The 18thC German physicist’s words struck home to me after visiting the vineyards for one last look around before I head back to the UK. They are a beautiful sight at this time of year, a rainbow of colours as I hope my photos will show. And all under a golden, morning sun, of which more later.
That the vineyards are so stunning at this time of year came as no surprise but they had one or two lessons to teach me, my fourth autumn here but still learning.
There is truth in Lichtenberg’s words. The vines are giving back to the earth some of what they took from it during the year, the leaves mulch into the soil, a repayment yet also an investment for next year. Together with the discarded bunches and berries left from vendanges, they will add life to the earth, indeed there were insects and butterflies, birds and worms aplenty. Healthy soils.
BUT. They are very, very dry. Cracks in the earth in October. Two mornings of light rain, otherwise next to nothing for four to five months. Parts of the Hérault are already being declared as an emergency situation because of the drought. The temperatures remain in the mid to high 20s, lovely for visitors but the local population and the earth need steady rain to arrive soon. The forecast shows no rain.
My other major lesson was the variation in varieties, not a tautology I promise.
Compare the two halves of Ste Suzanne taken from La Garrigue, to the left is the Syrah, to the right Grenache. In La Garrigue these two cépages show a difference, the Syrah losing its leaves, the Grenache still mainly green.
La Garrigue – Syrah left and Grenache right
Meanwhile the Carignan leaves turn a vivid red colour, much more so than any other variety.
And in my favourite vineyard, Rome. The birds are back in numbers after the summer. Birdsong rings around the bowl of the parcel, the fig tree has given its two crops and the olives are turning colour just like those in Font D’Oulette, the Flower Power vineyard.
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.
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.
Trou dans la feuille
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.
Grapes punctured by hail
Hail damage, disease risk
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.
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.
Le Carignan de Jeff a coté
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.
The weather in the Languedoc has been a talking point, apparently it is not just a topic for us British people. No rain since June 12th, very high temperatures, 39C one day last week. Fires in the garrigue, vineyards and even towns, including our neighbouring village of Roujan. The result of this has been fissures in the ground, e.g. the photograph below in one of Jeff’s vineyards.
This crack in the soil is over 30cm deep, a sign of the drought conditions
Some of the vignerons in the area have been irrigating their vines and a sign of this has been evident too. If you look at the photos below you will see white traces in the soil. This is calcium carbonate which is a product of the water imported to irrigate the vines. In other words the irrigation is changing the nature of the soil itself.
The vines themselves are remarkably resistant and strong even in the face of the lack of water. This summer is nothing unusual for the Languedoc but it builds on a fairly dry year in 2014 too. The leaves of the vines are curling in on themselves, a sign of some stress.
Other problems are showing too. Esca is a virulent wood disease which is a major threat to the vineyards of France, working like a cancer inside the wood. It suddenly emerges and affects the leaves and causes the grapes to shrivel and drop off.
Esca showing on vine leaves in the Languedoc, July 21st
Some have linked its spread with rainy springs and higher summer temperatures, such as 2015. There is no cure, it was formerly treated with arsenic but that has, understandably, been banned. It is thought that 10 – 20% of French vines may be infected by the fungus, they have to be replaced and, of course, they take time to grow and don’t produce the same quality as older vines would have produced.
Vine stock showing the signs of esca after being cut
One perennial problem is vers de la grappe. These are the larvae of butterflies and they grow in coccoons amongst the grape bunches, leaving a white filament as proof of their residence. They pierce the skins of some grapes causing them to be ruined.
Characteristic puncture marks of vers de la grappe, July 21st
Careful pruning must follow.
Bats and other predators eat these pests which is why Jeff, amongst others, encourages bats to live near his vines by putting up bat houses and encouraging the growth of plants, trees etc around and amongst their vineyards.
Bat house at Ste. Suzanne, (Metaierie)
The main concern is that the lack of water will reduce yields, rain would help to swell the grapes and produce more wine. Some rain was forecast on July 22nd but in Puimisson and many other areas, none arrived.
Not all bad news however. The vines are resistant and the careful management of soils, unlike the irrigated vines above, means that their roots go deep into the soil searching for water. Struggling vines produce the most interesting wines. Let us hope that this is the case in 2015.
Diversity amongst the vines at Mas Coutelou continues, less than 10 metres from the fissure in the ground above were these partridge eggs which had hatched recently.
And in the cellars work has begun to replace the leaky roof, which is built on timbers hundreds of years in age. It is a beautiful roof and happily the timbers have been saved, most tiles will be recycled. I will write more about the changes in the cellar as preparations for the vendange begin.
And finally véraison is in full swing. The change of colour of the red grapes is one of the key events in their development as they approach maturity. This marks the change in growth of the berries, they are now producing sugars within the grape rather than concentrating on simply growing and producing acidity. It is certainly one of the most noticeable and landmark changes in the grapes.
Note the curling leaves, the vines are feeling the lack of water.
Véraison and the increase in sugar levels also attracts more animals to eat them, birds, insects etc. Problems, problems everywhere. Who would be a vigneron?
Two creatures love being in the vines for sure, me to watch their growth and, more importantly, Icare who loves to be in amongst the dirt and, in this heat, he loves the shade of the vines.