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Bordeaux Symposium: Time to put people at head of sustainability agenda

Published:  10 December, 2021

Bordeaux is expanding and re-drawing its definition of sustainability via a new strategy which aims to put people – and ecosystems in which people want to work – at the heart of its environmental agenda for 2022.

Bordeaux has long been one of the most vocal and visible French regions at the head of the sustainability charge, having made “big moves” over the past ten years on key pillars such as carbon production, energy use and water convseration. Now, they must go further, says Christophe Chateau, head of communications at the CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux). With Covid exacerbating staff shortages around the world, Chateau says viticulture must put the health of people at the heart of sustainability by having frank conversations around ecosystems in vineyards, including their dependency on chemicals, in order to create better and more productive working environments.

Speaking following a sustainability symposium which took place in Bordeaux this week, Chateau told Harpers: “It’s a big problem in France and also the UK to get workers for restaurants or bars, but it’s starting to be important also for agriculture and vines. We need to have new generations coming into the vineyard, and we need a new strategy, because people say ‘we don’t want to work in the industry that is using chemical production because this is not good for the planet’. So we have to show them that what we are doing now is [focusing] more resources and human resources in a way that is good for them and good for the planet.”

He added: “Some have said, ‘this is not a great time to launch a sustainability initiative. The economy is difficult because of Covid. Yields are expected to be 25-30% below normal this year because of frost and mildew, and you’re asking us to make more effort with sustainability. We can’t afford to invest. But the answer is we have to start now. If we don’t do it now, we’re dead. Twenty years ago, consumers were looking for quality and price. Ten years ago, it was environment. Now, it’s CSR. My kids, when we buy shoes, they ask ‘who made them and where’?”

Weaning vineyards chemical dependencies is a major component of making vineyards more attuned to the health of not only people and modern values, but also understanding what’s best for the vines and environment as a whole, Chateau explained.

For example, despite high levels of organic certification in the area, the CIVB is not pushing producers towards this particular framework, but rather is encouraging producers to be “better than they were ten years ago”.

“Some people say chemicals are bad; others say organics are bad. We’re saying ‘stop’. We don’t have to fight one certification against another.”

As part of this tension between what is best for the environment and the vines, Chateau notes that a high reliance on copper spraying. Despite only 15-20% of vineyards having organic certification, around 50% of all treatments in the region are currently copper.

Because of the “huge volumes of water in June” – a result of climate change – copper spraying was a necessity for many to stave off mildew.

Without these protections, yields might have been much lower, which would have had severe knock on effects not only on production and bottle price, but human resources, too.

“It’s about finding an equilibrium,” Chateau emphasises. “In Bordeaux, normally, you’re treating the vines between 10 and 15 times. But because you have to treat again every time it rains when working organically, this can drastically push up emissions from tractors and CO2. This year, some estates have sprayed 25 to 30 times. There’s not only one good solution. If you are organic, you’re producing more carbon.”

In terms of the most harmful chemical treatments, there has been a big improvement, with the percentage of the worst offenders falling from 35% of the total chemical products used ten years ago, to 7% last year.

Of Bordeaux’s 110,000 ha under vine, 15,000 ha are currently organic certified, with an additional 5,000 ha due to be gain certification in next two years.

This will put Bordeaux in first place as the largest single region with certified organic vines in France (Languedoc is biggest but is made up of different departments).

Rather than prioritising single frameworks, the CIVB is encouraging producers to sign up to one of France’s main sustainability focused frameworks, whether it’s HVE, Terra Vitis or Demeter, with the aim of pushing accreditation across the region from 75% in 2021 to 100% by 2030.