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Why more and more French wine producers are going organic

Harvesters pick grapes in the wineyard of Chateau Pre La Lande near Bordeaux, which produces an organic and vegan wine.
Harvesters pick grapes in the wineyard of Chateau Pre La Lande near Bordeaux, which produces an organic and vegan wine. Photo: GEORGES GOBET / AFP.
As France launches a major study into the effects of pesticides on people living near vineyards, we look at the growing movement of wine-growers who are turning their backs on chemicals.

Earlier this month, public health authority Santé Publique France and the National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (Anses) launched a vast study into the health effects of wine production on local residents.

The study, known as PestiRiv, will measure the level of exposure of 3,350 people in six wine-producing regions: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Grand Est, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Occitanie, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

Researchers will measure the presence of pesticides in participants’ urine and hair samples, in the air inside their homes, and in the fruit and vegetables in their gardens, and will compare those living within 500 metres of vines to those living further away, with the results set to be published in 2024.

Although grape vines are among the crops which are treated with the most pesticides in France, there is little recent data around the extent of this addiction or its effects on local inhabitants. It is often said that vineyards represent just 3 percent of agricultural land in France, but 20 percent of pesticide use. However, those figures date back to the year 2000.

In recent years French agriculture has come under increasing pressure to reduce its use of pesticides, partly in response to a number of prominent scandals.

In 2015, after the mayor of the small town of Preignac in south-west France alerted health authorities to a high number of cancer cases in children who had attended the local primary school, which was in close proximity to vineyards, the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance concluded that “the contribution of pesticides to the risk of cancer cannot be excluded.”

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The same year, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate, which is widely used in French wine production, was “probably carcinogenic to humans”. President Emmanuel Macron initially promised to ban the world’s most widely used weedkiller by 2021, but this has been pushed back to 2023.

Agricultural workers most at risk

The study has already been criticised by Bordeaux winemakers who feel there is an excessive focus on their region, but it’s not just producers of non-organic, “conventional” wine who are sceptical.

“If there’s one thing that needs doing it’s a serious study on agricultural workers,” Philippe Carretero, an organic Bordeaux winegrower at Château Rioublanc, told The Local. “The neighbour in her house could get a few grams [of pesticide]. But the person who’s much, much more exposed to it is the one on the tractor, or the one who spends hours with his hands in the leaves walking through it and breathing it in.”

Carretero had already been producing wine for two decades when he made the transition to organic agriculture in 2009. His primary motivation was to stop using weedkiller. “It contaminates the soil, the groundwater tables, is dangerous for users, and goes against the idea of the produit du terroir.”

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This is a dilemma most winegrowers face – if grass and weeds are allowed to grow around the vine, they will block the sun and prevent the grapes from ripening. For some, going without weedkiller is unimaginable.

Carretero had been tilling the land, but this became impossible as his vineyard expanded. Then he discovered a machine which allows him to remove weeds without overturning the soil. He obtained the bio (organic) label so that consumers would recognise that he no longer used weedkiller.

In the process, he realised that weedkiller was not the only problem. 

“From the moment you take away the easy solution, you realise that you’re going to make the earth and the plant work in a more normal way, respecting the plant’s cycle,” he said. “A true winegrower is someone who cultivates not only the vine, but also his environment.”

The rise of organic wine

In line with wider trends, the market for organic wine has grown exponentially in France. At the end of 2019, vineyards certified as organic or in the process of converting made up 14 percent of the total surface area in France, according to figures cited by the Millesime Bio organic wine fair. That represents 8,000 vineyards covering 112,000 hectares, up from 28,000 hectares in 2008.

“When we started in 2009, it made no difference to the business side, people said it was good but it wasn’t important,” Carretero said. “In the last five year’s it’s become very important, a criteria in people’s decision making.

People visit "Millesime Bio 2020", an international organic wine fair in Montpellier.

People visit “Millesime Bio 2020”, an international organic wine fair in Montpellier. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP.

“All my winegrower neighbours told me I was crazy, that I wasn’t going to cope with the mildew. I was the only organic winegrower in my village. After five or six years they start saying, ‘I could try that, too’.

“In my village, more and more people are going organic.”

His département, Gironde, now boasts the largest number of organic wine producers in France – 775 in 2019 – followed by Hérault.

“The real boom began between 2007 and 2008,” Nicholas Richarme, president of the Sudvinbio association of organic winegrowers in the Occitanie region, told The Local.

“I think it’s down to a greater awareness, especially in terms of people’s health, they realised that organic wines were the only wines where you can be sure there are no pesticide residues, and ecologically it’s also a cultivation method that responds to a social expectation.”

So if we want to stay in good health, should we all be drinking organic wine?

As well as additives, studies have previously identified the presence of pesticide residue in conventional wines, but usually at rates far below those allowed by European law.

Although any negative effect of those chemicals on wine drinkers’ health is yet to be proven, Richarme is cautious. “Long term, I think regular consumption of pesticides has an impact on your health.”

Carretero, on the other hand, admits that opting for organic wine won’t make much of a difference from a health perspective.

“It’s more important to eat organic vegetables. The fermentation cleans the wine a little, it’s a very pure product, but the worker who has their hands in the leaves all day is in direct contact with the products.”

Organic or natural?

It’s also important to note that when we talk about organic wine, this covers a wide spectrum of producers and methods.

“There is a whole market of organic wines that you find in supermarkets which have little to do with certain organic winegrowers who produce something closer to natural wine,” said Christelle Pineau, an anthropologist and author of La corne de vache et le microscope, a book about the growing network of natural wine producers in France.

