quickly to the roots. So in this case you can combine deep rooting with additional irrigation. We’ve studied this in our vineyard on campus. It has a very coarse sand with stones. We use only drip irrigation; perhaps 70% of the vines’ water requirements are satisfied this way. And the root systems are deep. So I agree that we have to avoid the surface watering of a vineyard where the root system is too close to the surface, but if we handle irrigation properly, this is not a problem.
There are at a minimum two schools of thought in the organic community: one holds that biodiversity – flowers, grasses, herbs – competes with the vine for water; then there is another persuasion which encourages inter-row biodiversity precisely because it denies water to surface roots and thus forces the roots down deeper to find water…
AC Yes. The ideal, I think, is to combine controlled irrigation and grass cover. Flowers are also encouraged.
How do ‘terroir sciences’ differ from ecophysiology ?
AC Ecophysiology is a pure discipline, a holistic science. The aim is to explain how the whole plant functions. You restrict water, you increase temperatures, for example, and then you check the plant’s response at all levels: the leaves, the fruit, the roots. The final objective is to build a model which can explain this functioning of the whole plant.
I regret that in France at least, that few young scientists are working in this field. Sadly, the priority is Molecular Biology, so everybody is going into that field. It is quite easy to publish, I understand that, but I believe it is time to give a better balance between these two scientific disciplines.
Even old school hybridization, despite its historical successes, is under-utilized…
AC Yes. And terroir science is a very integrated approach, something like sustainable viticulture. So the aim is to build a new vineyard combining new varieties, new techniques for soil management, new canopy management, and to find the optimal interaction among all of these elements. So it is a science of interactions. Ecophysiology is part of that.
There are all kinds of restrictions and requirements on grape varieties within the AOP system. In a world of climate change it would seem the system must adapt.
AC Yes. To be honest, I am afraid for the future of the AOP system because it is too rigid. I think the best solution could be to tolerate inside each AOP 1% of the surface area to be free for experimentation with new varieties, new rootstocks, new training systems, irrigation, and so on. And let the experimentation go on for 10 to 15 years after which we may learn valuable lessons and thereby encourage change. Due to climate change and due to social changes, it will be absolutely necessary to utilize other varieties in the mid-term. We therefore need changes within the AOP system.
What has always puzzled me is that farmers are the ones doing the practical labor, the experimenting, everyday. Yet even as they are learning, this new agricultural knowledge is not necessarily persuading the AOP to change.
AC I agree. The representation of growers in the official AOP is important. Many people elected to the AOP assemblies are among the most famous growers so they do not really want to change all that much. They are far too conservative. But in terms of regulation and law, it is possible for any AOP to change because the decisions are coming from the growers themselves. It is a question of democratic majorities. But I am a little bit afraid because even though we are certain of climate change, too few things are changing in the vineyard.
There is the enormous grape variety resource of Domaine de Vassal, for example. They are certainly ready and able to assist with any new initiatives and experiments.
AC Yes. There is a real problem here. Domaine de Vassal’s collection is huge. But if you want to determine the adaptation potential for different varieties, in fact that collection is not well-situated. It is a very good site to preserve genetic diversity, to note the growth cycles of a given variety or something like that. But to estimate adaptation to climate change, we have to change its location. I hope this collection can eventually be re-installed in a more suitable place.
So you are hoping for the relocation of Domaine de Vassal ?
AC Yes. Personally I think it is really necessary.
Even if grafting is required.
AC Yes, of course. Grafting is absolutely necessary if you want to determine the normal behavior of a variety. We have to separate the matter of varieties preserved in sandy soils from their real world application in other soil types. We need to experiment with their potential under normal conditions, which means grafting.
Where do you think would be a good location for the Vassal collection ?
ACI think INRA has an ideal site in Pech Rouge. There is plenty of space to install that collection. Especially if we want to select the very best varieties for tomorrow, and even if those varieties are very old. We may yet be surprised ! One example: I was in Lebanon a few years ago. I observed that Zinfandel was more susceptible to high temperatures than Marselan. It was really evident. We have those varieties at Vassal, but without proper real-world conditions no one could know that. So we must work with unknown or rare varieties with high oenological potential in the real world. And I am sure in the coming years we can select some old or rare varieties to diversify the range of wines available and to as well respond to climate change.
It is surprising that with the 1000s of varieties available in the world that we seem to see the same narrow range of choices in the marketplace.
AC Indeed, we have now found a new hybrid which is fully resistant to Downey and powdery mildew – no pesticide needed – but we still have to determine if the resistance is sustainable and stable over time. Now in terms of research, depending on soil type, we try to build a new viticulture using those varieties in no need of pesticides, combined with new architectures and soil management techniques including grass cover and drip irrigation.
So you believe science can ultimately overcome traditional barriers to innovation ?
AC Yes. I have worked in viticulture for 40 years and this is the first time, in France at least, that I have noticed a strong demand from growers to be able to plant new hybrids and to experiment.
What are the greatest risks with a move from Domaine de Vassal to a new location ?
AC Time and money. In our vineyard on the campus we have over 300 Vitis vinefera varieties. And they were transferred from Vassal. So we do have experience in the transfer of at least a part of the collection. Sometimes there are some mistakes. And sometime we fail. But it is a matter of time and means. And with a relocation, here is an great opportunity to check on the sanitary health of each plant. Indeed, at Vassal a full 50% of the plants are not fully ’safe’. I do hope INRA will provide enough funding to make this operation a success. It will take a minimum of 10 years, I believe. Ten hectares are waiting at Pech Rouge.
So relocation will require grafting. Does grafting change the character of finished wines ? Does it alter the vinifera variety in any way ?
AC Grafting on a resistant rootstock may change a vine’s general vigor, its fertility and and milieu; for sure you will change something in terms of maturity. But with respect to changing the flavor profile of the wine itself, I don’t think so. The problem is not that of the grafted vine; the problem is the non-grafted vine because it is not representative of a normal adaptation in a vineyard. Even if there is no phylloxera. Take Riesling, for example, which on its own rootstock is not fertile, it does not develop very well. But if you graft it on to a rootstock then it has good fertility and so on. So if you want to extrapolate the results from the collection to the practice, then you must be as close as possible to the practical conditions. For us the collection is not only the preservation of genes, it is also a tool for studying adaptation to a particular terroir.
Are you a little disappointed than you have now retired ? there seems to be so much going on !
AC Yes! This is the reason I am still working. In fact, we have begun experimental plantings in our vineyard in Pech Rouge to discover more about sustainable models for viticulture. These vines are only two years old, so I will be involved for some years.
Do you have your own personal vineyard ?
AC Yes, but it is very, very small. It is just for the weekends. I am very pleased to practice viticulture because it is important for a teacher to appreciate directly what are the problems in the field. Now, for example, I can say that due to climate change we can control the vineyard by using only four or five pesticide applications per year. Because I am doing just that !
Returning to Vassal for a moment, how long has this question of relocating been in the air ?
AC Thirty years. I was personally convinced 10 years ago that it was necessary to relocate, and for many reasons. But this operation is so huge that people prefer to ignore it. I think that the INRA in Paris was dreaming that some new in-vitro techniques would replace a field collection. But realistically, we are not preserving genes; we are preserving plants. It is not the same. Now everybody agrees on that. And I do hope that we can give to this exceptional collection the safe and secure environment it needs and deserves, and for a very long time. This is not the case at Vassal. Apart from problems with the owners, the land rental, competition with tourism, the main problem is one of salt water intrusion into the underground aquifer, which is an invisible effect of climate change. That is the basic problem with Vassal: salinity.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of resistance to the move. A petition was recently circulated…
AC Personally, I think it is a mistake. But I understand my colleagues: they are afraid of losing this tool. This is the reaction. But in fact, this petition is counter-productive. This is my opinion. It is a question of sufficient technicians and money. It would have been better to have begun this 10 years ago. We had money then. But in the current economy, I hope we can do it. We must be optimistic! The positive effect of the petition is to give some consciousness to the hierarchy that this is really important to many, many people.
We began this conversation by touching on your poetry. Do you plan to publish ?
AC Well, after last Saturday’s poems I read to students and our new director, they were very pleased with them. So now I am quite obliged to publish! Perhaps I will write a poem on ampelography . It could be a good way to interest people to change varieties, to explore diversity… because, like poetry, wine is part of culture. Yes, it could be important for human health, but above all it is part of culture. I have some really good open-minded Muslim friends in Turkey. They are now producing very good wines. And I help them. I have just written an article on an old variety, Papazkarasi, and they are very enthusiastic about this grape. Wine culture can improve the relations between men. This is the most exciting part of our work.
Thank you, Professor Carbonneau.
AC You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance.
