EU weedkiller row leaves French winegrowers with a hangover

In the peaceful vineyards of France's Bordeaux region, a potential EU crackdown on a popular weedkiller over cancer fears is adding to winemakers' worries.

EU weedkiller row leaves French winegrowers with a hangover
Photo: AFP

Bad weather this year has already prompted a steep drop in French wine output, contributing to a 50-year low in global production.

And Europe-wide curbs on glyphosate, which the European Parliament wants to see banned by 2022, would be a further headache for many French vintners.

The vast majority of producers cultivating western France's famed Bordeaux grapes are heavily reliant on weedkillers including glyphosate.

In the event of an outright ban, Bordeaux grower Olivier de Marcillac said he would have to “work the land at least four times a year, meaning more equipment, more manpower”.

Yet as anger grows over its use — with 1.3 million Europeans signing a petition against it — he grudgingly admitted a ban would probably “be a good thing”.

Despite worries over his production costs going up, de Marcillac is already resigned to cutting his use of chemicals — two rounds of treatment a year,
lowering the dose by 25 percent.

The European Commission has suggested a five-year licence for glyphosate, instead of the usual seven, but postponed a vote on the issue Wednesday.

Under blue skies at de Marcillac's chateau in Gardegan-et-Tourtirac, a tractor prepared a field for the sowing of crops like fava beans and oats between the vine rows.

This technique is used by some 85 percent of Bordeaux winemakers to avoid soil erosion.

But under the vines themselves, a hefty majority spray glyphosate to keep the ground clear.

Weeds here could spell disaster for the precious grapes — “they're a real magnet for disease,” explained Yannick Sabate of Chateau Fontdaube in nearby Saint-Magne-de-Castillon.

'Luxury' of going chemical-free

As an organic farmer, Sabate's brother Christian doesn't have the option of using glyphosate.

He instead has to use a special machine to go painstakingly between the rows removing weeds — a lot more complicated than spraying them with
chemicals, which is easy, quick and cheap.

Growers opting for the non-chemical method also need to have training and find qualified manpower, which is lacking in the region.

The arduous process needs to be done four to six times a year, compared to just two or three for weedkiller.

It takes three times longer and can cause subsidence in the land. Plus, the diesel needed for the machine adds to costs, along with wear and tear to the equipment.

Even with local government subsidies, not everyone can afford it.

“We do it, but it's a luxury that we allow ourselves in order to increase the value of our wine,” says Yann Todeschini, who runs two chateaux in the region.

The cost of the equipment adds 50-70 euro cents ($0.58 to $0.82) per bottle.

Todeschini and his brother decided in 2009 to give up chemicals — to the great displeasure of their grandfather, who was “ashamed to see his vines
dirtied” with weeds, and worried about the economic impact.

“We had a drop in yields at the beginning — we got it back three to five years later with vines that were more balanced thanks to better soil quality,” said the young winemaker.


Cold snap ‘could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent’

A rare cold snap that froze vineyards across much of France this month could see harvest yields drop by around a third this year, France's national agriculture observatory said on Thursday.

Cold snap 'could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent'
A winemaker checks whether there is life in the buds of his vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes in western France, on April 12th, following several nights of frost. Photo: Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Winemakers were forced to light fires and candles among their vines as nighttime temperatures plunged after weeks of unseasonably warm weather that had spurred early budding.

Scores of vulnerable fruit and vegetable orchards were also hit in what Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie called “probably the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century.”

IN PICTURES: French vineyards ablaze in bid to ward off frosts

The government has promised more than €1 billion in aid for destroyed grapes and other crops.

Based on reported losses so far, the damage could result in up to 15 million fewer hectolitres of wine, a drop of 28 to 30 percent from the average yields over the past five years, the FranceAgriMer agency said.

That would represent €1.5 to €2 billion of lost revenue for the sector, Ygor Gibelind, head of the agency’s wine division, said by videoconference.

It would also roughly coincide with the tally from France’s FNSEA agriculture union.

Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed during a visit to damaged fields in southern France last Saturday that the emergency aid would be made available in the coming days to help farmers cope with the “exceptional situation.”

READ ALSO: ‘We’ve lost at least 70,000 bottles’ – French winemakers count the cost of late frosts