There’s a saying amongst wine makers. Good wine is made in the vineyard. They are referring to the health of the vineyard, the vines and the grapes. If you take great care of them, keep yields low and disease at bay and carefully harvest ripe healthy grapes. And providing you don’t do anything drastically wrong during the fermentation process, there is every chance you will make good wine.
It is widely recognised that the finest wines are grown on poor soils with good drainage. The vine is like a weed and if allowed it will grow vigorously and produce a great many bunches of grapes. What’s wrong with that I hear you say? Surly plenty of grapes equals plenty of wine! Over yielding means the vine cannot properly nurture and ripen the fruit and high yields can only be supported if the vines are irrigated.
However irrigation is not permitted for AOP vines after they have reached their 5th year unless there is prolonged drought. IGP wines can be irrigated and are allowed to have a much higher yield, but the high quality producer will keep yields low and shun irrigation for many reasons. Their argument is watering vines could dilute sugars and flavours and make the wine taste watery. Another factor is irrigated vines become reliant on the water and do not send their roots deep into the ground. The roots can go several meters deep into the bedrock in search of water and along the way pick up minerals and other influences from the soils. The wines will have complexity and interesting minerality and taste of the place where they were grown – that’s terroir.
As you drive around the Languedoc-Roussillon you will see some vines are growing as bushes and others are trained along wires. Traditionally all the vines in the Mediterranean were grown as bushes, called ‘Gobelet’ in France and ‘Bush Vines’ in the New World. This method works well for vines with a natural inclination to stand upright, such as Grenache and Carignan. Vines that are inclined to flop on the floor as Syrah does, need support otherwise the fruit would be shaded from the sun which might inhibit ripening. Today we understand a lot more about growing vines and how to use the greenery (called the canopy) to help us to either shade the fruit when its needed or to lift it up to allow the grapes to ‘see’ the sunlight. We also know that by opening up the canopy by using wire supports we allow aeration which helps to keep fungal diseases at bay.
The way the vines are trained will also give a clue as to how they are harvested; bush vines have to be hand harvested, the harvesting machine needs to follow a wire.
The Vineyard Annual Cycle
The vineyard cycle begins in December or as soon as all the leaves have fallen from the vine at the end of autumn. Now the pruning can begin. The farmer must hand prune every vine and ideally this job has to be finished by the end of March before the vine begins to wake up. Pruning is an important and skilled job as it will determine not only the shape of your vine but the amount of fruit it will yield.
In spring bud break happens and the vine awakes from its winter dormancy and sports little green buds that unfurl as each day passes. The landscape starts to change from the brown earthiness of winter to the green beginnings of spring. You will see the farmers out in the fields ploughing to aerate the soils and keep weeds at bay and at this time spraying commences.
The vine is vigorous and by early summer it is flowering and the canes are getting longer and need to be positioned on the wires if there are any. The ploughing and spraying continues. Flowering is followed by fruit set when the tiny green flowers become minute baby grapes.
Throughout June and July spraying and ploughing and positioning of shoots will continue. The canopy is getting larger and denser and it may be necessary for the farmer to thin it in places to allow more light to the fruit and allow aeration. The grapes are getting larger but at this stage they are still green regardless of whether they will be red, white or gris. They are also full of acid; the sugars are not there yet, that happens during August when ripening begins and this stage is called veraison. Throughout August the grapes gradually ripen and change colour and you can taste them from the vine, they are delicious.
In the Languedoc harvest begins towards the end of August for some wines and will continue into October for others. Each terroir is different as is each grape variety. The hotter areas such as on the plains will begin earlier than those at altitude or where you find cooler microclimates. Each grape variety ripens at a different time; some are early ripeners and some late. Grapes destined for white wine are nearly always harvested first as full maturity is not needed. The wine makers want to preserve the acidity and avoid very high alcohols.
Harvest time is stressful for the wine maker. When to pick is the biggest decision he or she will make and once it is done there’s no going back. Many samples are taken from the vineyard and sent to the laboratories located around the region to check the balance between sugars and acids and measure the potential alcohol. But it’s not just science the vigneron relies on. I have spent many days with wine makers during this period, walking through the vines eating the grapes and deciding if they have reached that magical moment when the flavours are so wonderful you know it’s time to pick.
