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The search for resistant grape varietals


The vine is a plant from the creeper family, and was brought to France by the Romans.  Cultural exchanges are therefore at the heart of farming this plant.  Nowadays a wine produced in one region can be drank anywhere in the world, and French grape varietals such as Pinot Noir or Merlot are grown as far afield as the United States, New Zealand or South Africa, giving a different expression of the terroir they inhabit than found in Bordeaux or Burgundy.

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The impact of some exchanges have however made life very difficult to grow vines.  The most famous example being the arrival of phylloxera in Europe, an aphid of North American origin that decimated the vineyards throughout France  in the 19th century.  French agronomists found a cure by using a North American root from vines not suitable for making wine, and then grafting cuttings from French grape varietals onto them.  The American root stock is planted in the ground, and is unaffected by the aphid, and so resolved the phylloxera problem.

Other diseases, such as mildew or odium, also hail from the American continent, being transported with the help of commercial shipping.  These two fungi also decimated the French vineyards in the 19th century.  French researchers found two products to fight against the fungi.  Sulphur for the odium and copper for the mildew.

The vines are at risk from these two fungi in spring.  They only attack the parts of the vine above ground and that are growing.  They also need a combination of heat and rain to develop.  By spraying sulphur and copper at the right time, it is possible to limit their development and save the future harvest.

In the 60s, the petro-chemical industry developed synthetic products that were much more efficient than copper and sulphur in fighting these diseases.  The only problem being that they also destroy a large share of the other living organisms present in the soil, and we still don’t fully understand the impact of the residue that is then found in the wine and on the skin of the people who work in the vineyards.  With the better understanding we have today of the development cycle of mildew and odium, we are able to effectively fight most of the time against these two diseases using sulphur and copper, the only two products that are authorised in organic farming.
These two products are said to be “contact” products as they protect the plants from the outside and do not penetrate inside the plant.  However, they are therefore easily washed off when it rains, and so the winemaker needs to regularly pass through the vineyards to keep the vines protected.  This involves lots of diesel powered tractors and so higher CO² emissions that add to the greenhouse effect.  What’s more, the products can then pollute the soil as they are washed away by the rain.  Copper in particular is a product that stays in the soil, the amount accumulating year after year.  It’s a big problem for organic winemakers, even though it has much less impact in polluting the soil than the chemical products.  The environmental challenge is to try and find solutions to reduce this pollution. Already the maximum amount of copper allowed to be used is controlled, and was lowered in 2019 to 4kg per hectare per year on average over a 7 year period.  As the amount that is needed varies year on year depending on the rainfall, the theory is that the average smooths out variances in amounts used due to wetter or drier years.

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Agronomic research is now turning towards producing grapes from varietals that are resistant to fungal disease.  By crossbreeding different grape varietals that have been selected for their resistance to mildew and odium, and their ability to produce quality grapes, tests are currently being carried out in France.  You will almost certainly have not yet tasted the wine that they produce because the grapes are not yet authorised to be used in the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) wines, but Floréal and Voltis for white wine, and Artaban and Vidoc for red wine, will be set to arrive in your glasses before too long.  The approach is very interesting, but these new grape varietals with folkloric names raise further questions.

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France prides itself on producing wines that characterise the different terroir from which they hail, the AOC system being its guardian.  For example, the Pinot Noir grape varietal has always been the only one allowed to produce AOC Santenay red wine in Burgundy, ever since the AOC was created nearly 100 years ago.  Wouldn’t a red wine produced within the geographic boundary of AOC Santenay produced with a different grape varietal distort the AOC system itself?  The same for the Merlot grape varietal in Saint-Emilion! The grape varietals authorised have always been part of the foundation of the AOC system.  By changing the grape varietals, you would have to change the AOC system itself and the taste of the different French wines.

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And what if these grape varietals said to be resistant to mildew and odium, then revealed themselves to be susceptible to other, as yet unknown, diseases, we’d maybe be better off sticking with the actual situation!  But this is an avenue worth exploring, and as always with the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), the government body charged with creating and upholding the AOC system, change is never something that is done quickly without due consideration given to the sustainability and impact of the proposed change.

The environmental challenges that we are currently facing oblige us to innovate and search for real solutions.  The example of grafting European grape varietals shows us that research can bring solutions that do not harm the environment, whilst the problems encountered with the application of synthetic products show us that they are not always the miracle cure.  The searching and questioning must go on!

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