Upon my arrival at Domaine de Vassal, the 27 hectares of vineyards and research station located on the sands of the seaside town of Marseillan, France, I was politely asked to refrain from asking questions about the spirited controversy surrounding the highly probable relocation of its treasure trove of vines to Pech Rouge. The reason was simple. Too many rumors and incomplete, distorted reportage had already entered the public sphere as truth. Besides, as our guide Blaise Genna, the Director of the research station, gently explained, the important decisions will ultimately be made in Paris, from within the Ministry of Agriculture. All else is speculation, however earnest. Fortunately, I had not come to harvest inside information or to research an exposé; instead, my purpose was to understand Domaine de Vassal’s mission, methods and practices put in place by its supervising authority, the National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRA). More, for Blaise Genna, working at Domaine de Vassal since 2009 is the realization of a childhood dream. So for me here was the perfect opportunity to learn what it is Domaine de Vassal actually does.
First a bit of history, a brief summation of Domain de Vassal’s formation gleaned from diverse sources. Phylloxera was introduced to Europe in 1863. A tiny aphid was secreted under protective cover in the wood and roots of botanical samples of American vines brought into England from the Eastern United States. The consequent devastation of English vineyards was soon followed by those of France. Some estimates put a total loss of vineyards in France as high as 90%. Those lost to this single malady were exclusively Vitis Vinifera vines. At the time there was no understanding of the mechanism, agency, or source of the infection. However, it was noted that plantings of American vines were largely immune. Hence, as wine made from dying Vitis vinifera varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc, – disappeared, there were broadly speaking two responses: The founding in 1876 of the first Vitis vinifera collection – essentially a rescue mission – under the auspices of the School of Agriculture in Montpellier; and secondly, the rapid propagation of hybrids, the crossing of what was left of European grape varieties with American vines. And these hybrids were wildly successful, for these new vines, planted in 1000s of hectares across France, offered both a general immunity to Phylloxera and an abundant grape crop. So while research went apace to find a solution to an epidemic threatening V. vinifera with extinction, countless small growers rushed to plant hybrids and to make wine from them.
After years of research at Montpellier’s School of Agriculture and elsewhere, the tiny sap-sucking culprit was discovered, its complex life cycle understood, and a solution found. Unlike inhospitable non-Vitis vinefera native American varieties, the aphid lived a comfortable life in the roots and wood of V. vinifera as they destroyed them. The solution was to graft V. vinefera scions onto one species or another of American rootstock. By this historical path was the core, approximately 10%, of Domaine de Vassal’s current collection created; for in 1949, now under INRA’s jurisdiction, all of the vines were transferred from the Montpellier site to the sandy soils of Marseillan. Why sand ? Because the aphid responsible for Phylloxera cannot live in sand, neither can another aggressive disease vector, the nematode.
Parenthetically, now that the V. vinifera-based wine industry was on its way to recovery, in 1935 the French Government banned the sale of hybrid grape wines (with a few exceptions, Baco Blanc, for example, used in the production of Armagnac). The reasons are too complex to explain here, but among them involved tax collection, over-production and the discovery of trace amounts of methanol in the wines of some hybrids. Banned vines included Clinton, Jacquez, Isabella, Lenoir, Noah and Herbemont. History lesson done, we now turn to the current state of affairs.
Domaine de Vassal’s official title is Domaine de Vassal Experimental Unit, Grapevine Genetic Resource Center. It is the world’s most expansive and deepest collection of grape genetic resources, with 1000s of Vitis vinifera varieties and clones, 200 V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris (wild grape varieties such as V. ambrosia, V. riparia, and V. aestivalis), 480 rootstocks, 1100 intersp. hybrids, gathered from 50 countries. According to INRA’s charter, Domaine de Vassal’s mission is threefold:
1) The conservation and management of the genetic resources of the Vitis vinifera grapevine, including clones, but also hybrids, rootstocks and table grapes
2) The study and characterization (or extrapolation) of the genetic resources of these grapes
3) The valorization of grapevine genetic resources
Conservation and Management
Domaine de Vassal accepts grapevines from virtually any source. Both domestic and international contributions are welcomed. From winegrowers and research centers to the gardener with a curious vine snaking up a wall, no contribution is refused. Of course, quarantine protocols must be followed. Currently they average some 79 new arrivals per year. But that figure obscures an important fact: since the elaboration of the grapevine genome in 2007, Domaine de Vassal has experienced a doubling of annual contributions to its collection. Indeed, occasionally they are surprised at a received vine, Mr. Genna explained, that turns out to be an old forgotten variety not yet in their data base. Once a vine has been accepted, has passed through quarantine, if it turns out to be a duplicate it will be discarded or given to another institution. If a question remains as to its identity, it will be planted and observed over a series of years to see how it expresses itself.
In addition to the exchange of grapevine resources and information with an extensive domestic and international network of universities, research institutions and winegrowers, Domaine de Vassal also plays an active role in acquisitions. When they are alerted to the existence of an ancient vineyard (85 to 100 plus years old) by local partners, properly trained staff will travel and search the vineyard for the rare survivor. Thankfully, years ago growers were not so rigorous in their choice of plantings. Mixtures would and did occur. Hence, treasures remain to be found in these old vineyards. Sadly, owing to their age and the grubbing up of them for plantings of more popular varieties, scientists estimate that these reservoirs of grapevine diversity will likely disappear in 10 to 15 years. So the heat is on to find them before simple economics consign the remaining rare and unusual varieties to extinction.
Apart from Vassal’s vineyards themselves, they have greenhouses dedicated to nursing diseased vines to health, to growing replacement vines, the propagation of experimental commercial varieties, and on-site cryopreservation of pips and pollen under Nitrogen. (Mr. Genna said that preserving buds is not yet working as well as desired.)
The Characterization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
This is the primary directive of the three technicians at Vassal, Thierry Lacombe, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, and P. This. In this capacity, a full description and identification of each and every vine is required. I was told one hundred and fifty criteria are used. And every criteria is studied 5 times (for confirmation). Berry size, for example, varies from year to year, so five measurements are made from which is extracted the average. All records keeping is done by hand. Indeed, each variety has its own folder wherein leaf samples are saved (when possible), and grape bunches, flowers, leaves and individual berries are photographically recorded. (The photo example is from 1966.) The contents of the folder are very fragile and only one copy exists, hence the dossiers are in the process of being digitalized for broader sharing. About half of the archive has now been so preserved. Importantly, all files are openly available to the public, to winemakers, researchers, universities, students and journalists. And yes, they have fire alarms and fire-resistant doors.
Drilling even deeper, beyond the scope of traditional Ampelography, genetic relationships among and between grapevines are explored and mapped, of course with the assistance of networked institutions. Genetic research also extends into locating disease resistance markers. Equally important is Domaine de Vassal’s micro-vinification program. Agriculturally promising varieties, those showing climate change flexibility, disease resistance, drought tolerance, lower alcohol levels, or possessing potentially desirable flavor profiles, are harvested each Autumn and small quantities of wine are made from them. Hundreds of such micro-vinifications are done each year. It must be remembered, Mr. Genna explains, that the INRA, through its many stations, Domaine de Vassal prominent among them, exists at the service of the wine industry writ large, which is to say, the maintenance of its wealth of diversity and health of this commercial sector.
An interesting aside during our discussion was the question of just who gets to decide which grape varieties are grown in France ? Theoretically, anybody can put in a request to grow any variety, say for example, one discovered in Australia. Though I suspect the process is far more burdensome in a country famous for its bureaucracy, the short answer is that you would make a formal request to the Ministry of Agriculture which would, in turn ask the INRA to grow parcels of that variety in several regions to determine whether it is safe and feasible. Such experimental plantations must follow official protocols which includes not selling any wine made of the grape. After 4 or 5 years of official observation, if everything checks out, then you’re allowed to commercialize the vine and sell wines made of it. For those interested in which grape varieties are permitted to be grown in France, check out the official book Catalogue des Varietes et Clones de Vigne Cultives en France or visit this extremely valuable resource from INRA partner Pl@nt Grape.
The Valorization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
A recent story I wrote about Domaine Henry perfectly illustrates this last aspect of INRA’s mission at by Domaine de Vassal. In that story winemaker François Henry recounts that the necessary historical grapevines for his project could not be found in any nursery, so they turned to Domaine de Vassal. Years of patient research, development, and propagation paid off with the successful planting of a vineyard, largely because of Domaine de Vassal’s openly available resources. Indeed, according to Vassal’s figures, approximately 530 varieties are given out each year to researchers, students, amateurs, associations, teaching bodies, and yes, winegrowers such as Mr. Henry. Roughly 3/4 of the requests come from French petitioners and the balance to international destinations, to the Americas, South Africa, China, Europe etc.
