“Humans are at the origin of deforestation for the development of agriculture so it’s our responsibility to recreate the balance that we have lost for so many years.” – Christine Saurel of Domaine Montirius on the role of biodiversity in the vineyards.
Biodiversity, a term that refers to the full variety of life on earth, is a crucial component of sustainable viticulture. It includes all types of animal and plant life (fauna and flora), as well as fungi and microorganisms, and helps create a healthy and balanced ecosystem, where the smallest living organisms play a very important role in the life of the vine. Winegrowers across the globe are realizing that, with the looming climate crisis, there needs to be more biodiversity in the vineyards.
France, a country steeped in deep-rooted wine traditions, is making a serious shift toward more forward-thinking, sustainable winemaking practices in hopes that the new directives will help preserve natural resources for future generations to come. A recent excursion to the Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages AOCs in southern France showed me, time and again, how winegrowers, with the help of regional associations—in this case Inter-Rhône and the Syndicat des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône—are adopting practices that protect and preserve biodiversity. In 2019, the Syndicate, in conjunction with the Agricultural Observatory for Biodiversity and the French Institute for Vine and Wine, created several programs that encourage winegrowers to farm in ways that promote diversity of life in and around the vineyards, including the reduction of chemicals and the planting of cover crops and trees.
With near-perfect climatic conditions for grape growing—a warm Mediterranean climate with dry winds—the Côtes du Rhône AOC is one of France’s largest wine-producing regions. The appellation is made up of over 1,200 wineries throughout 171 villages that unfurl along the banks of the Rhône river, from Vienne to Avignon. A rich geological history has given rise to a landscape of varied soils and slopes where 21 different grape varieties are used to make red, white and rosé wines, about 85% of which are red, Grenache-dominant blends.
Presently, about 13% of the region’s vineyards are certified organic, and that number is rapidly growing. Côtes du Rhône winegrowers are also adopting other biodiversity-promoting certifications, such as HVE (High Environmental Value), Terra Vitis and, for biodynamics, Demeter and Biodyvin. The winemakers I met with gave voice to their long-term commitment to a sustainable future, and how biodiversity is a big part of that.
“We are only passing through,” says eleventh-generation Côtes du Rhône winemaker Jean-Etienne Alary of Domaine Alary. “We must not forget that the objective is to transmit the land and the soil to future generations in as good condition, if not better, than we have received it.”
Cover Crops, Trees and Hedges
Viticulture often involves replacing natural vegetation with a monoculture in which a single grape variety is grown. This represents the exact opposite of biodiversity, and over time, results in an unhealthy and unnatural ecosystem. Furthermore, spraying chemical pest and disease-controlling substances also wreaks havoc on an ecosystem and, over time, weakens the vines. However, the planting of cover crops, like grasses, beans, legumes and small grains, as well as larger plants like trees and hedges, is one way to support biodiversity.
Cover crops help create a balance between a natural ecosystem and human activity. They maintain the health and efficiency of the soil by adding nutrients to it; they prevent erosion, aid in water retention and suppress weeds and pests. The cover itself becomes a natural habitat for beneficial species, with the result being less use of pest and disease-control products.
Christian Voeux of Domaine de l’Amauve, an organic producer in the village of Séguret, plants grasses in every other row of his vineyards which, he says, allows life, most visibly earthworms, to settle on top of and within the soil of the grassed rows. “Birds and other insects arrive to feed on smaller insects, like spiders, which can be a problem for the leaves of the vine,” he says. “Over time, the plants develop their roots very deeply, and they decompact the soil, helping it to breathe and allowing the various life forms to settle deep down into it.”
Voeux says that cover crops also help prevent water from running off. “The water infiltrates into the soil,” he says, “and there is no more gullying, so the water becomes available for the plants.”
In addition to cover crops, the planting of hedges and trees, known as agroforestry, is a way that winegrowers encourage biodiversity. These evergreens provide important nesting, feeding and sheltering sites for birds and bats that eat disease-transmitting insects which harm the vines and fruit. They also attract beneficial insects as well, like butterflies and bees that provide pollination for the cover crops while enhancing soil fertility.
“The result is visible in the summer months,” says Voeux, “with a multitude of insects living in the vineyard, and in particular the thousands of cicadas that sing and fly in all directions. Birds are also present with the kestrel flying over the vineyard to spot its prey.”
Alary also plants hedges and a multitude of trees on the outskirts of his plots.
“This natural richness confers a certain complexity by welcoming wildlife to the vineyard throughout the year,” he says. “The vine in a complex environment is stronger and more resilient and develops increased natural defenses.”
However, he states that it is both a blessing and a challenge for the vines, as competition for water can sometimes be tough in the southern Rhône. “It forces our plants to take root more deeply,” says Alary, “which only makes them more valiant and promising. The deep roots help our soils become soft and welcoming for young plantings, but are also supportive and nourishing for the well-established vines.”
And like Voeux, he says there is no risk of flooding, thanks to the correct balance between the permeability of the soil and the varied species found in it.
Yet hedges, trees and cover crops should not be looked at as a quick and easy fix. It is a long-term investment that takes its time to improve soil structure, fertility and permeability.
