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Why are bees important in the vineyard?

How a thriving bee population may well lead to better wine in the glass...

International Chardonnay Day tomorrow may be received with more enthusiastic consumer engagement, but International Bee Day today deserves its own shout-out. The correlation between bees and fine wine quality may not be an obvious one, but Nicole and Xavier Rolet of Ventoux’s Chêne Bleu wine estate feel so passionately about the subject that they are funding research into the role of bees in sustainable viticulture, focusing on beehives as a catalyst for fine wine. 

A crowdfunding initiative the winery launched in December raised €31,000 from 79 backers, way above the €20,000 goal, suggesting that many others are as keen as the Rolets to find out more about the benefit that bees can bring in the vineyard.

‘There is a lot of existing research showing how bees help cover crops (and vice versa), and how cover crops help the soil’s microbe, and how the microbiome helps the vines and the taste of the wines. The plan is to see if we can sew all this logic together. We’ve recruited a global dream team of top scientists to advise us on how the research would have to be conducted to find out conclusively whether having bees helps make better wine,’ explains Nicole Rolet. 

There are already beehives at Chêne Bleu, and its vineyards enjoy perfect test conditions, located at altitude, in a pollution-free environment, at the heart of the Mont Ventoux Biosphere Reserve, isolated and free from contaminants. As well as the research that is being funded, the project will allow the Rolets to increase the bee population there, and to launch Bee and Biodiversity tours at the estate, and educational materials for the wine trade and general public.

Circle of life

The logic seems faultless. ‘Although vines are self-pollinating, research shows that the best wines are made from soils teeming with life,’ she continues. ‘Cross-pollinated biodiversity and a nutrient-rich microbiome are the defining contributors to long-term vineyard health and to the complexity of flavours in wine, eliminating the need for synethetic pesticides and fertilisers in the vineyard.’ Famed viticultural consultants Claude and Lydia Bourgignon have been insistent that there is a direct benefit of bees pollinating vineyards, according to Rolet. 

It really is a virtuous circle of life. Bees need a chemical-free environment to thrive. When they do, they help to cross-pollinate certain types of cover crops, many of which are endemic to the region. These are the same kind of cover crops that are recommended for sustainable viticulture – cover crops that allow you to be chemical free and avoid pests.

So healthy bees lead to healthy and diverse cover crops. And a diverse cover crop leads to a diverse microbiome in the root systems of the vine – the microbiome is what vines need to process the earth, in order to transform the terroir into nutrients in a form that is absorbable. ‘It is these micro-organisms in the soil that transmit the sense of place. If you don’t have these, the wine will taste homogenous,’ says Rolet.

Vineyard health is key. ‘I hate the term “conventional agriculture”, which in France means using chemicals,’ says Rolet. ‘My theory is that to protect your vines, you need to move away from hardcore vineyard monoculture, where you kill everything around the vines. If you’re using pesticides, it means there’s an imbalance in the vineyard that is being perpetuated by the use of pesticides. Plus, if you’re a pest and you land on a vine in a sterile environment like that, you have nothing except the vine to sustain yourself. If there are other plants in the vineyard that are equally or more to your liking, you’ll eat those instead.

‘It’s a win-win situation,’ she adds. ‘When cover crops are thriving, the bees get a better habitat, the microbiome is diverse and thriving, the vines are healthier and the vineyards more attractive to tourists, and the wine has a greater sense of place.’

Call to action

The Rolets are keen to make contact with other wineries around the world who are farming without the use of chemicals and who are interested in the link between bees, vineyard health and wine quality.

‘Some wineries may just want a roadmap, some may want to contribute their experiences, and others may want to get involved with experimental research. We’d like to take an area of vineyard, cover it with netting to prevent bees from accessing it, and compare the vines with those in an adjacent area that is populated by bees. Taking it a step further, you could make a barrel of wine from each area and compare the wine in the glass too.’

Climate change provides another reason to study the subject in more depth. ‘Global warming leads to water stress, and water stress leads to lower fertility in the vines. Studies already show that bees increase the fecundity of the vine,’ says Rolet. 

‘At the end of the day we want to provide the wine world with roadmaps to help them deal with these wider challenges,’ she concludes. ‘We can all learn from each other, after all. Think of it as cross-pollination in the wine industry.’

See also:

How sustainable is your wine?

Organic vs natural wine: What’s the difference?

Vineyard animals: Unlikely helpers

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