Indeed, while the bio label encompasses a range of practices, it’s not the only movement that’s gaining in popularity. Organic wine is regulated by a set of European specifications which mainly pertain to the grapes themselves, which must be grown without pesticides, weedkiller or chemical fertilisers.

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An offshoot of the organic wine movement is vin nature (natural wine), which goes further by generally using no additives during the wine-making process, including no or few added sulfites, but which represents only a small percentage of organic wines.

There is so far no official set of specifications, and producers are not allowed to label their wine as vin nature, but must instead say vin méthode nature (natural method wine), and the bottles are mostly sold through specialist wine merchants or in restaurants.

As Pineau explains, the winemaker and chemist Jules Chauvet began using natural wine methods, without calling them that, in the Beaujolais in the 1950s, but it’s in the 1980s that a network began to develop, before gaining momentum in the 2000s through both the conversion of existing vineyards as well as people who left other professions to start a new life with the goal of producing wine as naturally as possible.

Organic winemaker Christian Sabate drives a tractor fitted with a weeding machine through the vines of the Chateau Fontbaude, which produces Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux wine.

Organic winemaker Christian Sabate drives a tractor fitted with a weeding machine through the vines of the Chateau Fontbaude, which produces Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux wine. Photo: MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP.

Earlier this year, after spending years researching natural wines, Pineau took the plunge and began producing wine herself using the methods on one and a half hectares of land. She says what motivates the people she has spoken to, and now herself, is not just a question of health, but a reaction against the system where humans dominate all other living creatures.

“It’s more largely about the health of the planet – plants, animals, humans. It’s another way of seeing the world.”

Then there is biodynamic wine, which uses organic planting methods but also follows the principles laid forth by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner which include working according to a specific astronomic calendar.

Marc Humbrecht’s father converted the domaine Paul Humbrecht vineyard, which has been in the family since 1620, to organic grapes in 1998, and biodynamic agriculture a year later. He had already begun getting rid of synthetic chemicals in 1985, after getting splashed with one and losing his eyesight for four hours.

“He realised that the products were much more harmful than the salesmen had told him,” said Marc, who now runs the vineyard.

For this Alsatian winegrower, biodynamic agriculture means everything is done according to the lunar calendar, from working the soil, to planting, to making the wine itself.

It also means using herbal tea to strengthen the vines’ immunity and reduce the need for copper and sulphur. “This year in Alsace we had a lot of mildew, but we had very few losses. We came out the other end with very good results compared to our neighbours.

“It’s much more respectful to look for a balance in the vine, not to force it to produce more than it’s capable of. We don’t insist with the plant, it’s more about understanding.”

‘We lost half our harvest’

With their six hectares, the Humbrecht family can closely monitor the plant’s needs. But while that may sound like the perfect solution to a problem that is increasingly on people’s minds, going organic is easier said than done.

In Bordeaux, on the Atlantic coast where it often rains, the big problem is mildew. “It comes when it rains and destroys the plant. This summer we lost half of our harvest because there was a lot of rain,” Carretero said.

To remedy this problem, organic winegrowers use a fungicide which contains copper. All producers, organic or not, are authorised to use up to 4kg of copper per hectare per year. But while other options are available to “conventional” winegrowers, copper is the only fungicide the organic sector is allowed to use.

In the middle of the last century, winegrowers would sometimes use more than 50kg of copper per hectare, quantities which damage the soil and attack other types of fungus that are necessary for plants to grow. Reducing the amount of copper used is more respectful of the environment, but it leaves organic producers exposed to greater risks.

The weather is much less of a problem in Occitanie, the French region with the largest surface area of organic vineyards – 38 percent of the total surface area in France.

For Richarme of Sudvinbio, there is also another factor to this local success, though. “Other regions have large appellations which help them commercially. In Occitanie, we have much more vins de pays.”

According to the winemaker, as well as having a positive impact on growers’ health and on the environment, going organic can also add value in a market where health concerns are taking on more importance, while producers of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) wines feel less need to rethink their techniques.

As for all wine produced in France eventually becoming organic, he says this is “utopian”. “Not all winegrowers have the technical or financial capacity.”

Organic methods of farming can also be met with resistance.

“There are regions where it’s more complicated for economic and historical reasons,” Pineau said. “In the Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne regions it’s more difficult, more discreet, there is a confrontation between the two visions because there are high financial stakes and brand image can be damaged when conventional producers are called out.”

While admitting that change won’t happen overnight, she says nobody is now unaware of the issue. “It calls into question a whole life, a whole way of doing things, which can be difficult to experience. But at a certain point, the greater interest goes beyond personal perception. It’s necessary to understand that we’re part of something much larger.”

The taste test

Despite all the arguments around health and the environment, wine is fundamentally about pleasure. So the big question is: how does it taste?

Pineau admits that the taste of natural wine can be surprising, for better or for worse depending on the person.

“Wine which hasn’t been oriented by techniques or products to taste a certain way, letting the wine express itself, provokes different flavours, and most of all flavours we had forgotten because the palate has been used to, or even shaped by, a whole range of conventional wines, flavours shaped by the AOCs.”

She adds: “The fact of not having too much sulphur allows for less painful sensations and digestion.”

While natural wines continue to divide opinion, the answer is clear when it comes to organic wine. When he converted to organic wine in 2009, Carretero says he had clients who were worried it would no longer taste as good, but today people are much less likely to have such doubts.

According to a recent study by French researchers in France and the US, people generally prefer the taste of organic and biodynamic wines.

Whatever the motivations, one thing is for sure: organic wine is here to stay. “It really attracts young people,” Carretero said. “I have many more requests for work experience now that I’ve gone organic.”


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