For red wines the wine maker is waiting for phenolic ripeness and not just alcohol potential. Phenolics are chemical compounds in the grape which include the acids, colour, flavours and tannins. All these can be measured in a laboratory but many wine makers do it by tasting the grapes. Does the grape taste acidic or sweet? Are the skins chewy and leathery or soft and supple? Is the colour easily released from the skins when you rub a grape in your palm? What colour are the seeds inside? If they are green then the phenolics are not ripe but if they are black and crunchy then they are. Some years the winemaker will need to wait for the phenolics to ripen and during that time the sugars will build and the alcohol potential increase. But many believe it’s worth it, wine made from grapes that had good phenolic ripeness may have higher alcohol, but it will taste delicious.
In 2010 Languedoc-Roussillon had the highest number of certified organic wine producers than any other region of France and it is still increasing. Many of the people drawn here to make organic wines are seen as ‘hippy’ wine makers whose love for the land and of all things natural has led them to start a new life in the Languedoc-Roussillon. They have breathed new life into abandoned vineyards and nurtured them back to life with a high regard for the land. They produce wine as naturally as possible using low levels of sulphur both on the vines and in the wines.
Languedoc-Roussillon is an ideal place to practise organic viticulture due to the hot, dry and windy climate. One of the major battles for wine growers is against mildew and rot which occur in wet and humid conditions. In Languedoc-Roussillon rain fall and humidity are usually very low. When it does rain the almost constant wind can be relied upon to dry the vines, reducing the amount of spraying needed and making it possible to avoid chemicals.
But what is an organic wine? Many of us assume it means the wine contains absolutely no chemicals at all and by chemicals we usually mean sulphur. Not true. First of all, organic usually means growing the vines without the use of chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides but sulphur and copper sprays are allowed. These are used to control some fungal diseases and as these are ‘natural’ products from the earth they are allowed. Until recently ‘organic’ wine produced in the EU referred to the way it was grown and not the way it was made and the label would state ‘wine from organic grapes’. In 2012 new regulations were drawn up to cover organic wines made and sold in the EU. The rules now specify sulphur levels must be at least 30-50 mg per litre lower than their conventional equivalent. In practise many of the organic wine makers I know already use much lower sulphur levels than that.
Biodynamics is a form of organic agriculture first developed in the early 1920s by the Austrian philosopher, Rudolph Steiner. Biodynamics is a spiritual and homeopathic approach to farming and viticulture taking a number of steps further than organic methods. Farmers aim to create a balanced ecosystem on their land that will generate health and fertility from the surroundings rather than things brought in from outside. Practitioners believe that by working with the natural forces and the rhythm of the earth, moon and stars these influences, although subtle will help to maintain a healthy environment for growing wine. Practitioners use the Biodynamic calendar which is based on the position of the moon in relation to the constellations. The calendar is drawn up with fruit, flower, leaf and root days which are linked to which phase the moon is in. It is believed that by following this calendar the vigneron will know when it’s the best time to undertake activities in the vineyard and winery.
Biodynamics also uses a complex system of herbal sprays and composting techniques and some practises can appear quite bizarre. Such as making ‘Horn Manure’ which involves burying a cow’s horn filled with cow manure at the Autumn Equinox and then digging it up in the spring. When it is unearthed the manure has decomposed into a humus consistency and is stirred into water and sprayed onto the land to help regenerate degraded soils. Yes it all sounds a bit wacky but those who practise Biodynamics truly believe in it.
Sustainable viticulture is a sort of half-way house and those who follow this practise will use some pesticides on some occasions. In France this is called ‘lutte raisonnée’ – meaning the reasoned struggle. The farmer can decide to use chemicals if he feels they are the only resort. Some argue that being totally organic means the vines may be attacked by a disease that can be prevented, that the grapes may not be healthy every year and that more ploughing is necessary to keep the weeds at bay. More ploughing means more fuel and exhaust emissions but of course this does not apply to those using horse power..!
France has an organisation called Terra Vitis which issue a Sustainable Agriculture Certificate to its members which currently number over 500, many of whom are in the Languedoc-Roussillon. There are a number of criteria to comply with such as the warehouse must be under naturally controlled temperature and not air conditioning, waste must be sorted and recycled, waste water is naturally treated with bamboos and the use of natural corks or recyclable closures. One of the goals the organisation is proud of achieving is the reduction in weight of the glass bottles used by members which in turn has reduced the CO2 emissions in production and transportation.