Fri 08 Sep 2017

How Green is Your (Loire) Valley?

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One of the big surprises for me, when I visited the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers with buyer Jo Locke MW earlier in the year, was just how many organic and biodynamic producers were there. There was even a separate exhibition alongside the main wine fair purely for producers who farm in this way.

I wrote about our trip in our Travels in Wine feature on the website, if you’ like to read more about that.

Joanna Locke MW with producer Denis Jamain

 

Some of the producers we follow were in the Levée de la Loire – the organic/biodynamic hall, even though they don’t particularly make a big song and dance about their farming methods. Others chose to be in the main Salon, despite having organic or sometimes biodynamic certification. So I was interested in finding out why this might be, as well as in exploring the prominence of organics.

That 20% of the 250-odd exhibitors in the main hall were certified as organic and that the Levée had a total of 150 organic Loire producers and 70 biodynamic producers, came as a surprise to me, though I can’t think why. After all, the Loire has spawned some of France’s most vociferous advocates of biodynamics – Didier Dagueneau in Pouilly-Fumé and Nicolas Joly in the tiny Savennières appellation, for example. And then there’s star of Vouvray, Domaine Huet, who quietly went about converting to biodynamic viticulture, way before it could have been called trendy!

I had just assumed that grape-growing in this relatively northerly region and comparatively damp climate might present challenges to growers. So, I thought that it wouldn’t be possible to take the risk of farming organically or biodynamically and possibly lose one’s crop to the caprices of Mother Nature.

Chatting to winemakers, wine experts and importers during the fair, I tried to find out what the thinking is these days about organic/biodynamic production in the Loire. It’s fair to say that I heard quite a few different theories during our visit here, which I thought might be of interest to members.

One rather cynical school of thought attributes the popularity of ‘organics’ to the region’s proximity to Paris. ‘It’s partly down to the pressure from French journalists who can easily get here!.

A more generous explanation I heard was that, compared to other parts of France, land here is relatively cheap and therefore within the reach of young winemakers just starting out. They are far more likely to be predisposed to embrace organic and biodynamic principles from the start.

This was from a young French horticultural engineer who happened to be seated alongside us at one of our tastings. Interestingly, he also told me that the Loire Valley is a prime site for the cultivation of plants for seed production. The mild climate is ideal, apparently, and the germination rate of the seeds that come from here is higher than anywhere else in France. Perhaps that’s another reason the Loire Valley also goes by the name of ‘the Garden of France’.

Denis Jamain of Domaine de Reuilly, who produces a number of cuvées (including biodynamically), and who chose to exhibit in the main exhibition hall rather than the one specifically for organic/biodynamic producers, had a more prosaic explanation: ‘There’s more and more demand for organic and biodynamic wines from importers in North America and Scandinavia, particularly where there are state-controlled monopolies on buying wine – they’re much more interested in ethical concerns I have noticed.’ That’s not to diminish his own commitment – he is far from being the type to jump onto any kind of band-wagon for marketing purposes, I can assure you!

And, talking of commitment, this is something that Evelyne de Pontbriand of Savennières estate Domaine du Closel, highlighted to us in a talk about her wines and converting from sustainable farming to biodynamics. She wishes her neighbours in Savennières would do the same too: ‘Around 60-70% of growers are organic and we would love the whole appellation to convert. It is not that people are against it as such, it’s more a question of economics. Farming this way is bound to reduce your yields; some say your vineyards suffer more disease and it’s harder on a bigger scale. Organic farming doesn’t make you rich!’

Importer and Loire expert, Chris Hardy spends a great deal of time in the region. I was interested in his thoughts on the subject:

‘Yes, as we are more northerly, vineyard management methods need to be adapted to keep the grapes healthy as they ripen, though with coherent management, rot isn’t a major problem.’ He told me.

He went on to tell me about the growers he works with, most of whom work sustainably, many certified under the Terra Vitis organisation, ‘but most just using their brains – treating their vineyards as little as possible and preferably only in a preventative way. When needed they will spray, but will use the least damaging and most eco-friendly preparations – some non-organic sprays are more friendly than organic ones!’

Chris sees what work goes into bringing in a healthy crop, and I think that’s the crux of it. Whether you chose to follow organic or biodynamic principles or prefer to go the sustainable route, there just is no substitute for hard and intelligent work – these are the people we at The Society champion too.

Here, Chris gives some idea of what’s involved:

Basic steps, from the ground up:

  1. Grass through the vineyards: that means a little more competition for the grapes, potentially lowering yields, but it’s easier to ripen smaller crops. It also means that when it rains, the water first goes to the grass and not into the vines and grapes, which would then swell, burst and rot. If you go into the vineyards pre-harvest you can see that this a no-brainer: where there’s grass, it is long and vibrantly green and the grapes are healthy. Where there’s no grass, the grapes swell and start to burst, causing rot.

 

  1. Pruning: ideally starting with at la taille which begins around November and pruning long and then de-budding, rubbing out alternate buds so as to space the bunches, keeping them apart. Short pruning short packs the bunches close together, so if one starts to rot, they all do.
  2. Green harvest: if the grower didn’t prune that way, they can catch up later with either a green harvest (the earlier the better so as not to waste energy going to grapes that will be thrown away), reducing the yield and separating the bunches.
  3. De-leafing/leaf plucking around the bunches: this can be done by machine (fans sucking leaves away or with gas burners) or by hand. The idea is to clear the leaves from around the bunches, allowing better access to sun and wind. You can do this on one side or both. The risk in really hot summers it that you can lose some of your crop because the grapes shrivel without any shade.

The sun helps thicken the grapes’ skins, making them more resistant to disease and rot (and giving potentially more flavour) and the wind helps dry off any mist/rain from the grapes, again helping keep them free of rot. Leaf plucking early enough can give the grapes an extra week to ten days on the vines before picking. At a weekly gain of around 1° and a fall of around 1g acidity, that can make a BIG difference to the maturity of the harvest.

In a year when you can expect rain before harvest, to me, again, that’s a no-brainer.

  1. Raise leaf height (especially if you’ve de-leafed as you need to compensate for the grapes you have removed): leaves = photosynthesis = ripeness. Young leaves photosynthesise better than old leaves, so taking, say, 20cm of leaf away at the bottom of the vine and encouraging, say, 40cm at the top will really boost the ripeness of the grapes.

This really increases the chance of reaching phenolic maturity (ripe tannins), essential in the Loire as red wines by law are dry with a max 2 g/l residual sugar, so any under-ripeness can come across as bitterness.

You can see the ripeness arrive with the reds – the stalks start to turn red and the pips start to go from green (and bitter) to brown (and nutty).

We often get rain end September and in October, so the more work done early, the better. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work and takes vigilance and strength of mind at times!’

It’s quite humbling to hear about just how much work goes into producing your glass of wine and spare a thought for those that didn’t produce any in 2016 because of frosts, which don’t discriminate between organic or non-organic vines.

 

So, while I’m not sure that I found out the real reason for the high numbers of organic and biodynamic Loire producers represented at the trade fair in Angers, I did learn an awful lot more about vineyard husbandry. It makes me appreciate the wine all the more.

>Enjoy buyer Joanna Locke MW’s pick of the 2016 vintage in our current offer

>Read more about our trip to the region in Travels in Wine

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