Are you a winemaker tired of growing run-of-the-mill Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon ? Perhaps you are in search of commercial distinction and want an unusual, forgotten, or rare variety, but find local nurseries lacking. Then Domaine de Vassal is the place to turn. More, apart from its formal holdings, the INRA has created 30 new grape varieties at Domaine de Vassal over its 65 years of existence. And others are in development. These include 15 white and black table grapes varieties (three without seeds) and 10 new wine grape varieties: Chasan, Clarin and Aranel for white; Caladoc, Marselan, Chenanson, Portan, Ganson, Gramon, Monerac, and Ségalin for red. All but for Clarin may be found in the magisterial Wine Grapes by J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz.
But the process is laborious. Take Marselan, for example. An homage to the commune of Marseillan, this Cabernet and Grenache cross was initially bred in 1961 as an initiative to improve the reputation and image of wines from the Languedoc. But it was not commercially available until 1991, 30 years later ! In November of 2007, Marselan was at last accepted into the catalogue of official grapes for making Pay d’Oc wines. Then in 2011 it was permitted to be a variety in the Côtes du Rhone AOP.
In the Vineyards
After departing the conference room, we visited the on-site winery where the micro-vinications take place, the complementary wine library, and we saw abundant donated canes stored in the refrigeration unit; and after a brief tour of the greenhouse ‘hospital’ where they struggle to bring diseased vines back to health, we went for a leisurely walk in the vineyards, void of vegetation for it is winter.
Mr. Genna explained that most of the vines are not planted to produce wines but to preserve examples of them. Only 0.5 per cent of the vines are grafted. The bulk of the collection is not grafted because they didn’t have to; they are grown on sand. But if one day they had to grow a vine, or a farmer wanted to grow a certain vine, on soils other than sand, then they would have to graft. Mr Genna insisted grafting would change nothing, not the morphology, flavor, or vigor. This was a distinct echo of the unspoken controversy surrounding the likely move of the vineyards to INRA’s Experimental Unit at Pech Rouge where, with due deference to predicted rising sea levels, the vines would not be planted in sands near the Mediterranean but on higher ground, here in limestone soils.
Mr. Genna added that if the collection does move, contrary to what has been reported, nothing will be lost, not a single vine grape variety, clone, hybrid, or rootstock. INRA protocols require that before a given vine can be grubbed up at Domaine de Vassal, the successful planting of that same vine will have to be confirmed at the new site. A project of this magnitude would take, he believes, at least 10 years.
“We know what we are doing”, Mr. Genna insists. And by ‘we’ he does not mean only the 10 people currently on staff at Domaine de Vassal. He also means the extensive community of dedicated people discussed above: the institutional networks of researchers, viticulturists, geneticists, agriculturists, winegrowers, professional and amateur ampelographers, nurserymen and women, and university students. All of these partners, both international and domestic, will keep alive and thriving the cultural and natural treasure that are the vineyards of Domaine de Vassal.
And I believe him.
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her invaluable assistance.
François Henry has a playful, inquisitive mind, industrious and driven. Couple this with a passion for Biology, Geology and History, often seen as rather dry sciences, and you have a foundation for creative cultural expression. During my recent visit to Domaine Henry in the small town of Saint Georges d’Orques outside of Montpellier, France, François revealed particularly vivid moments from his youth that have informed his intellectual development.
As a child of 7 he recalls a task given to him by his father, Jean; he was to descend to the family cellar beneath the house and fetch wine for the evening’s dinner. In near-darkness, down the steps he would go. Standing before a locked wooden door, the child reached up for a key hanging high. Through the door he passed, and through spider webs brushing across his face, reminding him that he was not alone. He then came to a second door beyond which sat barrels of wine. The boy then would fill a bottle. Asked why he did not take a candle or flashlight, François explained it was because he wanted to prove that he was a “brave little man”.
Flash forward a few years to the work he would do on holidays for pocket money. Though he had no interest in wine then – indeed, it was only the occasional Sunday meal, he recalled, when he would ask and be given small watered-down glass – François enjoyed working the family vineyards, first picking up pruning debris, then, when older, raking around the vines. Driving the family tractor would come later. The telling detail in this is the satisfaction he felt at earning his pocket money.
Another instructive story he told concerned what was hidden in the very ground beneath his feet. His father and grandfather told the story that while grubbing up a vineyard years earlier near Tressan, that they uncovered mysterious bones and skulls, all of which were subsequently reinterred. Just where was not revealed until François one day asked his father to show him the very field. Soon after, François could be found on Thursdays, then a weekly school holiday, out in this field with shovel and rake poking around in the dirt. And then one day it happened. Eureka! The young man, too, found bones and skulls. Though an anthropologist invited to examine the remains would determine them to be of limited historical importance, it was added that François had likely stumbled upon a Visigoth graveyard from the 4th Century. Among other fragments, he had found a figure buried face down, therefore likely a criminal according to the rituals of the time, and a crypt of a child. All the remains were promptly reburied but for a shard of painted pottery François kept for himself.
Though François Henry told many other stories during our extended visit, it is through these three pivotal memories from youth that I believe we can see a solid outline of the man and the winegrower he has now become. Indeed, wine growing would come later for him when, after a year’s college study of mixed success, his father invited him back home to realize a dream: to bottle their own family wine. And in 1977 they did, besting neighbor Chateau de L’Engarran by a year, a small family victory François still takes pride in having achieved.
But a formal wine-making education still eluded François, now in his 20’s. This was made extremely clear when his father, Jean, asked that he take a break from working the vineyard and to instead market their wines in Paris. He successfully sold to a few social clubs, but during tasting events found himself quizzed by the far more knowledgable Parisians as to the making of the wine, the grapes, on the technical aspects of vinification, questions he could not always answer. So began a period of focused self-education. Over time he visited numerous wineries both in his spare time and when driving the 10 hours to Paris and the 10 hours back. Alsace, the Loire, Burgundy, these regions and others he toured extensively, meeting with winemakers, who were then, in the late 1970’s, less celerities than salt-of-the-earth farmers. This he supplemented with reading, cover to cover (”A to Z”, as he put it) as many wine books as he could find, the first of which was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, published in 1967.
And so it was, step by step, that François Henry would eventually combine his industriousness, marketing skills, his creativity and intellectual acumen, into the founding, along with his energetic wife, Laurence, of their own Domaine Henry in Saint Georges d’Orques. This was in 1992. The town and location of the winery and vineyards were chosen not only with terroir in mind, but also because he discovered during historical research very significant praise of the high quality of the wines of Saint George d’Orques described in a 1787 travel and touring notebook kept by then-US Ambassador (and budding wine enthusiast) Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, 20 years later, in 1807, Jefferson, now President of the United States, again specifically mentions by name the quality of Saint Georges d’Orques wines and requested the relaxation of import taxes on them. (It is important to point out one detail. Wine was a less favored drink than hard liquor in those days, since so little of it commonly available was of particular quality or note. So part of Jefferson’s over-arching plan was to introduce finer wines to the American public as a way to combat the excessive abuse of higher alcohol drink. See T. Pinney, A History of Wine In America vol. 1)
The question for François then became what to do with this Jeffersonian heritage? The third President and principle author of the Declaration of Independence had visited many places and drank widely, after all. And Saint Georges d’Orques wines had maintained considerable fame since the Middle Ages to Jefferson’s time. Yet merely trading upon a place name would be of little consequence, a footnote, which is what it had largely become until François Henry hit upon what is in my view, a brilliant idea: What if you were to return to Jefferson’s era, to the time of his visit in southern France, by crafting a wine in the historical style of the period, and with the grapes then in common use? In other words, he asked whether it was possible to recreate a version of a Saint Georges d’Orques wine that Thomas Jefferson himself might have tasted. After extensive research in the historical archive, François and Laurence made another remarkable discovery, the names of the grape varieties which are said to have been widely grown for hundreds of years but have now almost entirely disappeared from the region, certainly as economically viable varieties: Aspirin noir and gris, noire and grise Oeillade, noir and gris Terret, Ribeyrenc and Morrastel.
Now, according to the magisterial text Wine Grapes, Ribeyrenc (spelled Rivairenc in the literature) is said to be “[a]ncient, once widespread, nearly extinct southern French vine. Better known as Aspiran Noir.” Oeillade Noire in the literature is described as “[d]isappearing, dark-skinned, southern French variety more popular as a table grape.” As for the tangle of names, the regional synonyms, and exhaustive DNA analysis, we can do little but trot out the old cliché, “More work needs to be done”. But as a practical matter, for Domaine Henry to realize the ambition of recreating a Jefferson-era wine, how could they possibly proceed, how to find the historically correct varieties? Enter the Institut national de la recherché agronomique (INRA) and their extensive holdings of Mediterranean grape varieties at Domain de Vassal. So from 1993 to 1998, François and Laurent painstakingly worked with the technicians at that facility, and in 1998 they successfully planted a mixed vineyard of these varieties.
