amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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Nature can be harsh: Part 2 – Disease

The mild weather over winter was followed in the Languedoc by a slow start to summer heat. The resulting warm, humid weather brought disease as it did in many regions of France. Mildew, oidium and couloure are all vine diseases which occur regularly and 2016 was no different but with a bigger hit than usual.

Mildew (downy mildew)

 

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it prospered. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew. Downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and any rain splashes them onto the vines. Mildiou is not a fungus as commonly believed, it is a one celled spore which germinates in warm, humid conditions especially between 16 and 24 Centigrade – exactly the conditions we saw in April and May of this year.

Jeff Coutelou spent many nights out on his tractor spraying the vines to try to protect them. As an organic producer (and much more) he cannot (and does not want to) use manufactured, chemical sprays. Instead he used sprays based on rainwater with seaweed, nettles, horsetail and essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary. These are better absorbed by the vines in the cool of the night.

Mildew appears as small yellow / green spots on the upper surface of the leaf which gradually turn brown and spread to leave an unsightly vine. Underneath downy white /grey spots appear, the mildew is well established by this point. It affects the grape bunches and leaves them dried out and shrivelled.

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Mildew on a Carignan bunch, organic spray residue on the leaves

By the time harvest arrives the bunches contain a mix of healthy and diseased grapes. Severe triage is required. Bunches such as the one in the photo above will be discarded immediately. Where there are health sections though the bunches will arrive at the triage table and be sorted rigorously. Jeff reckoned that in some vineyards, especially the white vines of Peilhan, losses were up to 60% from mildew. Seriously damaging.

Here is a clear demonstration of the advantage of hand harvest (vendange manuelle), machines would simply swallow the lot and in less thorough domaines or caves the bunches will all go into the wine.

Oidium (powdery mildew)

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Oidium on buds and leaf

Oidium is a related problem to mildew but slightly different. It too thrives in warm days and cold nights (so springtime is its peak period) , it too loves humidity. So, spring 2016 was ideal though oidium was less rampant than mildew. Unlike mildew it is a fungal based spore.

Conventional treatments would be chemical and even organic producers will use sulphur, a naturally occurring element. Organic producers are limited to the amounts they can use as sulphur does damage the fauna of the soils. Jeff Coutelou uses less than a quarter of the permitted amounts because he sees it as  a last resort. Instead he prefers treatments based on horsetail weed, nettles and other beneficial plants made into a tisane which can be sprayed. It may not be as all-destroying as synthetic chemicals but Jeff prefers the soils to be healthy in the long term by using these natural plant based treatments.

These photos show grape bunches hit by oidium in 2016, the powdery residue is clear though the bunches are less damaged than mildew affected ones. Nevertheless oidium is destructive and spoils wine so, again, careful work in the vineyard and cellar is needed to keep oidium out of the grape juice.

Coulure

Like most fruit plants vines grow flowers which then develop into the fruit. Vine flowers are very beautiful but also very delicate and don’t live long on the plants, a matter of a few days.

If heavy rain and wind hits the vines at this stage of their development then the flowers can be easily damaged or broken off the plant.

The result is that fruit cannot develop where there is no flower, coulure. Where flowers are damaged then berries might grow very small and seedless, this is called millerandage. Similarly berries might ripen unevenly within a bunch, green berries alongside healthy, ripe grapes.

There is nothing that the vigneron can do of course, the damage is done by the weather and no producer can successfully combat weather. Nature wins in the end. So, once again, the vendangeur and those sorting in the cellar are crucial in ensuring that only healthy fruit goes into the wine.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of all stages of wine growing and production. From their budding through to vendanges the vines must be tended, and in the cellar observation, determination and care are needed too. To make good wine requires hard work, healthy grapes and love as Jeff has said many times.

And have a look at one of those last photos again.

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In the top right corner you will see another of 2016’s natural problems, one subject of the final part of this series.


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Nature can be harsh – Part 1: Weather

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It’s not all sunshine in the Languedoc

The stunning BBC Planet Earth II television programme  of snakes attacking baby marine iguanas was a recent reminder of how cruel nature can be. 2016 has seen vineyards across France attacked by a multitude of problems and in this series of three articles I want to show how the vines and the grapes are affected by these problems. Firstly, the weather.

The year began with no frost in the Languedoc throughout the winter. This meant that the vines found it hard to recuperate from 2015’s exertions as they could not sleep. When pruning got under way in earnest during January many vignerons reported sap flowing from the vines. This was bad news, the sap and the vines should have been resting, storing their energy for the year ahead. Consequently, when other problems arrived during the course of the year the vines were always vulnerable, struggling to resist them.

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Frost damaged vine in the Loire

Ironically, after such a warm winter, frost and hail damaged vines across France. The Loire, Rhone, Cahors and Pic Saint Loup were all hit at various stages, Burgundy and Champagne too. When I visited the Loire in early May it was sad to see many vineyards hit by frost, especially those adjacent to other crops whose humidity helped frost to form. Some vignerons faced huge losses of vines and potential grapes.

