In France, like the rest of the world, natural wines (1) are experiencing a huge success since the last ten years. Independent wine merchants, wine makers and wine amateurs are in agreement with the qualities of these wines. So where is this enthusiasm coming from?

Examples of replies from reflections on agricultural productivism and terroir.

01. Origins of agricultural productivism

« After the Second World War, the Americans introduced modern chemical agriculture to Japan. This enabled the Japanese peasant to produce approximately the same yield as with a traditional method but his work time was reduced by more than half. This was a dream come true and in less than one generation nearly everybody started chemical agriculture.

For centuries, peasants had maintained organic matter in the soil by rotating crops, adding compost, manure and growing and using cover crops. Once these practices had been neglected and chemical fertilizers’ fast action had replaced them, the organic matter in the soil used itself up in one generation. The structure of the soil deteriorated; harvests weakened and became dependent on chemical nutritional elements. In compensating the reduction of animal and human work the new system eroded the fertility reserves in the soil.»

Extract taken from the book, “The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming” (1978) by Masanobu Fukuoka.

Nearly seventy years ago, coming out of the Second World War, the immediate need of producing quantities of food for a starving nation gave birth to an agricultural model intensely founded on the chemical trio, ‘weedkillers, fertilizers, pesticides’. Viticulture would not be spared from these ‘prodigious’ cultural methods which would go further and further from the real terroir by impoverishing the soils and making the vine dependent.

As years passed by, and way beyond the after-war needs, this model created an economic dependence for the agriculturalists and a guaranteed income for the phytosanitary industry which has fed the rural world with all sorts of products for nearly fifty years, always bringing more chemical one-upmanship in the name of progress for winemaking.

At the beginning it was the weed killer that was a very attractive product and promised to reduce the amount of work on the vines at the same time as keeping the soil ‘clean’ which was an essential preoccupation at this time. Once the magic effect had worn off after 5 or 6 years, these products significantly reduced the microorganisms in the soil. The individual expression of each ‘terroir’ was wiped out through the weakening soil.

To overcome this ‘spineless blow’, whose impact was played down in the long term, the industry developed the rather lucrative market of chemical fertilizers (N, P, K(2)). What’s more, in only artificially feeding the vine, this only dealt temporarily with a much deeper problem; they didn’t fill the life forces’ needs in the soil, making the soil poor. Worse still, this created serious imbalances in the long term, exposing the vine to cryptogamic illnesses amongst others.

Then, to fight against the cryptogamic illnesses, the industry developed pesticides and other systemic products (3); the loop was completed and the vine at risk.

All these chemical crutches cut the vine from its environment and always take it a little further away from its original ‘terroir’, always creating more dependency on the molecules made by the industry. Today, this model is in deadlock, confronted by the overproduction of mediocre quality, the economic crisis and the maintenance costs in this system which is exploding.

02. Making a break with the intensive model

For fifteen years in all four corners of France, winemakers estimated that progress was elsewhere, perhaps through returning to ancient methods, listening to nature and sensitively observing the vines. So, they changed their approach to their vines and wine making processes, looking for a better expression of their ‘terroirs’. Their work was guided by the pioneers who began to put the intensive model into question in the 1980’s, such as Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Paul Thévenet or Yvon Métras, working in the Beaujolais. Not easy when you had been trained at agricultural college where agrochemical interests remained dominant or you inherited from your parent’s work, trapped in systemic treatments. Choosing this other path demands a lot of courage, conviction and passion but above all, substantial work with the vines as well as in the cellar.

In this change of understanding, the most important constructive change is relearning their work, the tools to obtain this change and transforming culture methods. Leaving everything mechanical, protecting the consumers and protecting themselves from the prescribed industrial products. To summarize: leaving agricultural mistakes to take up Nicolas Joly’s formula (4).

