The Languedoc Roussillon region was struck by huge storms on November 28th. Lightning and thunder which lasted almost a whole day, torrential rain all day (over 210mm at Bédarieux), hail for half an hour, winds well over 100kph. Even local people were surprised by the storm. There are some scary pictures on Midi Libre.
A walk around Margon, our home village, 3 days later showed that many vineyards had been damaged. At this time of the year the vines themselves are not so vulnerable of course, there are no grapes left on there. However, the soils themselves were damaged in many places by erosion.
Much of our area has clay soils which are not the easiest to drain. However, many modern agricultural practices exacerbate this problem. Using heavy machinery such as tractors, harvesting machines and large sprayers means that the soils become compacted and, therefore, even more impermeable (photo 2). Inappropriate use of herbicides and weed killers to get rid of grass and other plants means that the soil has nothing to bind it together and, consequently, heavy rain will cause erosion as we see in photo 1. Overploughing will combine both problems.
I remember when I first visited French vineyards 30 years ago that most were like this. Times have changed though and more artisanal, more environmentally aware viticulturists have realised that the soil has to be treated with respect. In a previous post I mentioned that the soil experts Claude and Anne Bourguignon gave a talk recently which I attended. They explained that the soil is what gives a crucial 6% of the vine’s needs which can make all the difference in terms of flavour and quality. Vine roots need to reach down into the soil to extract the water and minerals which they require to grow and to fruit. They confirmed that the best practice is what many winemakers have been doing in recent years. Allowing grass and other plants to grow amongst the vines brings many benefits:
- binding the soil, making it stronger and less prone to erosion
- stronger soil makes it easier to withstand machinery
- competition for nutrients drives the vine roots deeper where more of the species which benefit the plants live
- retaining moisture in summer which can also be used by the vines
- providing shelter to other wildlife which eat the insects that damage vines and grapes
The photos above show how two parcels of vines just metres apart responded to the storms. The difference is obvious.
Vines with shallow roots do not access the deeper minerals and ecosystem. The roots also overheat being nearer to the surface and this can mean that they shut down some of their work and grapes will not ripen so well or evenly.
Yet there are vignerons in the area who have installed or are installing irrigation. This can only compound the problem in a region where there are occasional droughts but not on the scale of Australia for example.
Jeff Coutelou reported to me that there had been no erosion in his vines unlike those of some of his neighbours, the reason may be seen in the photos below.
One sad casualty of the storms was the tree with a bat shelter installed by Jeff. Bats are good friend to vines as they eat many insects which might damage them or their grapes. Encouraging them and other friendly wildife, such as wagtails and hoopoes, helps to keep the grapes in good health. Unfortunately the tree, which was dead, was uprooted and so a new bat home will be established soon.
And finally how to control that grass and plant life? Ploughing or working the soil is needed at times but there are some novel alternatives. At Mas Gabriel a local farmer brings his sheep into the vineyard at this time of year. And then, as I was driving to Cabrieres the other day I came across this.
Being in the vines is always interesting!