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Meet Bordeaux’s eco-warriors

Concern for the future in the face of climate change means a growing number of château owners are moving away from convention and adopting a raft of measures designed to protect the environment. Elin McCoy takes a timely look

Seeing horses and weed-nibbling sheep in Bordeaux’s vineyards is no longer a surprise. Grass and wildflowers grow between rows of vines where once bare soild reigned and, happily, an ever-increasing number of winemakers no longer spray them with pesticides or herbicides.

Though some wine lovers still think of the world’s largest fine wine region as wedded to a conventional past, I’ve been stunned in the past few years by the dozens of innovative ideas château owners are embracing to reduce their impact on the environment.

Those new architectural statement cellars on the Left and Right Banks are ‘green-designed’ to recycle water, reduce energy use, and even capture CO2, and repurpose it. And as a younger, even more eco-conscious generation takes over, there’s much more to come.

For many in Bordeaux, the 2003 heatwave was a wake-up call to the fact that climate change required a far-reaching plan to help slow global warming, adapt and be sustainable into the future.

The first phase included going organic and biodynamic, with passionate forward-thinking estates, such as Château Pontet-Canet, leading the way. Today the list of wineries with certified organic and/or biodynamic vineyards is longer than many imagine, from Châteaux Climens in Sauternes to Fonplégade in St-Emilion, to Marquis d’Alesme in Margaux.

Official backing

For the past two decades, the CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux) itself has been an eco-warrior, launching the region’s first carbon footprint assessment in 2008, and in 2010 creating the Système de Management Environnemental du Vin de Bordeaux (SME). It fosters a collective approach and has encouraged 65% of châteaux as of 2019 to obtain some kind of sustainable certification, such as HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) and the international ISO 14001, which is broader.

Since then, the trade organisation has backed research at more than 20 public laboratories, organised dozens of sustainability initiatives and issued an annual guide of good environmental practices that highlights what a couple of hundred châteaux are doing. Small things can make a huge difference. Château Dauzac, for example, uses extra-smooth vats so less water is required to clean them.

The following seven cases illustrate the diversity of Bordeaux estates taking eco-friendly steps beyond organic viticulture – but I could have picked many more.

Florence and Daniel Cathiard Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte

Florence and Daniel Cathiard. Credit: www.deepix.com

Daniel & Florence Cathiard

Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac-Léognan

‘Sustainability is a family affair with us,’ says Florence Cathiard, revealing that her father wanted to name her Nature – luckily her mother objected. Florence and her husband Daniel, both former Olympic skiers and sports shop magnates, spent their childhoods in the southern Alps and both were passionate about snow and the mountains. They brought up their two daughters on an isolated farm, where Mathilde tamed hens and Alice loved plants.

After seeing Château Smith Haut Lafitte from a helicopter, the couple bought it and gave up their old life to pour their ambitions into improving the wine and renovating the château. Though it took time to shift the vineyards to organic viticulture, they’re now certified organic and follow a biodynamic philosophy they call ‘bio-precision’.

But they’ve done so much more, becoming a model for others to follow. ‘The planet is damaged to a point where it can no longer heal on its own,’ Florence says. ‘It’s time to take care of it as much as we can.’

The estate is fully committed to phytotherapy (using natural extracts for medicinal purposes), collects rainwater, keeps bees and has planted 8.5km of hedgerows to foster biodiversity. Their daughters are fully involved: Mathilde and her husband Bertrand Thomas founded Sources de Caudalie, which recycles grape seeds and vine cuttings into expensive beauty products and is a member of 1% for the Planet – a global organisation whose members contribute at least 1% of their annual sales to environmental causes – where their contributions will have helped plant 8 million trees by 2021.

Alice, who now manages Caudalie with her husband Jérôme Tourbier, represented the family when the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat invited them to make a presentation at the 2015 Paris COP 21 conference (the Conference of the Parties – those countries that signed up to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change).