The result is a blended wine called Le Mailhol (pronounced May-yol, from the ancient Oc language meaning ‘youthful or young vine’.) Buy it if you can. Domaine Henry is to be celebrated for not only resurrecting disappearing varieties – a matter close to my heart – but also for paying attention and respecting the winemaking history of the Languedoc. By no means is Le Mailhol an overly significant percentage of Domaine Henry’s income. The wine is not made every year. And the balance of Domaine Henry’s bottlings are made predominately of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, international varieties all. Still they have taken a financial risk to realize this grand historical experiment. My hat is off to them.
As to how the wine tastes, I was generously given a bottle of the 2009 vintage. I will supplement this post with tasting notes when I open the bottle on a very special occasion.
Thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance in the writing of this post.
From Frank Gehry’s futuristic design of Marqués de Riscal’s headquarters in Elciego, Zaha Hadid’s tasting pavilion at Bodegas López de Heredia in Haro, to Santiago Calatrava’s controversial rolling waves of Bodegas Ysios‘ winery outside of Laguardia and Aspiazu’s glass palace, Bodegas Baigorri, in Samaniego, and so many more extraordinary structures thru-out La Rioja, it is easy to overlook a regional treasure, a tradition dating back nearly as far as the vine’s first planting; and by ‘overlook’, I am being quite literal. For beneath the many towns and villages in Rioja, are hundreds of connected wine caves carved, chiseled, and hammered out of bare rock. Ollauri, Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, Rodezno, Elciego, Lapuebla, Samaniego, Laguardia, Cenicero and Ábalos, and the city of Logroño are a few places where these may be seen. But it was the subterranean honeycombed maze of a winery in the village of San Asencio I visited that left me breathless: Bodegas Lecea.
But before I go any further, here’s a brief history lesson courtesy of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s gloss on La Rioja,
The property being proposed for inclusion in the World Heritage list corresponds to a geographical and cultural unit within the Spanish Wine Protected Designation of Origin Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja (D.O.Ca. Rioja). Rioja is one of the world’s great wines, a position it has achieved not only thanks to its unarguable quality but also because of its exceptionally long historical and cultural background. The property covers 603 square kilometers and the buffer zone 554 square kilometers. The proposed area corresponds to the northwestern part of the Wine Region and extends along both sides of the River Ebro, affecting the two sub-areas of the D.O.: Rioja and Rioja Alavesa. This is the most representative part of the Wine Region and the one that has developed without interruption since the early Middle Ages, with signs that this process might date back to Roman times. It features an exceptional cultural landscape, the result of human efforts to adapt to their environment and the development of a culture strongly associated with the world of wine which goes back to 2,000 years.
And among the most impressive performances of these (under-stated) “human efforts to adapt to their environment” are the wine caves themselves. Again from the UNESCO document:
The most traditional system of wineries was the cellars excavated underground in a variety of different models. Excavation methods were used according to different circumstances, leading to different types of cellars: those that were excavated horizontally; cases where it was necessary to dig deep so the calado (the name given to the excavated space within the winery used for storage) would be at a sufficiently low level, and others where the cellars were located underneath the buildings.
We have no precise information as to when these cellars started to be built. There have been documentary references to the cellars since the 10th century [....]
However, the original purpose of the caves, their inspiration, was not the storage and fermentation of wine. Indeed, according to one knowledgeable source,
“These subterranean caves were dug most likely for defensive use, during the period of constant battles between the feuding kingdoms of Navarra and Castilla. Centuries later they came into use as places where wine could be produced and stored. In olden times the cellars were inter-connecting so that during sieges the villagers could go underground, survive for months and plot their counter attacks.”
New to the region, my knowledge of the caves marginal, this last October I was to learn that the first sign of the existence of the caves were the many chimneys, what are called tuferas, jutting in loose formation from a raised surface on the ground, often framed by well-placed stones. These were a cellar’s (calado) ventilation system, essentially for highly toxic carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of wine fermentation. Indeed, as in California, cellar workers perish here too after only a brief exposure, a minute or two of unguarded inhalation of the gas. But also there arose from them the sweet aroma of recently harvested grapes now a few days into fermentation. The village of San Asencio was redolent with the heavy perfume of a successful vintage.
Along with a colleague, we parked and approached the Lecea winery unannounced. Regrettably, Luis Alberto Lecea, the principle winemaker and recently minted D.O. Ca. President, Luis Alberto Lecea, was not present. (I had recently met him at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Logroño.) But his son, Jorge, was. As was Luis Alberto’s father, Rufino. And the two of them generously gave of their time to take us deep into La Rioja’s history, their history.
Winemakers for the local collective for 5 generations, Rufino Blanco Lecea decided in the 1980’s to begin bottling and marketing Bodegas Lecea wines under their own label. In the 90’s, his son, Luis Alberto, was to follow in his footsteps; and now Luis Alberto’s son, Jorge, our buoyant guide, all of 25 years old, is taking on ever-greater responsibilities since beginning work here one year ago. An economics student, he is poised to one day helm the family business. Jorge’s English is quite good, and so after a perfunctory walk through the surface winery, passed the modern tanks, bright machinery and modest tasting area, we descended deep into the caves directly beneath, caves excavated 300 years before.
Fermentation was well-enough along, though the ventilation fans, evacuating CO2 to the surface, continued to hum. Jorge was to tell us that in the first days of fermentation, the caves are not a place anyone dares go. Just as easily as a flame is extinguished, so may a man’s life. Though the day was cool, after a decent of maybe fifteen narrow steps illuminated by soft orange tungsten light, the temperature began to drop, clearly highlighting why in this hot region subterranean wine storage is a fine, economical idea. At a turn in the staircase, to our right was a long, dimly-lit passage crowded with a few wine barrels and massive ochre-tinted cement tanks built in situ. And to the left, down another 15 steps, we entered an excavated room – our first stop – a room arranged to illustrate to visitors the broad themes of this former way of life in Rioja.
Jorge showed us a perfectly preserved pig skin used in the old days to transport wine to markets, bars, to the local collective, or to more established and moneyed wineries for bottling and hence wider distribution. Also in the room was a vintage oak barrel, here originally American oak, but occasionally Chestnut may be found. Nowadays, with modernization, French oak dominates. A tiled floor was a surprise, but traditionalist Luis Alberto has long championed the restoration of San Asenio’s wine caves, 350 by one authority, many of which have fallen to ruin and decay.
We were soon joined for the balance of our tour by Jorge’s visionary grandfather, Rufino. For a man of his many years, climbing and descending flights of stairs posed no problem for him!
From this room we walked down a long corridor, passed a walled-up alcove with stairs that once was a passage to another series of caves, one meter beyond, now in private hands. And beyond those caves yet still more caves could have been navigated in former times. We stopped at one concrete tank after another, each with a capacity for around 6,000 liters, for tastes of Bodegas Lecea’s crianza and two reserva wines, one with and one without oak influence, all Tempranillo. After a specified length of time in these tanks, they are then bottled for market.
And with a friendly chinking of our glasses, we were led back above ground to witness another aspect of the traditional wine-making process for which I personally have great affection: the lago (nearly identical to the Portuguese lagar). For Bodegas Lecea was preparing for a celebration the next week (November 2&3), the Fiesta del Pisado de la Uva during which friends, family, clients, townspeople, and wine tourists from around the world lucky enough to stumble in on these days, are invited to climb inside and crush the (Tempranillo) grapes underfoot. Not all of the more than 1000 people likely to attend may be so rewarded, but many are. Although only a small percentage of their production is done this way, Jorge revealed that Bodegas Lecea is the only winery left in all of Rioja who still practices this tradition even on so small a scale, a practice, Jorge told us, which ended over 20 years ago. Now it is all machines.
Ever vigilant, again the recurring theme of the clear and present danger of CO2 levels in the subterranean caves – and even in the lago – was brought home; Rufino and Jorge demonstrated this by striking a lighter and lowering it ever-closer to the fermenting grapes. Inches above the surface, the flame went out. The concentration of CO2 is a very real threat to working within these structures. And I can well imagine within living memory, a history of loss exists side-by-side with what is otherwise a wonderfully colorful tradition.
Suitably chastened, thrilled, and enlightened, my colleague and I took leave of Jorge, Rufino, and Bodegas Lecea. Should you ever have a chance to visit, do not hesitate. Whether the architectural palaces dedicated to Rioja’s wonderful wines will endure is a question we need not ask of the this subterranean world of caves. From the 10th century until now, 500 years of which were the caves were used as wine cellars, they remain with us. And the wider wine world is far better for it.
Great thanks to Jorge and Rufino Lecea for giving generously of their time.
Please friend them up on Facebook: Bodegas Lecea
Ken Payton, Admin
For further reading on Luis Alberto Lecea, please see this.