“The trees and cover crops are a work of many years, and the results are not always readily visible,” says fourth generation winemaker Xavier Fabre, of Domaine des Romarins. He has planted several trees on the side of his vineyards, as well as herbs and flowers between the rows, and alfalfa in the fallow fields. We are seeing more freshness and biodiversity, namely earthworms, in our soils, and the vines are more equipped to counter disease and pests, he says.
Organic and Biodynamic Farming and Biodiversity
Decades of conventional farming, with its prevalence of chemicals, have destroyed much of the native fauna and flora in vineyards all across the globe; research studies now are showing that organic viticulture increases species richness by about 30%. (IntechOpen.com)
During the last two decades more and more Côtes du Rhône wineries have been making a serious commitment to organic and biodynamic farming which eschews the use of chemical products. In organic cultivation, copper and sulfur are allowed to combat vine diseases, whereas with biodynamic, plant and animal preparations are sprayed on the vine to fortify it. Both methods require carefully managing the vines and, as a result, the quality of the grapes at harvest is usually very high.
“Organic viticulture reduces the quantity and the nature of chemicals you can use to treat the vineyard,” says Jean-Frédéric Bistagne of Domaine Maravilhas (in photo), a Biodyvin-certified biodynamic winery. “Biodynamic is a holistic approach that focuses on prevention and on giving strength to the vines, so they can better resist pests and other diseases.”
Bistagne uses several other measures to expand ecological diversity in his vineyards, including the spraying of natural preparations that increase worms and bacterias in the soil; he makes green fertilizer from cereals (barley), crucifers (radish and mustard) and leguminous plants (peas and clover) which, he says, create healthy soils and give more nutrients to the vine.
“Since starting to work this way,” says Bistagne, “I can see that my soils are more structured, have more matter, and retain water from heavy rainfalls with no runoff. My vines resist disease better than many of my conventional neighbors who rely on heavy fertilization and irrigation, and I am much less damaged by mildew and odium.”
Christine Saurel, co-founder of Domaine Montirius, another Biodyvin-certified winery, says that by spraying herbal teas and biodynamic preparations made from plants, nature becomes more and more alive, and is the best way to preserve natural fauna and flora. "Our soils, full of worms and fungi, become, year after year, more and more supple," she says, "and the roots go down very deeply into the subsoil and find all they need to feed the vines.”
Saurel (in photo with her daughter Manon) told me, as an example of how her soils have improved, about a vineyard planted on a little slope. ”Every year after a storm, the ground would wash down and we would have to bring all the soil back up,” she says. “This changed in just one year of practicing biodynamic culture. The soil changed color to intense brown and worms came back. Of course, a soil that is alive absorbs water so there is no risk of flooding or erosion.”
“What is incredible about nature,” says Saurel, “is that even if one makes a mistake by using chemicals and having a soil that is totally dead, by using biodynamics the soil will, step by step, become alive again. By stopping the use of pesticides, the numbers of insects and butterflies have reappeared. We need bees and insects for fruition, and birds to plant seeds after they have eaten fruits."
"It’s time for us humans (farmers, consumers, buyers) to take care of nature," she says. "We can change everything now and nature will accompany us with those changes and that’s awesome!”
Biodiversity and Climate Change
The success of a wine vintage depends heavily on the weather year after year. With intense and erratic weather events occurring more frequently in the past couple of decades—hotter heat waves, drier droughts, more frequent frosts, bigger storm surges—many Côtes du Rhône wine producers are facing climate change head-on with new and creative ways of dealing with challenges. But they are also realizing the need to look back to a time when the term biodiversity was not a buzzword and it was nature that ruled vineyards.
Chateau Simian has been owned by the Serguier family for five generations. The oldest vines on the estate were planted in 1880 and are still used in the estate’s top red wines. Yet Florian Serguier is not content to simply stick with tradition. He is trying to stay ahead of climate change by making changes his ancestors could never have foreseen.
“An ecosystem in good health is more resilient to climate change,” says Serguier, whose vineyards are certified organic and biodynamic. “For me, farming with sustainable agriculture is an imperative. Over the last several years, we are seeing the impact of global warming, and so we have planted grape varieties which support heat well, and we’ve moved our vineyards to lands which suffer less from heat.”
Saurel notes that humans are only a part of the earth’s biodiversity and having too much of any one species destroys an environment’s equilibrium.
“Biodiversity is the only way for humans to survive,” she says. “Farmers must relearn, re-invent and re-adapt to be in balance with nature day after day. We can learn quickly by practicing and using the experiences of the generation who never went in the direction of the chemical industry.”
Alary also notes that farmers, at the heart of climate change, are the ones who suffer its biggest effects. “Climate change makes the risk of frost more frequent and stronger, the accumulation of sugars in the grapes more important, and minimizes the acidity of the juice."
Promoting the biodiversity of our plots is a way to fight against the bad effects of climate change, he says.
"If the population wants to reduce global warming it will have to change its consumption habits, and that farmers must fight, protect and perpetuate the agricultural land.”
Voeux, however, says that biodiversity has its limits when it comes to resisting climate change. “We must act now to limit climate change,” he says. “If everyone, at their own small level, takes action for the protection of the earth’s climate, we will have our chances.”
Many thanks to the AOCs Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, and to Inter-Rhône, for sponsoring and organizing my visit to their beautiful region.
Top photo courtesty of Côtes du Rhône. Banner by Piers Parlett.