The eco-friendly underground ‘stealth cellar’ for Château Smith Haut Lafitte’s second wines has no need for electric cooling systems, and photovoltaic panels generate energy. Most intriguing is the system to capture the CO2 released in fermentation and recycle it into eco-friendly baking soda via a device on each fermentation vat – an innovation that has inspired others.

Kees van Leeuwen

University of Bordeaux

Scientist and viticulture professor at ISVV (Bordeaux Sciences Agro and Bordeaux University’s Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin), Cornelis (Kees) van Leeuwen describes his keen interest in the environment as ‘a long journey that started with falling in love with wine at an early age’.

We met in Bordeaux, and caught up at Vinexpo Paris, where he was speaking on what the wine world has to do to adapt to climate change. Born in the Netherlands in 1963, he’s an avid jogger who has run the Médoc marathon and talks with careful precision not just about his world of scientific research but also about winemaking.

His initial goal was to write about wine, then shifted to becoming a winemaker, so he piled up degree after degree – oenology in Champagne and Bordeaux, viticulture in Burgundy to understand terroir and, back in Bordeaux, a Masters degree in biology and eventually a PhD in soil science. He applied all this research to Château Cheval Blanc as vineyard manager and technical director, and remains a consultant for the château.

Each step was led by a desire to discover what was key for the quality of wine – grapes, soil, climate. He’s been highly involved with VitAdapt, a research initiative with an experimental vineyard planted in 2009. His primary research interest now is the effect of climate change. Topics such as which grape varieties are drought resistant and how higher temperatures affect aromas fascinate him.

‘I see sustainability as totally broad,’ he says. ‘Châteaux have to be economically sustainable as well as agronomically sustainable – the question is whether we can grow grapes for wines for the next couple of thousand years.’

He’s published about 200 research papers and believes free open access to ongoing wine research is essential. That’s why he founded and edits open access journal OENO One for scientists and has just launched online journal IVES Technical Reviews in six languages to get the latest information to wine viticulturists and winemakers.

Chris Wilmers Chateau Haut-Bailly

Chris Wilmers. Credit: Florent Larronde

Chris Wilmers

Château Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Léognan

Chris Wilmers is the new generation at this famous château in Pessac-Léognan, which his father Robert bought in 1998. When Robert died at the end of 2017, Chris moved from a board role to become more involved. Now, along with managing director Véronique Sanders, he’s deep into the construction of Haut-Bailly’s new cellar and other renovations, designed with the environment in mind.

His day job is professor of environmental studies at University of California Santa Cruz, where he heads a lab group focused on understanding how global change influences the behaviour of large predators such as pumas and mountain lions. ‘Ecologists are used to thinking about complex systems,’ he says, ‘and I’m convinced that ecological thinking is key to successful winemaking.’

Wilmers grew up in New York City and developed his love of the natural world in childhood, building tree forts and fishing in the summer in western Massachusetts. As a teenager he became fascinated by science.

A month-long backpacking trip shifted him to ecology, so gaining a PhD focused on the environment was a no-brainer. His research into the way climate change impacts terrestrial ecosystems has deeply influenced his ideas about viticulture. ‘I’m especially concerned about land use,’ he says. Converting natural habitats to vineyards, he observes, brings ‘a cost for future generations’.

Haut-Bailly’s new cellar, buried 10m deep so less energy is consumed, will have a roof covered with vegetation to create habitats and integrate with the landscape.

Martin Bouygues

Château Montrose, St-Estèphe

Slim, energetic, 67-year-old Bouygues is chairman and CEO of the Paris-based Bouygues group, a giant construction, real estate development and telecommunications company, and owner with his brother of second growth Château Montrose in St-Estèphe. He exudes confidence, a can-do enthusiasm and the determination to see what needs to change, plus the fortune to get it done quickly and on a grand scale.