ViniSud is the world’s leading international trade fair tasked with the promotion of Mediterranean wines. On February 24, 25, and 26, 2014, hundreds of winery owners and their representatives from Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, to name only a few nations, will gather and mingle with thousands of buyers, importers, distributors, even sommeliers, at the Parc des Expositions just outside the beautiful city of Montpellier, France. Indeed, as was stated on the ViniSud website of 2012’s event, their 10th anniversary:
“Professionals have attended in great numbers over the 3 days and the initial feedback is exceptionally positive from producers, who are announcing that they have signed deals and done business. The visitor flows were well distributed in all the halls thanks to the exhibition having two entrances open this year, at the North and South reception areas. All those who participated are of the opinion that VINISUD 2012 has been a great success.”
At ViniSud 2012 it is said there were nearly 1,700 exhibitors and over 32,000 visitors over the three days. And I was fortunate to have attended as a US wine blogger Ambassador, part of what ViniSud called a Digital Seachange, an initiative centered on the increasing importance and utility of social media.
Then in the winter of 2013 ViniSud launched ViniSud Asia in Shanghai, their first trade fair aimed at the growing wine and spirits market in that region. From a press release at the time,
“VINISUD will be the 1st International trade show of Wines and Spirit to settle down in Shanghai, strengthened by its concept of conviviality, and its Mediterranean lifestyle, carrier and attractive concept, the wine professionals approve by a large majority in more than 90 % specialized shows with 100 % of wine offer, in mainland China.”
Successfully pulling off these events requires a team of organizing specialists, of course; but you also need an individual of unique skill and ambition, of energy and marketing savvy, at the helm. And ViniSud’s Board of Directors unanimously chose, in 2012, Fabrice Rieu as their President. I caught up with this very busy gentleman who generously granted this interview.
Ken Payton As ViniSud’s new president, how was your experience at ViniSud Asia in February 2013? Do you feel progress was made in opening up Asian markets?
Fabrice Rieu The experience of ViniSud Asia in 2013 confirmed our view that the Chinese market offers formidable potential both in terms of quality and of visitor numbers. Unlike previous experiences of trade fairs where some buyers displayed a lack of professionalism, this exhibition demonstrated to the Chinese buyers – a huge diversity of wines, the fact that Mediterranean wines are offered in all price segments and finally that the Mediterranean probably offers the finest selection of wines in terms of value for money and enjoyment. New markets have been identified, including types of wines frequently unknown in Asia such as rosés and naturally sweet wines.
How will the presentation of ViniSud 2014 in Montpellier, France differ from the Shanghai event? I am thinking of the differences between European and Asian business models and consumer tastes and concerns.
FR Even though the fairs have a similar profile as this is the most impressive gathering of Mediterranean wine producers, the approach is totally different and yet perfectly complementary. The launch in Shanghai is targeted at forging closer links with a new market; producers are making the effort to travel in numbers, leaving their vineyards far behind in order to go and meet buyers. In Montpellier, it is the buyers who travel en masse, often very long distances. Bringing them to the heart of the Mediterranean vineyards adds a wine tourism dimension and gives them a better understanding of these wines’ particular characteristics.
What proved to be among the most important selling points for Mediterranean wines and spirits in Shanghai? Was it quality and price point? The dependability of Mediterranean producers? Or the encounter by Asian consumers with wine regions and flavors perhaps less well known to them?
FR Several factors weigh in favor of the Mediterranean wines: the distinctive climate and vineyards dating back a long way result in the production of wines that are ultra-smooth, with no hard edges, ideally suited to the palates of novice wine consumers. And as a large proportion of these wines offer highly attractive value for money/enjoyment, they are certain to make major inroads in terms of sales on the Asian market.
Does the Asian buyer consider sustainably grown grapes and organic wines, proud features of Mediterranean wines, to be important distinctions when choosing a wine?
FR It seems to me that the priority for Asia buyers is to select wines that are to their taste and whose price seems reasonable to them. These are the criteria that matter most to them, and Mediterranean wines are ideally placed in this respect.
Turning to Europe, for ViniSud 2012 what was then called the Digital Sea Change was a central theme. The importance of the internet, of social media, not only for wine and spirits sales but also for consumer education, was well recognized. For ViniSud 2014 this February, what programs or initiatives do you intend to launch to build on the success of this theme?
FR Supported by the specialist wine agency, Sowine, the 2014 exhibition plans to continue its focus on developing digital communications: a dedicated hub for bloggers comparing the viewpoints of influential bloggers, coordination strategies of the various communities on social media networks, web TV and a dedicated communications area at the exhibition – to turn it into an international scale digital sounding board.
“Blogger ambassadors” from every corner of the world will also be attending, symbolic of the event’s international dimension; and this year once again, Sowine will lead a series of workshops and talks on the convergence of web and wine.
With this strategy proving successful in 2012 and 2013 at ViniSud Asia, the focus in 2014 will be on even greater ambition and innovation! The newly revamped bloggers’ hub now clearly reflects its ambitions.
Having been an American Ambassador to ViniSud 2012, a role I particularly enjoyed, what I learned continues to inform my writing. Will there be an international Ambassador program again this year?
FR Because of ViniSud’s international character and progressive opening up to export markets, in particular North America and Asia, it is vital to have an Ambassador. Their name will be revealed in the near future…
Do you believe wine and spirits bloggers have a fundamental role to play in promotion and consumer education?
?FR Bloggers today have an essential role to play as they wield immense power of suggestion. They are capable of conveying their impressions through the written word, whereas they are clearly not in a position to enable consumers to sample wines over the internet. And yet, there is a huge need to understand the wine sector.
What do you see as the most important advantages brought to the wine industry and the consumer in the Digital Age?
FR Speed in terms of disseminating information, the ability to reach out to consumers in the world’s most distant locations and establish links between all those with an interest in the wine world.
In your understanding, how does Asia differ from Europe and America in its use of the internet for wine and spirits sales?
FR In Asia, there is an even greater need for explanation as to the origins of wines, how they are produced, their specific taste characteristics and factors that may explain their price, background, awards received and so on… the basic difference lies in the fact that Europeans and Americans have unquestionably a more extensive knowledge base for wines, not least because they have been producing it for much longer. Asian people require infinitely more information and need a basis for comparison.
Lastly, how are the exhibitor figures for ViniSud 2014 shaping up? Do you anticipate increased international participation over ViniSud 2012?
FR Exhibitors have registered faster than for previous events, probably because they consider that in today’s world this is both an event and a business opportunity not to be missed.
Thank you very much for your time.
FR You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Catherine Bourguignon for her assistance.
The largest organic wine trade fair in the world, Millésime Bio (MB), is gearing up for its 21st annual show in January, 2014. First launched in 1993 by a handful of visionary organic winemakers from the Languedoc/Roussillon region of southern France, the number of participating wineries has steadily swelled to nearly 700 by 2013, more than double that of 2008. Though originally a French affair, the annual event now boasts an international selection of wine producers from a 2012 high of 13 countries, including Egypt, South Africa, Chile, Germany, a surging Portugal, and the United States. In 2013 more than 3,000 visitors – importers, brokers and wine professionals in the main – passed through the maze of exhibitor tables in the Montpellier Exhibition Center just outside the city.
And it makes perfect sense for Montpellier, the capital of the Languedoc/Roussillon region, to host Millésime Bio. Blessed with a temperate climate, the region has the greatest acreage (and in conversion) of organic vines in all of France. Figures for 2011 put the total at nearly 50,000 acres (19,907 hectares) farmed by 1200 winegrowers. In France, though organic wine production has experienced steady if not stellar growth – from just under 30,000 ha (roughly 75,000 acres) in 2008 to over 60,000 ha (roughly 150,000 acres) in 2011 – that still represents only about 6.5% of all French vineyards. There is ample room to grow. Indeed, as highlighted in the press kit for MB 2013:
“Available data for 2010 indicates a total area of 218,000 ha of organic vineyards in the world, that is, 2.9% of the world’s vineyards. In Europe, organic vineyards represent 4.4% of the total vineyards and the cumulative area of the three major producers of organic grapes (Spain, France, Italy) represents 74% of the global organic vineyard area.
Countries with the highest ratios of organic vines are Austria, Italy, France, Spain, and finally Germany. This demonstrates that the development of organic viticulture is primarily the result of a will and not only a question of favourable climate conditions, as we hear too often.”
And it is not just wines that are on display at the Millésime Bio events. Special agricultural exhibits present and promote the Languedoc/Roussillon region but also the international organic movement as a whole. Apart from the now obvious environmental and health benefits of organic agriculture, from olive oils and fruits to bread and vegetables, we now know that big markets are at stake. For example, in 2010 the United States, the world’s largest consumer nation of organic food products, the organic sector was worth an estimated 26 billion dollars. [op. cit. Press Kit] Yet despite the tremendous success of the concept and practice of ‘organic’ here in the US, of the three MB events I’ve been fortunate enough to attend, only one American winery returns year after year: California’s own Frey Vineyards out of Mendocino. From their website:
“There is no great secret to making wine without sulfites, it has been done for 8,000 years. The methods are essentially the same as all other winemaking, minus the use of sulfites, an industrial synthetic additive. We take this approach because we know that quality fruit and careful attention during fermentation and aging are the only ingredients needed to make great organic wine. We never use yeast nutrients or genetically engineered yeast. Grapes grown in healthy, vital soils contain all the nutrition yeast will need to complete a clean and healthy fermentation.”
