using sheep instead of lawn mowers
This seems like a nice photo opportunity, but does it really serve a purpose?
Allowing sheep to graze in the vineyards from September to March, after the end of the harvest and before the first buds burst open, has several benefits. The first is that the grass grows back more slowly because of the constant grazing. It also leads to enhanced biodiversity and an increase in the number of insects, a prime source of food for birds, which will regulate the populations and reduce the risk of vine diseases.
The sheep’s droppings and the mechanical burying of the grass after the sheep have left provide a first supply of organic fertilizer. The soil is also decompacted by the sheep’s trampling. Lastly, the presence of the sheep reduces the number of times a tractor has to be used to plough the soil in the vineyards, thus reducing the carbon footprint.
So shepherds and wine growers are business partners!
Creating not just a picture-postcard vineyard, this intelligent collaboration provides 20% of a flock of sheep’s annual food requirements and, during the period when they graze in the vineyards, this figure rises to 40%*. As far as the shepherd is concerned, we can now see why he/she has become very popular again!
To encourage the development of vitipastoralism practices, the Syndicat des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône is currently looking into the creation of a platform to connect winemakers to breeders. It is estimated that there are around a hundred domaines in the Côtes du Rhône that are already practising vitipastoralism.
A growing number of environmental certifications
Yes, I get it, but there are so many of them…
Well let’s state a few…
- the High Environmental Value (HVE) certification sets out the standards for sustainable agriculture by minimising the use of phytosanitary products or inputs, encouraging controlled grassing on the vineyard plots, maintaining certain trees and hedgerows as well as dry stone walls and rainwater drainage ditches, etc. The purpose of this certification is to protect the soil and boost biodiversity by preserving natural wildlife habitats in order to offer the consumer a product derived from an eco-friendly growing approach.
- The “Vignerons Engagés” certification goes further by requiring the wine producer to meet both environmental and social standards. It encourages wineries to review their entire production chain from the grape on the vine to the wine in the glass. This comprehensive policy involves reducing inputs in the vineyards and in the winery during the vinification process. It also encompasses employee management and the management of stock through a reduction in the use of paper and supplies and by encouraging paperless processes.
- When it comes to Organic certifications, copper and sulphur are the only products used by the winemakers to combat vine diseases. With Biodynamic farming, preparations based on plants, horn silica or horn dung are sprayed on the vine to fortify it. Lastly, the Association des Vins Naturels (Natural Wine Association) is a group of winemakers who work without any inputs.
So there isn’t really a right or wrong way of doing things?
Whatever the certification, it is also the recognition of a personal (or sometimes family) trajectory that starts with respect for one’s wine heritage. The winemakers choose the way of working that they feel best suits their own vineyards. Some also adopt eco-friendly practices that are not part of any certification scheme, simply because they make sense and protect the terroirs that are vital to long-term sustainability. It is the sum of everyone’s commitments that makes the viticulture virtuous and responsible.
In 2020, the Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages AOCs’ harvest was 1.6 million hectolitres (hl). The proportion of the Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages AOCs production declared as organically grown was 185,000 hl (approximately 12%). To date, 574 holdings have obtained HVE (High Environmental Value) certification representing a total surface area of 19,200 hectares.
Environmental Recommendations Guide
That sounds interesting : How can you produce wines in harmony with the ecosystems?
The Guide, currently being drafted* by the Syndicat des Côtes du Rhône, lists a set of practices intended to promote organic growing and encourage and support changes in growing practices such as ploughing the soil mechanically to control weeds or practicing selective grass cover or grass cover in one row in two.
The Guide aims to promote alternative products to synthetic pesticides and to reduce the use and wastage of phytosanitary products in the vineyards by using more suitable equipment or by deploying alternative methods of protecting the vineyard.
For example, to combat grape berry moths, winegrowers can install synthetic pheromone diffusers to disrupt the mating of harmful insects in the vineyards.
On another chapter, in order to optimise the effectiveness of phytosanitary treatments (and therefore use less of them, particularly against mildew), wineries can install connected weather stations.
The Guide is careful to identify sensitive areas, particularly vineyard plots close to watercourses, which need to comply with stricter regulations and enforce a careful management of effluents in the winery.
And are the winegrowers and wineries really going down that path?
The information and support provided by the Syndicat des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône are intended to help growing practices evolve towards a sustainable model to protect the quality of the air, the soil and water resources.
So far, we have seen an increase in the number of conversions to organic growing in the Côtes du Rhône and a sharp rise in the number of wineries and domaines engaged in the High Environmental Value (HVE) certification process.
*The first two information sheets on the planting of vegetation and the introduction of plant cover will be published in 2021.
Preserving priority drinking water catchments
The main polluting agents are phytosanitary products which can reach the water table by infiltration or runoff. The Syndicat des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône is working closely with the Rhône Mediterranean Corsica Water Agency* to identify these areas and to implement action plans to protect water quality.
Preserving water is key to sustainable wine-making? Who would have thought!
The master plan for water management 2016-2021 identifies 269 priority water catchments, 10 of which are located in the Côtes du Rhône production area. Their protection is divided into a four phases:
- Define the surface areas where water infiltrates or runs off.
- Identify and classify the sources of pollution.