Carried by the dynamic agroecology, these winemakers apply all or part of the biodynamic principles with success and are also trying permaculture. Their principle: do better with less:

  • Fewer treatments, even natural treatments. There is an urgency for the tired soils.
  • Less maintenance with the vines. Reintroduce labour economically, leaving the rows of vines with grasses as well as leaving pasture for flocks of sheep in the Autumn and Winter.
  • Less intervention in the cellars: get rid of the fertilizers, give homeopathic doses of sulphur or leave it out altogether if possible and avoid chaptalisation (adding sugar artificially to the wine making process).

But equally work in harmony with nature, fauna and flora; give preference to biodiversity and put man in his rightful place in this environment.

03. Human’s role in expressing ‘terroir’

Amongst all this work in harmony with nature, full of good sense, is the aim to make alive wines, anchored in their ‘terroir’.

The ‘terroir’ in viticulture cannot only be seen from a natural point of view, where only the soils, the climate and the exposure or orientation make fine wines. As we have previously seen, the lack of particular agricultural practices to understand nature can shatter the terroir’s characteristics where certain wines are benefiting, nonetheless, from an AOC label. Human’s role, with his knowledge based on observation and understanding of living elements, is therefore an inseparable element of the notion of terroir.

Alive wines reveal their terroirs because their grapes have been nurtured through sensitivity an experience central to viticulture practice today, because these winemakers have understood that clean, healthy grapes during the harvest have every chance of having indigenous yeasts (5). These true yeasts, which prosper on vines maintained as naturally as possible, are witnesses to a season’s climatic changes and bring all the subtleties of alive wines.

The terroir, in today’s understanding, cannot be frozen in an archaic vision through state organizations and in the interest of economic powers. It is progressive, imbued with multiculturalism and interwoven experiences. The Japanese or Scandinavian new-winemakers, who are established in France, have a completely different approach to the French winemakers because their experience, their taste and their cultures are different. They bring another viticultural concept which is enriching French viticultural terroirs. The intermix is an important source of diversity in wine and each terroir’s characteristics.

04. Working beyond one’s own vineyard

Committing oneself to this approach is still out of place on the French winemaking landscape. Facing this inability to understand, the problem of doing better cannot stop at the gates of your own vineyard. Exercising the right direction also carries a take on strong decisions like refusing to practice through stopped treatments (Emmanuel Giboulot), Getting out of despoiled AOCs, questioning current practices in conventional viticulture as well as the link to fossil energies and their impact on the environment.

These winemakers keep their distance from official speeches, which promise “reasoned agriculture”, “combined control” or even “guaranteed agriculture giving quality of rural life and countryside”.

On their lands, they have made concrete choices: they mostly practice small-scale agriculture, not often going beyond twelve hectares. They prefer small plots of land interspersed with hedging, where motor-driven agriculture is often replaced by manual labour or much smaller machines like the quad bike or mini caterpillar. A number of these estates practice mixed farming, a founder of biodynamics – more information on this subject and on agricultural organization on the website of the Association for Biodynamic Agriculture (Mouvement pour l’Agriculture BioDynamique – MABD, in French).

05. The consumer’s point of view

Today, if winemakers persevere in following this path, encouraged by more satisfactory results, it is not only through personal conviction and wanting to leave chemical viticulture but equally because their wines are meeting their public.

We are today in a transitional period, where an increasing number of consumers wish to drink ‘better’ i.e. for enjoyment and more healthy consumption but they are also conscious of alimentary concerns and their impact on the environment. Making the choice of supporting these winemakers has a social implication, even political. It is not just a fashion trend or a lack of knowledge as critics would like to think. There is today a real awareness and interest in more environmentally solicitous methods of production, putting into question the unique foundation of modern agriculture. From the eyes of the consumer, the revival is acceptable through the quality of wines which must express the typical qualities of the ‘terroir’ and support local distribution.

Altogether, alternative winemakers, independent wine merchants and wine amateurs are committed to this way of thinking, this developing revolution, which has chosen the conviviality of healthy wines and their faithfulness to their ‘terroirs’ against the chemical and artificial wines industry.