‘We know now it is possible to produce without polluting but also to combine economic growth with preservation of the environment,’ he says. That’s why sustainable development has been a key strategy of the Bouygues group, which is, among other things, designing urban eco-neighbourhoods for the future. And Bouygues’ belief in its importance is why he joined the UN Global Compact – a voluntary initiative encouraging businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible practices to fight climate change.

Since purchasing Montrose in 2006, he’s invested tens of millions of euros to turn it into a model of sustainability.

Think of it as a microcosm of the many bio-design solutions the Bouygues group has undertaken in other areas of its business. He once told me, blithely, that the château might make a profit in 50 years.

The estate’s energy cost is already zero, thanks to 3,000m2 of solar panels, geothermic heating and cooling systems with pipes buried in the earth, and hidden extra insulation.

Bouygues has invested in a wastewater treatment plant and, copying Smith Haut Lafitte, even a project capturing CO2 during fermentation, turning it into a detergent to clean tanks and barrels. CEO Hervé Berland is almost giddy with excitement when he outlines what’s been accomplished and what’s next: light electric tractors, boosting natural areas to increase biodiversity, and developing more ergonomic tools for workers.

Nathalie and Jean-Babtiste Cordonnier Chateau Anthonic

Nathalie and Jean-Babtiste Cordonnier

Nathalie & Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier

Château Anthonic, Moulis-en-Médoc

‘I have been passionate about wildlife and nature since my childhood,’ says the tall, bespectacled Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier. He studied agro-engineering in Belgium, focusing on water and forests, has worked on rural agricultural development in the Congo, and since 1993 has run this estate purchased by his family in 1977, with the help of wife Nathalie.

‘I think we have to build an integral ecology that includes environmental respect, happiness for people we work with and profitable business,’ he explains.

Cordonnier calls farming organically – his 30ha of vineyards are certified organic – ‘the entrance door’ to implementing that approach, adding there’s no way to make a compromise between ecology and conventional farming.

He’s especially wedded to the potential of agro-forestry, which involves planting trees among the vines, as was done in the past. The trees give protection to the vines against climate extremes and also remove CO2 from the air, thus helping to slow global warming.

Most importantly, Cordonnier has helped to spread this way of thinking by founding the Vignerons du Vivant association in 2018 with 12 estates, among them Châteaux Latour, Lafon-Rochet and Paloumey. It recruits young people without jobs or training and teaches them basic vineyard skills, focusing on the agro-ecology point of view.

Xavier & Luc Planty

Château Guiraud, Sauternes

Environmental leadership isn’t just about doing, it’s also about showing and convincing. The well-known and forward-thinking Château Guiraud has created ‘green tours’, welcoming visitors to explain how important eco-friendly practices are.

A decade ago, co-owner Xavier Planty introduced me to his ‘insect hotels’, designed to attract bugs that are helpful in the vineyard. With a degree in biology and plant genetics, he’s long been on the side of nature, and after a friend died from cancer following a career spent working with chemicals in the vineyards he began running things organically and restoring biodiversity. Château Guiraud’s hedgerows are now home to some 635 species of insect and spider.

His son Luc, the winemaker, sees 2020 as the year of permaculture, a more global approach to ecosystems. The estate is open seven days a week for tours.

Marion Merker

Château de La Dauphine, Fronsac

When the Labrune family bought Château La Dauphine in Fronsac in 2015, family patriarch Jean-Claude, raised on a farm, began expanding the green practices that already existed there, such as biodynamics. But he expanded into biodiversity projects and much more.

Marion Merker, the château’s wine tourism manager who creates all the tours, says: ‘It seemed natural to educate people about what châteaux can do. I’m a citizen of the earth, too. Today we’re all concerned about chemicals, global warming and pollution.’

Much like at Château Guiraud in Sauternes, the highly popular tour here highlights not just the work in La Dauphine’s vineyards, but also the role of beehives, aquaponics and a permaculture vegetable garden.

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