It’s no secret that climate change is breaking records for heatwaves, frosts, fires, droughts, hail and wildfires. Their increasing frequency has left the wine world awash with initiatives, conferences, and research all concerning sustainable viticulture and its many facets: biodiversity, regenerative agriculture and the host of organic, biodynamic and sustainable labels or certifications they embody.
More than simple posturing, many are concerned with the very real practicalities of saving water and irrigation, managing ground cover and encouraging wildlife, all while making and selling good wine.
At the recent ‘Vineyards and Biodiversity’ conference held in Avignon in May 2022, organised by Birte Jantzen, producers spoke of their very different approaches and needs. Some producers are only taking their first few steps in improving the way they work, whereas others have clearly already gone all the way. All, however, agreed on the urgency of action. As Mathieu Meyer of Château Galoupet pointed out, if water is rationed, food production will be prioritised for irrigation over vineyards.
A return to the basics, and the very words we choose to use, was advocated by the opening speaker, landscape architect Sébastien Giorgis. The French word ‘paysage’ is a 15th century apparition, while ‘landscape’ is not recorded in English until the early 17th century. The use of the word heralded an appreciation of the concept. The landscape came to be regarded as picturesque, showing a pastoral, romantic setting, or as an industrial setting illustrating man’s taming of the wild. Transport – railways, cars and motorways – has played an important role in shaping the landscape.
Recently, aerial observation has changed the perspective and the internet has accelerated the viewing of the landscape. Only in 2016 was the word ‘landscape’ given an official, legal EU definition.
Professor Ilona Leyer from the Department of Applied Ecology at the University of Geisenheim questioned our very memory and perception of these landscapes. Through surveys on changing landscapes, she found that most people think that little has changed, and that the vineyards, woods and hedgerows have remained the same for decades.
In spite of this ‘memory’, comparing aerial photos from the 1920s and 1950s to today’s tells a different story, one of massive change. Land consolidation, which started in the late 19th century and significantly increased in the 1980s, has led to a rise in average vineyard parcel size, resulting in isolated trees, hedges and small woodlands all but disappearing from the landscape. What may be thought of as a traditional viticultural landscape, is in fact very modern, and is now only suited to high volume production, pesticides, fertilisers and mechanised monoculture.
Vineyards do not exist in an isolated world, they are a part of their surroundings and a component of the landscape. Biodiversity, by many metrics, depends more on the health of the surrounding countryside than on any practices among the vines themselves. Variety of butterfly species and number of birds are not as influenced by a transition towards organic agriculture as by simply ensuring that the vines are interspersed with trees for nesting or that parcels are surrounded by healthy hedgerows and occasional woodlands. Insects and bats, for example, have a small flying radius, and benefit from smaller parcels, corridors and copses. Organic, biodynamic and regenerative approaches focus on small details – soil health and viticultural practices – but lose sight of the bigger picture, despite its more quantifiable and immediate importance.
Biodiversity is extremely beneficial, with many species performing what is known as ‘ecosystem services’. By simply existing and living around the vines, increased plants, insects, birds and small mammals can make producers’ lives easier by fighting disease, keeping insect pest levels down, helping retain water and reducing soil erosion.
Many practical solutions were discussed by producers, such as encouraging wildlife, increased plant cover, planting hedges (Châteauneuf-du-Pape has planted 42km), polyculture agriculture and organic and biodynamic viticulture to encourage healthy soils. Another remedy explored was massale selection to increase vine biodiversity, which according to nurseryman Lilian Bérillon, has decreased considerably since the rise in clonal selection in the 1980s. However, all of these methods suffered from the same weaknesses: communication, information and support to enlarge individual initiatives into wider-reaching change. Wildlife corridors need to extend beyond individual properties and Giorgis talked of creating such corridors even in the urban environment.
By understanding the concepts and giving a definition to landscape and biodiversity, protection becomes easier to address. Leyer’s positive conclusion was that there is evidence, by monitoring the success of various biodiversity initiatives, that it is possible to combine ecological land and biodiversity with commercial agriculture. The necessary adjustments are simple: allowing areas and corridors of non-cultivated land, maintaining a diversity of different types of uncultivated land, careful selection of plants and seeds and an increasing number of projects to protect the landscape.