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Friday Read: Updating organic viticulture for tomorrow's world

Published:  27 March, 2020

It was June 2011 when Dr Richard Smart first told a group of journalists that organic and biodynamic wines were damaging to the environment. Speaking at the 'Wineries for Climate Protection' conference that took place in Barcelona that year, his scathing criticism rapidly spread across the internet, much to the delight of my editors.

It was the first time I'd heard anyone question what appeared to be a winegrowing axiom – vineyards treated with naturally-derived chemicals are better for your health and the environment. Ever the iconoclast, Dr Smart repeated his assertion that organic methods were “vastly over-hyped” ad-nauseam, although the industry largely ignored him. In the early 21st century, a raft of wineries rushed to declare their conversion to organic methods and subsequent certification. It's understandable: the organic and natural-products industry is estimated to be worth over $62bn worldwide.

However, as the viticultural debate increasingly welcomes alternative paradigms – such as sustainable viticulture -  a growing number of wineries are starting to publicly raise concerns about the inherent flaws of organic methods. The stick used to lambast organic viticulture relies on several key facts, the most pertinent being that organic methods often require a liberal application of the Bordeaux mixture. This concoction is a blend of copper sulphate and slaked lime, used as an organic fungicide to treat downy mildew, powdery mildew and other fungi. But copper is “the most harmful chemical input you can use in winegrowing", according to Smart. 

The intrepid viticulturist also points out that many organic operations use pesticides – albeit naturally-derived chemicals – in large volumes. Currently, there are over 18 chemicals used in the growing and processing of organic crops that have been approved by the US Organic Standards agency. For decades, these included Rotenone, which is derived from the roots and stems of a small number of subtropical plants. However, it has subsequently been prohibited in many countries, due to its harmful toxicity. Likewise, growers are increasingly questioning the wisdom of dosing their soil in copper. 

“AR Lenoble’s 18ha of vineyards have been certified Haute Valeur Environnementale since 2012. We are practicing near-organic viticulture with one important caveat,” says Christian Holthausen, AR Lenoble's export and communications director.

“We do not feel comfortable treating mildew with copper sulphate since we are worried about the long-term effects of copper in the soil. It rains more in Champagne than almost any other region in France. Mildew is a recurring problem. If we have to treat it periodically with drastic limits on the use of phytosanitary inputs to control both mildew and powdery mildew, we would prefer to treat it periodically rather than to introduce large amounts of copper into the soil.”

Spanish producer Torres is something of an expert on the downsides of organic viticulture, despite employing organic methods across its vineyards in Catalunya. When I interviewed Miguel A.Torres in 2019, he pointed out that “the key difference between sustainable and organic viticulture is that organics do not sufficiently take climate change into consideration". 

“In general organic vineyards need more treatments with sulphur or bouillie bordelaise which means more C02 emissions,” said Torres. “A few years ago a research project coordinated by the University of Zaragoza concluded that organic vineyards have a 22% higher CO2 footprint than traditional vineyards. The other important point is that the copper from the bouillie bordelaise is toxic for the soils.”

Torres' remains a key advocate of promoting sustainable winemaking across the world. Their “Torres & Earth” program aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 30% per bottle by 2020 in comparison with 2008. It has invested more than 12m and has reduced its C02 footprint by 25.4%.

But sustainable viticulture is also not above criticism. Its methods are routinely lambasted for allowing the application of synthetic chemicals, including glyphosate, in controlled volumes. Depending on whom you ask, synthetic chemicals are either a necessary component in managing pest levels, or an abomination that should be outlawed. There is clearly no viticultural approach that can please everyone.

Yet a paradigm is emerging which may eventually become the unifying gold standard across the world's vineyards. Luc Planty, winemaker at Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes, suggests modifying the organic paradigm.  He argues that if you merge the best elements of organics with a strong emphasis on promoting biodiversity, then you can drastically reduce the amount of naturally-derived pesticides used, including the Bordeaux mixture.

Today, there are over 653 varieties of insects and birds recorded in their vineyards, used as a pest enforcement agency. This strategy, combined with widespread pheromone capsule usage (designed to prevent insects mating), has been very successful according to Planty.

“We're also working hard to reduce the amount of copper we use in the vineyards,” he says.

“The current legal limit is 4kg/ha of copper in the Bordeaux mixture; previously it was 6kg/ha. At Guiraud, we use less than two – I'd like to reduce it further.”

Antoine Malassagne, fourth generation co-owner of Champagne AR Lenoble, adds: “For over 20 years now we have not been using insecticides or herbicides. For nearly 10 years we have been setting up beehives, and we have planted hedgerows in Bisseuil and Chouilly. The entire Champagne region is in the process of evolving, and the idea promoted by the CIVC is for all producers to embrace biodiversity amongst other factors.”

The beauty of biodiversity is that it's a viticultural strategy which does not play favourites. Organic, 'conventional' and sustainable growers who use controlled amounts of synthetic chemicals in the vineyard have all embrace biodiversity. This is not an ethos which demands mutual exclusivity, and yet it enables growers to use less chemicals, be it synthetic or naturally-derived. Of course, it is not an approach that comes without risks – Malassagne underlines the point that encouraging flora and fauna diversity can lead to crop losses, if one insect or species establishes dominance in the eco-system. Nevertheless, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

“We always try to maximise biodiversity and manage our land in a way that respects existing ecosystems. Our embracing of biodiversity goes actually hand in hand with our change to organic viticulture in the 1980s, because we realised that in the long term this was the only direction that made sense,” said Torres.

Moreover, biodiversity's impact extends far beyond protecting the vines from predatory organisms. Planty explains that biodiversity has a positive impact on soil fertility, reducing of risk of erosion and improving soil structure and water holding capacity. Planting lines of shrubs and trees provides several benefits, not least functioning as windbreaks, helping to reduce soil erosion from wind and rain and helping to protect young seedlings and crops. 

Indeed, there is much consensus and upbeat appraisal from viticulturists concerning the benefits of biodiversity. It is also increasingly becoming a politicised issue; in several nations, subsidies to promote a high level of biodiversity are  granted to vine-growers that satisfy a number of ecological requirements.  The European Union's Biodiversity Strategy was designed to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems in the EU and help stop biodiversity loss by 2020. In a zeitgeist where the daily diet of news is resoundingly negative, that's something we can all celebrate.