On August 17th hail hit the Languedoc, especially the Pic St Loup region where vines laden with grapes were smashed leaving some producers with no harvest at all in 2016. Mas Coutelou in Puimisson was also damaged though not so seriously. The storm ran through a corridor across Sainte Suzanne to La Garrigue and on to Segrairals. Even here vine branches were snapped, grapes shredded and bunches ruined. It was possible to see how one side of the vines was damaged where they faced the storm, yet the leeward side was virtually unscathed. Jeff was forced to pick these damaged vines much earlier than normal before the damaged grapes brought disease and rot to them.

The other major weather problem was drought. There was virtually no rain for months in the Languedoc, especially from winter to early summer. Cracks appeared in the soil, plants turned brown. The lack of rainfall meant that when the grapes began to mature the vines could not provide much water, small berries with little juice were the norm. Vignerons everywhere in the region reported much reduced yields, at Mas Coutelou reds down by 20-30%, some whites down by as much as 60%. Rain just before vendanges saved the day but massaged rather than cured the problem.

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When rain did come it was often in the form of storms. Sharp, heavy rainfall does not absorb into the soil so easily. Moreover where vignerons spray herbicides on their land the soils often wash away as there is nothing to hold the soil in place. For more environmentally aware producers this can be frustrating as chemically treated soils could wash onto their land.

This is one reason why Jeff plants trees, bushes and flowers and digs ditches, to protect his vines from the risk of contamination.

The combination of sun (and even sunburned grapes), drought, rain, frost and hail made this a difficult year. However, that is not the end of the story. Climate conditions bring disease and it is that aspect of nature which I shall examine next.


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Is it natural?

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Autumn is the time of  the Foire Aux Vins in France, supermarkets and other large stores discounting their wines. One advert stood out and that was Carrefour’s, offering 10 wines which they called «Nature». Interesting to see that they feel there is a demand for such wines (something UK supermarkets clearly don’t see) and that natural wines have a market. However, on closer examination it turned out that the ten wines on offer were «Nature» only in the sense that they were «sans sulfites ajoutés» (no added SO2). Only three of the ten were produced organically, so are they truly natural wines?

There are, of course, some pedantics (including one well known British wine writer on Twitter on Nov 7th) who would argue that no wine is natural, that it does not make itself. The word natural has indeed become something of a millstone around the bottle neck. So, what do we understand by the term?

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One definition which carries some weight is that of Doug Wregg, a director of the UK’s biggest natural wine importer Les Caves De Pyrene:
1. Vineyards farmed organically or biodynamically (with or without certification)
2. Hand-harvested fruit
3. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts
4. No enzymes
5. No additives (like acid, tannin, colouring) other than SO2, used in moderation if at all
6. Light or no filtration
7. Preferably no fining
8. Preferably no new oak

The RAW Wine Fair of Isabelle Legeron adds two other qualifications, a limit of 70mg/l of added sulphites and “no heavy manipulation” such as micro oxygenation or flash pasteurisation.                                                                                                                  (see more here)

I think those definitions hit the main points though perhaps are a little too broad themselves, points 6-8 are especially vague and Legeron’s 70mg/l seems very high. They would, however, exclude the Carrefour wines which have seen flash pasteurisation.

At Mas Coutelou Jeff adds nothing to the wines, does not filter or fine and the only oak used is from old barrels. There are NO added sulphites. Is he an extremist? Are his wines unclean or unstable? The answer to both is no.  They are sent in bottle around the world, to Japan, Australia and all parts of Europe. And then there is the USA.

The Americans have much tighter rules and restrictions for their certification. Wines which are classed as organic have to be recognised as such by regulating bodies such as Ecocert. In addition, in the USA, organic wines must be sulphite free. Wines which have sulphites added can be described as grown with organic grapes but not organic. (see more here)

Jeff’s wines can be classified as organic in the USA, the back labels from two cuvées are shown here. In effect they are being identified as natural wines by the USA. This is not a costly process, Jeff’s importer, Camille Riviėre, pays a fee of around $250 to be able to use the title “organic wine”.

Other people have started to campaign for certification of natural wines to help consumers make informed choices of just how “natural” are the wines they drink. Writers such as Antonin Iommi-Amunategui have set out the arguments for such certification however many are still reluctant to head down that route. Some, for example, fear that rules and regulations fly in the face of the outsider role and rebellious reputation of natural producers.

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Antonin with his manifesto for natural wine including regulation

In my opinion perhaps the time has come for certification. Consumers should be able to buy with confidence. Look at this article from the newspaper “Liberation” describing some of the many processes and additives which can legitimately be put into wines.

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Should the consumer not be more protected? I do understand the desire of winemakers to be left free to make wine in the manner they choose but standards need to be established.

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The US Department of Agriculture shows the way, natural wine must be organic and then interfered with as little as possible. The SO2 regulation there deters some producers from organics as they feel it is not worth their while to be organic at all if they intend to add sulphites thus preventing their wines from being classed as organic. Some, like Jeff, might insist upon that restriction, others would be more liberal. In addition, Wregg’s list forms the basis for rules, if tightened up a little.

Natural wine is often completely dismissed by some on the experience of one or two bottles not being correct, a level of criticism not applied to more conventional wines. Not all natural wines are good, I personally like some more than others. In my view, it does need to be clear about what it is and that certain standards are being met, otherwise it risks being an easy target for many, however unfairly. And wines which are not natural (as most would understand the term) will continue to be sold as the same as those of Jeff, Barral, Texier, Foillard and many others.

Further reading

Le Figaro

Vincent Pousson