So the question arises: Why is it that only one American winery attends the world’s largest organic wine trade fair ? It is not as though the United States is short on wineries working vineyards under an organic regime. California alone has dozens (caveat: I have limited confidence in the linked list). There is Paul Dolan, Parducci, Barra, Bonterra, select bottlings from Sterling, DeLoach, Cline; many more. The list is long and distinguished. Then there is Oregon, Washington, Texas, New York… well, you get the idea. Very often what is organic is also biodynamic and occasionally what is called ‘natural’, which is to say that a wine labeled ‘Organic’ may fit additional (agri)cultural and market-boosting categories. If it is a question of the costs associated with participation in a trade show, I would ask that an American winery consider this: Every January at the Montpellier Exhibition Center, 1000s of wine professionals – buyers, distributors, importers, sommeliers, and the international wine press – pass through the doors of Millésime Bio. And the one American winery name they come away with year after year is Frey Vineyards.
At the very least, I would encourage representatives from prominent American AVAs with organic wineries within their borders to simply come visit the 2014 edition of Millésime Bio this January 27th, 28th, and 29th. Come meet, network and exchange ideas with your international colleagues. You’ve nothing to lose but your anonymity.
Admin, Ken Payton
Just 8 months ago the European Wine Bloggers Conference was welcomed with open arms by the Wines of Turkey and many of Turkey’s wine producers. Anchored in the beautiful sea-side city of Izmir, the conference was seen by the Turkish wine industry as a huge step forward into the digital age; the flood of participants from around the world, wine experts and educators, scholars and bloggers, virtually all internet savvy and eager to learn, would soon be broadcasting their culinary and cultural experiences to audiences around the world. Turkish wines especially, long deserving of greater international recognition, would receive a boost to their fortunes and find a proper place on our dinner tables.
This was the simple vision, the moment to be seized. Let the celebration of this country’s ancient wine traditions, grape diversity and the strength and energy of her food and wine culture commence.
And the Wines of Turkey, the key booster of this important sector of the Turkish economy, would also prosper.
“Based in Turkey, Wines of Turkey (WOT) is an umbrella organisation representing the Turkish wine sector. It is a strategic partnership between Turkey’s seven leading wineries, Doluca, Kavaklidere, Kayra, Kocabag, Pamukkale, Sevilen and Vinkara in an effort to develop the wine market, the wine culture in Turkey and to increase exports by making Wines of Turkey a generic brand associated with quality wine. However, what makes the Wines of Turkey unique is that wineries from across Turkey unite as a team when an important project falls on our lap.
For the 2012 EWBC, we will have more than 25 wineries join forces in order to highlight the diversity and quality of Turkish wines. Having attended the 2011 EWBC in Franciacorta Italy, Director of WOT, Taner Ogutoglu, is the force behind this united front, working diligently to ensure that EWBC participants not only experience a diversity of Turkish wines, but an authentic culinary and cultural experience. “
But what patient hands build, the stroke of a pen may cause to crumble. On June 10th, Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, signed into law a restrictive anti-alcohol bill which not only threatens to undermine the country’s emerging wine industry but to further add to the growing international suspicion of deepening anti-democratic, Islamist influence within the government of this proudly secular nation.
Coming on the heels of nation-wide civil unrest in reaction to what protesters see as governmental interference in Turkey’s social and democratic way of life, this new law restricting the sales, consumption, and advertising of alcohol can only but add fuel to the fires of social unrest.
The law’s provisions include:
— Forbidding the retail sale of alcohol between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m.
— Forbidding advertising campaigns, including sponsorships and festivals
— Forbidding the public promotion of alcohol brands and logos except within the producer’s facility.
— Requiring warning labels on all bottles stating the dangers of alcohol, similar to those found on packs of cigarettes
— Censorship of images of alcohol use on TV programs and in movies
And perhaps the most astonishing (and sinister) element of the new law, from Hurriyet Daily News, the last phrase of which is most worrying:
“Those who want to get licenses to sell alcohol from the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK) will be conditioned to get the license to open up a business from the municipality and then a tourism document from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Before granting a license the municipalities will get the opinion of the authorized law enforcement forces.” (emphasis added)
It does not take an expert in the sociology of governmental security services to understand that requiring the approval from law enforcement will likely become the principle political tool used to arrest the granting of new licenses. Indeed, another aspect of the new law is that “facilities are required to be located outside the perimeter of 100 meters of educational and religious centers.” (op. cit) Why 100 meters, god only knows. More, one wonders how rigorous will be the definition of ‘educational and religious centers’. How many students, how many penitents would be required to establish a ‘center’ ? “Get out your tape measure, officer.”
International response to the new restrictions on alcohol have been swift. Philip Blenkinsop of Reuters writes:
“The curbs on alcohol by the Islamist government have added to anger in Turkey, reflected in a current wave of protests in the country, against what people see as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s pursuit of an “Islamist” agenda that goes against the country’s secular constitution. [....]
A senior manager at a foreign alcoholic beverage company in Turkey, who requested anonymity, said the ban on advertising was the harshest measure as it limited the opportunity to market new products, necessary for expansion.”
And with respect to the violent police response to the protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, we have this from Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
“The duty of all of us, European Union Members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices. These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening.
Best practices include close attention to the needs and expectations of society, including that of groups that don’t feel represented by the Parliamentary majority. Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”
As of this writing, the CBC is reporting that Istanbul clashes extend into night.
“Riot police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets clashed into the early hours of Wednesday with defiant demonstrators occupying Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and its adjacent park, in the country’s most severe anti-government protests in decades.
The crisis has left Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looking vulnerable for the first time in his decade in government, and has threatened to tarnish the international image of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with a strongly secular tradition, a burgeoning economy and close ties with the United States.”
Turkey’s international image has already been tarnished, in my view. The only question is how far down this destructive path Prime Minister Erdogan is willing go.
For further reading please see:
Jefford on Monday: More Than Alcohol
Drinks companies, tourism industry criticize Turkey’s plan to curb alcohol sales
Is Turkey banning alcohol?
The EU must take action on Turkey
Admin, Ken Payton
Primarily a wine writer concerned with related scientific and cultural matters, I have tried on this blog to expand the conversation beyond the trivial ‘what did you drink last night’ sort. So during my many vineyard visits over the years, I have often taken note of the strengths and weaknesses of a winery’s environmental program. Whether a so-called ‘natural’, organic or industrial producer, their approach to viticulture has always been for me the single most important dimension of the art and practice of winegrowing. If we think for a moment about the contested concept of terroir, what is it, insofar as it may be found, but an expression of viticulture ? (This is one of the many reasons ‘natural’ wine holds no charm for me, for rarely are vineyards ever spoken of in any detail by its acolytes. The same is true of industrial producers, of course.) But does the hand of a winegrower also play a part in terroir ? Yes and no. Depends who you ask. Although the reflections to follow are not explicitly concerned with this question, I nevertheless believe it could benefit from a broader meditation on biodiversity.
The concept of ‘biodiversity’ has a rigorously complex and technical meaning. Made up of many interactive strands and levels, of species and ecosystem, the sum total of life forms in a biome, even the molecular, for the layperson – myself included – thinking biodiversity can appear best left to the specialist. The rest of us, we tend to shrug, “Let the scientists tease out the nuances and details; just tell us how dire is our situation.” Indeed, like so many urgent problems now facing us, from climate change to global food production, we often seem passive observers of not only the agricultural sciences, but of the implacable unspooling of Earth’s natural regulative systems at the hands of powerful industries.
Yet we have hands, too. And mouths. As first world consumers, we collectively bear much of the responsibility for the over-exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, from our gluttonous appetite for fish and petroleum products, to water diversion schemes and hardwood patio furniture. Hardly passive at all, we are a fundamental cause of our multiple environmental predicaments, especially our populations concentrated in cities historically conceived and built as fortifications against the natural world. And of biodiversity ? Witness the homeowner policing his sidewalk and driveway with a spray bottle of Round-Up.
Except perhaps for the more recent emergence of the subject of climate change, all of the above could have been written 30-40 years ago. Here in the United States we’ve long ago swapped the bucolic mythology of the cowboy, his prairie fire and lowing cattle, for the steely reality of the meat packing plant and its oil-fired furnaces; and we have moved far beyond the near-adolescent lyricism of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to the more modest prose poem Natural History of Vacant Lots (a beautiful book, in my view). Indeed, over the decades conservation and environmentalist motifs have become common, shared knowledge; yet even though as urbanites we’ve been primed to recognize the over-exploitation of natural resources, we’ve nevertheless willingly made compromises, among which is the acceptance of on-going environmental degradation in exchange for food and energy security, what we call ‘our way of life’. The city, supreme expression of our domination of the natural world, consumes all. As in Aesop’s fable The Sick Lion, the tracks lead only into the lion’s den.