1 Alive (or natural) wines: these wines are from organic or biodynamic agriculture, not resorting to cellar additives, with very little sulphur or even none at all during bottling. Wines are non-standardized, transparently expressing the originality of their ‘terroir’.

2 N,P,K: (Wikipédia source) itrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K); we talk about ternary fertilizers of the NPK type if all three are combined. If not, we talk about binary fertilizers NP, NK or PK or single fertilizers which are made up of one of these elements, N or P or K.

The trio ‘NPK’ makes up the base of most of the fertilizers sold today. Nitrogen is the most important amongst them and the most controversial due to the phenomenon of leaching; linked to the strong solubility of nitrates in the water. In the 21st century, 1% of energy consumed by humans helps to produce ammonia, a product which supplies half the nitrogen needed to make fertilizers used in agriculture.

Nitrogen: in its chemical form (ion NO3 ‘nitrate’); it is particularly soluble in water and used to excess, is at the origin of nitrogen pollution. Phosphorus: phosphate fertilizers contain a multitude of secondary mineral elements and trace elements in which there are tiny quantities of uranium (radioactive atom) and of cadmium (heavy metal). Potassium: potassium can be found in wood ashes, which can also contain heavy metals or radioactive atoms in certain regions.

Use of fertilizers brings about two types of consequences which can carry health risks (affecting human health) or environmental risks (damage to ecosystems).

The most well known health risk relates to infant consumption of water, rich in nitrate, resulting from nitrogen fertilization.

The most quoted environmental risk is the pollution of drinking water or eutrophication of water, when organic or mineral fertilisers, spread in too great a quantity for plants’ needs and the capacity of soil retention, which depends on its texture, are carried to the groundwater table through infiltration or towards waterways during heavy rains.

A less quoted environmental risk and nonetheless very important too, is the contribution to climate warming, due to strong emissions, after spreading, of nitrogen oxides, notably nitrogen monoxide (N2O), which is a strong greenhouse gas with a high global warming potential but with moderate duration of resistance (around 100 years).

More generally, the results of fertilizer use which can carry risks and which are under criticism, are the following:

– the effects on soil quality: their fertility, their structure, the humus and the biological activity;
– the effects on erosion;
– eutrophication effects of fresh and marine waters related to the nitrogen cycle and diffused pollution induced by the nitrate poisons in drinking water or for certain species, through their eutrophic characteristic and taking advantage of turbidity of water;
– effects linked to the deterioration of unused fertilizers which release greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxides (nitrogen monoxide N2O and N2O4) into the atmosphere;
– eutrophication effects on fresh and marine waters linked to the phosphorus cycle, (for eutrophication read extreme eutrophication);
– effects linked to other nutritional elements: potassium, sulphur, magnesium, calcium, trace elements;
– effects linked to the presence of heavy metals: cadmium, arsenic, fluorine, which are present in mineral fertilizers and liquid manure from pigs;
– effects linked to the presence of radioactive elements, (significantly present in phosphates);
– effects on parasites from crops;
– effects on the quality of products;
– pollution emitted by industries producing chemical fertilizers and certain organic fertilizers;
– use of nonrenewable energy for transport and spreading;
– exhausting mineral stocks;
– indirect effects on the environment, including mechanization of intensive agriculture and spreading.

3 Systemic products: we speak about a systemic phytosanitary product when this is absorbed by the plant and followed by spreading into the sap : the plant is thus entirely contaminated by the product making it poisonous to insects who come to attack it. Source: Jardiner, Le Monde, October 2017.

4 Le vin, la vigne et la biodynamie, Nicolas Joly, Sang de la Terre, April 2017 (in French).

5 Indigenous Yeasts: naturally present on grape skins. Indigenous yeasts on grape skins enable a spontaneous fermentation to begin. This type of vinification is delicate and is governed by the winemaker’s knowledge. He must have already worked with healthy agricultural methods, without chemical products and have a very clean cellar. He must watch out for a speedy fermentation to eliminate any diseases.
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