- Draw up an action plan
- Implement the actions to maintain the resource at a good level of quality.
The role of the Syndicat, in conjunction with various Chambers of Agriculture, is to work with the winemakers concerned to encourage them to evolve their cultivation model. They play an important role in the preservation of water quality.
As for the irrigated vineyards, the objective here is to provide these with just the right amount of water to prevent water stress. For the past three years, the Syndicat has been publishing the “Côtes du Rhône water stress journal” to alert the winemakers when necessary.
* Created following the French Water Law 1964, the missions of this public institution governed by the French Ministry of the Environment are water management, pollution control, protection of aquatic environments and their biodiversity.
Reducing environmental impact and recycling waste
What else can the wineries do to reduce waste?
A number of initiatives can be implemented at each stage of the winemaking and packaging process in order to preserve resources
– Collecting and recycling of the packaging and plastic films used to package phytosanitary products.
– Recycling water and organic matter : In the winery, the water used for rinsing the facilities and equipment contains plant debris, filtration earth, yeast, micro-organisms, sugars, organic acids, alcohol, etc. This effluent is sent to a settling tank to recuperate the organic matter, which is then used as fertiliser*.
– Using recyclable packaging : The packaging for the wines going into bottle or Bag in Box (BIB) is optimised to make it recyclable. Less demanding in terms of raw materials, the weight of this packaging is reduced. This results in lower CO2 emissions during production and transport.
- Usinge plant-based ink, glass and corks from 100% recycled sources…
The entire production chain is scrutinised in order to create an activity that is increasingly more sustainable.
Searching for resistant grape varieties
Over the centuries, the AOC's winemakers have selected these grape varieties for their taste qualities and the finesse they add to the blends, resulting in well balanced, harmonious wines. The Côtes du Rhône region's grape varieties are governed by a set of specifications. The main grape varieties used for the production of AOC red wines are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. They represent at least 70% of the grape varieties planted. For the whites, the varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier, representing at least 80% of the white varieties planted.
So I hear this is set in stone?
Yes, and no actually. In order to combat climate change and disease, the AOC has authorised, under certain conditions, the planting of new varietals resulting from crossings. These new varietals are Caladoc, Marselan and Couston.
The Syndicat des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône continues to participate in a programme to select those grape varieties that are resistant to certain diseases in order to use less treatments in the vineyards, while preserving the typical character of the AOC’s wines.
In 2021, 6 promising grape varieties, resulting from natural crossings between the Syrah and Grenache, were planted at the Lycée Viticole in Orange. Selected by the Syndicat des Côtes du Rhône, they show a good potential with regard to climate change and in particular a high tolerance to drought.
Management of fallow land
Also known as Ecological Reservoir Zones, these are lands that are free of any treatments or fertilisers. They help to maintain biodiversity, absorb water and slow down soil erosion, particularly that caused by the wind. They can take various forms: isolated trees, hedgerows or copses, embankments and vegetated headlands (tractor turning areas), partial or total grassing of the vineyard. They are an integral part of the High Environmental Value certification.
Allowing the land to rest and regenerate – that sounds good…
When a sowing is planned, this will be selected according to several criteria: its aesthetics, its healing qualities in order to curb vine diseases, its resistance to the Mediterranean climate and its capacity to adapt to rustic terrains.
More and more winemakers are opting for flower-covered fallow land.
In addition to proper soil preparation, this means carefully selecting the seed mix and avoiding exotic plants that could have a negative impact on biodiversity.
When it comes to creating permanent fallow land, perennials known for their abundant flowering are recommended.
Agroforestry, tending the vineyards as if they were a garden
Aesthetic and eco-friendly, agroforestry combines the imperatives of climate change with the organisation and harmonisation of living organisms. In other words, it means designing vineyards in a way that does not constrain the planting areas but rather uses their geomorphology to integrate them into an ecosystem. This therefore maintains the native flora, the habitats and nesting areas of various animal species, in good condition. The aim is to create a balance between the living world and human activity.
Planting trees to protect the vine… I wouldn’t have thought of that!
Agroof, a cooperative company specialising in the study and development of agroforestry systems since 2000, supports the growers in this process. It works with them to determine the species of trees or hedges to be planted. It addresses their concerns about the possible decrease in the vines’ yields associated, in particular, with water stress, and about whether these plantations have an impact on carbon storage to combat global warming. The results show that there is no water competition between the trees and the vines and that agroforestry has a beneficial impact on the carbon footprint.
A 100 billion euro recovery plan is being deployed by the French Government. It is based on three main themes: ecology, competitiveness and cohesion. One of its objectives is to plant 7,000 kms of hedgerows between 2021 and 2022.
OK but what about Côtes du Rhône?
This mission is already well underway in the Côtes du Rhône region by Rhônéa, a Vignerons Engagés certified union of cooperative wine cellars, which has planted 1,200 metres of hedgerows in three years in order to restore the balance of the ecosystems. The Cairanne Appellation is similarly committed, with 20 winemakers who have already planted 400 plants, local tree species, and intend to plant 1,000 trees by 2025.
Agroforestry is becoming increasingly popular with numerous other Côtes du Rhône wine domaines are already engaged in this practice.