But recent grassroots developments and (slower) regional governmental initiatives have begun to alter the terms of the compromises we’ve made for a life in the city. Perhaps the most important of these, along with expanded transit systems and more decentralized local economies, has been the greening of our cities. This means far more than planting flowers and trees in a park or drought-resistant shrubs along our freeways. There is a new movement afoot that wishes to create environmental solutions for cities from the populations themselves. Take for example Detroit’s Garden Resource Program which currently supports over 1,400 gardens and farms within the Detroit area.
“Since it’s inception in 2006, ‘GROWN IN DETROIT’ has become a household name for those seeking to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the city. ‘Grown in Detroit’ produce is grown by families & youth in community gardens and urban farms throughout Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. The Grown in Detroit cooperative supports these growers by providing a space to sell at Detroit-based farmers’ markets and restaurants as well as by assisting growers with production, harvest, and post-harvest handling education and resources.”
Other examples would include The Victory Garden Foundation and Transition United States.
“The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.”
I am aware of an increasing number of similar initiatives springing up across America, the UK and Europe, the over-arching idea of which is to provide citizens with the knowledge to become active participants in the practical shaping their own food and energy futures. So it was with great pleasure that during a recent visit to Montpellier, France, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, that I came upon a most remarkable event, Fête de la Biodiversité. With numerous open spaces and over 150 gardens, Montpellier has the distinction of having been named the French and European Capital of Biodiversity 2011 by Natureparif and “European Capital of Biodiversity” mention awarded by the European Commission through the Life + Program.
LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the EU, as well as in some candidate, acceding and neighbouring countries. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 3708 projects, contributing approximately €2.8 billion to the protection of the environment.
The Fête de la Biodiversité brought together numerous organizations, both grassroots and governmental, all stationed along the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle under a brilliant blue sky. For my purposes, the most interesting was Humanité & Biodiversité; for this organization has hit upon the missing dimension in virtually all discussions of biodiversity with which I am familiar: Humanity. The definition in their words from their website:
What is biodiversity ?
- The genetic diversity, each individual is unique. We are all human, but we are all different ! The same goes for foxes: all foxes and all different …
- The diversity of species is the procession of animals and plants but also fungi, bacteria …
- The diversity of ecosystems, these sets consist of different species in their environments and relationships that exist within them. Tropical forests, temperate forests, Mediterranean scrublands, savannas, polar tundra, deserts, marine, wetlands … but also a Breton grove, cultivated grasslands or urban parks.
The great innovative charm of this approach, not to mention its political and cultural relevance in our era of patentable genes, is that we may now be understood to participate in the natural world in a new way, as an irreplaceable source of unique differences. We mingle in grand the narrative the world’s Book of Life, for biodiversity lives in us.
Admin, Ken Payton
A couple of years ago, while directing a wine documentary on Pico Island in the Azores, I came upon a well-attended religious event, Espirito Santo, in the main square of a small village not far from Madelena. A heavy church bell was pealing in the gray of an early morning. Just out of sight up narrow, winding streets, I heard the echo of what turned out to be a gathering of colorfully dressed musicians tuning and warming their many and varied instruments while awaiting instruction on the proper ordering of their procession. From out of this cacophony a familiar face came into focus, my friend Vasco, a fine guitarist in a local band. A question had occurred to me while on the mainland of Portugal weeks earlier. It’s common enough to hear church bells ringing in Europe, but I had come to hear what I believed was the same basic note, sometimes an octave or two apart, repeatedly sounding, including the very bell in the square below us. And so I asked Vasco about this. Sure enough, so predictable was the note, an ‘A’, that his band would often tune their instruments to it no matter where in Portugal they might play.
This would be unremarkable perhaps but for one important detail: the manufacture of church bells, extending centuries back, has always been and remains an inexact practical science. A bell may sound the ‘A’ of the chromatic scale, but it is not necessarily a mathematically perfect ‘A’; pitch and fundamental frequency vary, not only because of differing production practices from one bell foundry to another, but also due to the bell’s age, use, and the daily and seasonal changes to which it is subject. Further, vibrating within a bell’s commanding note, practiced ears can hear a bewildering array of sub-tones, flats and sharps, a resonating signature as precise as a fingerprint. From this I drew one key lesson: When Vasco and his band tune their guitars to a specific bell, the acoustics are found only there, in that one village and nowhere else. Just as with family cuisines, neighborhood design, and social intrigue, could it be that there is difference in the acoustic atmosphere of a village as well? I think so. More, what I’ve suggested of the subtleties of bell variation et al. may also apply, again with reference to Portugal, to regional grape varieties, flavors and terroir.
Now, if cultural experience was the same, wherever one travelled, then travelling would be dull and predictable. Indeed, travel is about – or should be about – sharpened sensitivity and active immersion in difference, of tastes, architecture, dress, even the demeanor of taxi drivers and hotel housekeepers. Similar to Vasco’s band, one attunes their senses to local variations and atmosphere. Indeed, adventure begins with the willingness to surrender to difference.
But what happens when we return home, when our active immersion in difference ends and daily routine resumes? To be sure, this is a first world matter, and subject to ethnicity and socio-economic standing, but I believe that for all of us, our recently-lived differences begin to fade, overwhelmed by habit, work, the familiar and predictable. Distance is reasserted. Ambiguity creeps into memory. And for the American, we again become the more passive consumer championed by our culture. Tabouli and tangine, paella and calisson are replaced by cheeseburgers, surf and turf, and the major restaurant chain, Olive Garden; Espadeiro, Loureiro, and Kalecik Karasi, by readily available Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, and Pinot Grigio; a soundscape of church bells by Spotify in the Volvo.
Yet it can happen that upon returning one finds domestic life strange in ways large and small, their rituals and familiar rhythms now somehow arbitrary, badly in need of a shake-up and a rethink. Take wine and cuisine, for example. Returning for a moment to Portugal (though the same may be said of Turkey), her wine-drinking culture generally holds that wine without food is unthinkable, that both are enhanced, joined together in holy matrimony. Portugal’s wines are often made with food pairing in mind, and show bright fruit, acidity, and unusual flavors; they are therefore frequently misunderstood by those who insist wine is best judged as a solitary beverage necessarily divorced from any and all culinary regimes. But remember, Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, not The Last Wine Bar.
More, the styles of wine and food the traveler perhaps experienced may have opened them up to the exotic flavors of unpronounceable grape varieties and obscure spices that even if found in the neighborhood Safeway can only be purchased in tiny packages. This is the very best part of exploring the world, I believe, the healthy disequilibrium and curiosity it can set loose.
Having done a fair amount of travel myself, over the next several posts I am going to explore topics including grape and flavor diversity, culinary habits, and why these things should matter.
At long last, the premiere of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc is coming into sharp focus. After more than a year of struggle, setback, joy and triumph, on January 27th in the Diagonal Cinema located in the historical section of the city of Montpellier, France, the lights will go down. The fruits of our labor will unspool upon the silver screen to the world – or at least 250 of its citizens. And I could not be happier.
Located in the south of France, the Languedoc has long been in the shadow of far better-known and celebrated international wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reasons for this include the Languedoc’s history as France’s largest bulk wine producer, hence its oft-cited description as a ‘wine lake’. But such a cliché blunts professional and consumer curiosity and interest. For the truth is that over the last few decades quiet changes have been taking place, and a far more dynamic reality has emerged. Now perhaps the most environmentally progressive wine-growing region in the world, the Languedoc is ready to take its place on the international stage. The first feature-length documentary of its kind, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc explores the viticultural and winemaking choices of 12 diverse and creative winemakers spread across the region. What approach do they take to their respective terroirs, their vineyards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable? What are the financial risks and benefits associated with farming with each of these methods? More practically, how do the featured winemakers navigate the shoals between family and profession? And do they wish their children to follow in their footsteps?
I don’t know how many winemakers I spoke with and interviewed in my previous directorial effort, Mother Vine, who did not know what was to become of their legacy. They had worked very hard to put their children through school, to clothe them and all the rest mothers and fathers do, only to see their progeny leave for the larger cities of Portugal. But of the Languedoc? The answers given by the winemakers are quite different, varied and, I believe, hopeful. And for those winemakers without children, they too must somehow find a way to preserve their partnerships and marriages through unpredictable growing seasons and fickle market trends.
The first section of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed in September during the harvest, when the reality of a year’s work was coming into sharp focus. Ultimately, the documentary is about the practical dimension of labor, of winegrowers making day-to-day decisions bearing directly upon their families’ futures. It matters less to me who triumphs among the many excellent wine regions in the world than it is to put a human face on this underestimated, rapidly-changing region, the Languedoc.
The film features (listed here in no particular order):
John & Nicole Bojanowski (Le Clos du Gravillas, St Jean de Minervois)
John & Liz Bowen (Domaine Sainte Croix, à Fraïssé-Corbières)
Emmanuel Pageot & Karen Turner (Domaine Turner Pageot, à Gabian)
Virgile Joly (Domaine Virgile Joly, à Saint Saturnin)
Cyril Bourgne (Domaine La Madura, à Saint Chinian)
Brigitte Chevalier (Domaine de Cébène, à Faugères)
André Leenhardt (Château de Cazeneuve, à Lauret)
François & Louis Adrién Delhon (Domaine Bassac, à Puissalicon)
Eric & Vianney Fabre (Château d’Anglès, à St Pierre la Mer)
Frédéric & Marie Chauffray (La Réserve d’O, à Arboras)
Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine Lacroix-Vanel, à Caux)
Thierry Rodriquez (Prieuré de St Sever/Mas Gabinèle, à Causse et Veyran)
For more information see our Les Terroiristes du Languedoc Facebook page.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
Ken Payton, Admin
It is not often a first feature-length documentary film made by a novice director meets with critical acclaim; but such success is much easier to grasp when the finest colleagues are chosen before a single frame is shot. So it was with Mother Vine, my loving exploration of the winemaking history, generational succession, and the challenges of modernity in Portugal’s astonishingly diverse world of grapes, terroirs, and wine-making traditions.
Mother Vine was initially born from numerous conversations with celebrated microbiologist, winemaker and cultural conservationist, Virgilio Loureiro of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon (now retired), to which I added a young though accomplished cameraman and editor, Nuno Sá Sequeira, and a very capable producer, Liliana Mascate. The right team was in place.
Shot over the course of a year on a budget of promises and good will (modest funding arrived after principal photography had concluded), the documentary therefore faced numerous financial challenges and set-backs which threatened its very completion. People have to be paid, after all.
But there are far worse things in this world than falling into debt for a country and cause in which you deeply believe. Such is my love of Portugal and of the winegrowers whose resistance to (vita)cultural evisceration I was honored to document. The stakes are very high. The loss of grape biodiversity and the increasing marginalization of family farming tragically receives a helping hand by dogged international naïveté and indifference, both governmental and from within a wide segment of the wine profession itself, an attitude which holds, by default, that no more than 10 grape varieties need exist in the entire world. Indeed, without – perhaps equally naive – push-back, an insistence on diversity and difference, Portugal might yet come to suffer in the not-too-distant future a homogenized viticulture, sacrificing an august patrimony on the altar of Cabernet, Chardonnay and mass production. To be sure, commercial realities are what they are; but let us consider that a ‘commercial reality’ may itself very often be a fantasy, a mythology created by an army of small gods: of marketers, advertisers, and wine influencers. These are among the many themes my documentary, Mother Vine, seeks to open up to informed, enlightened conversation.
So it was with great joy that our rag-tag crew received news from the 19th Annual Oenovideo International Film Festival On Wines and Vines that Mother Vine had won recognition in two categories. From the festival’s site:
Deux Mentions Spéciales ont été décernées
— Mention spéciale « Patrimoine » pour le long métrage tourné au Portugal « Mother Vine » du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
— Prix Paysages et environnement décerné par Bayer CropScience à « Mother Vine » long métrage portugais du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
Beyond being among the 12 distinguished writers and filmmakers so honored, there is to take place an official Films Documentaires, Fictions & Photographies sur la Vigne et le Vin award ceremony on Friday, September 28th, 2012 at the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris, France. I most certainly will be in attendance. I would not miss the occasion for the world.
The timing of the award ceremony could not be better. My next documentary film project (yet to be titled) has taken me to the French wine growing region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Just weeks ago, in May, I completed the first half of the shoot. This documentary will chronicle a year’s work of twelve dynamic and creative wineries, each in its own way seeking to re-imagine and redefine what is an accelerating movement throughout the region: an insistance on very high quality wines coupled with environmentally responsible viticulture. Languedoc-Roussillon is emerging as among the most progressive grape growing areas in the world. This is cause enough for a feature-length documentary; but add to the mix the compelling biographies of the very diverse group of winemakers I have selected and you have in place the fundamentals of one hell of a film.
The spring shoot complete, the promise of bud break explored, next up is the harvest season in September. I will return to Languedoc in the first weeks of that month to discover the commercial and viticultural fates of these twelve apostles of the vine. From their vineyards to the Palais du Luxembourg, such humbling joy may a life sometimes experience.
For further reading about this new documentary, please see my Languedoc-Roussillon, The Genesis of A Film
Ken Payton, Admin
Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
What is the rainfall here?
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]
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Sometimes you choose; sometimes you are chosen. Last December, while in Montpellier, France to attend a showing of my Portuguese documentary, Mother Vine, at the Fest’afilm Festival, I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet one of France’s leading oenologists, Jean Natoli and geologist, Philippe Combes, his associate. Both gentlemen had graciously attended the showing and then were to further extend to me an invitation to dinner.
We spoke of many things that evening, of the financial obstacles to making a documentary, of film’s rôle in entertaining and illuminating the public, and of how to know whether a filmmaker has made a difference. Mention was made of a tasting at Au Petit Grain the next day of a what would prove a fascinating line of wines Mr. Natoli was shepherding, known collectively as Stratagème, and part of négociant/vingneron Thierry Rodriguez’ portfolio, Le Prieuré Saint Sever. (Indeed, along with Jean Natoli, Philippe Combes, and graphic designer, Olivier Proust, Thierry Rodriquez rounds out Stratagème’s creative team. Left to right in the photo) The distinguishing feature of the Strategème collection is its unique concentration on the concept of vineyard terroir and of mineral characteristics. One of eleven soil types informs each of its eleven bottlings: sandstone, sand, schist, pebbles, limestone, puddingstone, marl, clay, granite, basalt and tufa.
Among the most fascinating and frankly brilliant aspects of the Stratagème project is the depth of understanding and intellectual sophistication it brings to Languedoc-Roussillon as a wine-producing region, a region relatively neglected, certainly when compared to its far more celebrated neighbors, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône. This neglect is a consequence of a complex history. Harshly (if justly) stigmatized years ago as a ‘wine lake’, Languedoc-Roussillon has long been in need of her own dedicated poets for the very reasons high-lighted by the Stratagème project. From renegotiated AOC boundaries – often proceeding at a glacial pace – to a new generation of winegrowers committed to terroir and quality; from increasing appreciation of the promise of geological diversity, to a sharp focus on organic and sustainable wine production, the region has in recent years been undergoing a dramatic, if quiet, transformation which I felt was concisely expressed by Stratagème’s line-up of wines. To put it another way, my re-education about Languedoc-Roussillon was only just beginning. I’ll explain.
In the early days of my wine education, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon had played a significant rôle. Over a number of years I drank through virtually all of the region’s wines commonly available in the United States. Paul Strang’s Languedoc Roussillon, The Wines and Winemakers, first published in 2002, was my constant companion. I studied it from cover to cover. But restless and curious, eventually I was to leave the region behind in favor of a wider vinous experience. So it was that for quite some time that, like many of my American colleagues, I had felt sufficiently knowledgeable, that time and treasure enough had been given to Languedoc-Roussillon. All of that changed in the blink of an eye at the Au Petit Grain tasting. In the aftermath of my encounter with Jean Natoli and the Stratagème team, a small seed had been planted, an idea began to grow.
I have tended my garden well. Three months have passed during which I have done extensive research. I am now days away from yet another journey to Montpellier and the Languedoc-Roussillon, the 4th in as many months, this time to raise funds for another feature-length documentary film. Following upon my Portuguese documentary, a two year project which completely transformed my understanding of Portugal, turning night into day, eviscerating received opinion, I have now found a subject equally deserving of renewed international appreciation and recognition: the elaboration of high quality wines, the revelations given by terroir, and a progressive environmentalism which, taken together, are increasingly what we now must understand as the new reality of Languedoc-Roussillon.
My new project will document the 2012 seasonal experiences of 12 carefully chosen winemakers working divers soils and under both cooperative and challenging climatic conditions. The first shoot will be in May, the second, September/October, the harvest. The specific producers and vineyards I have chosen are in a variety of terroirs, areas and appellations including: St. Jean de Minervois, Corbières, Pézenas, Coteaux du Languedoc – St. Saturnin, Puissalicon, St. Chinian, Faugères, Pic St. Loup, and La Clape.
Of quite varied background and training, and nuanced viticultural philosophies – organic, biodynamic, sustainable – each of the winemakers I have selected share a common drive and determination to make the very best wines as they are able, with minimal intervention, and with the utmost respect for the land they have come to love. Yes, love. For make no mistake, love animates and informs the work. But just how that love is expressed can only be revealed over time, the very journey my documentary will take. Updates to come…