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French vineyards begin 2020 growing season in lockdown

Spring won't wait and a social media campaign using the hashtag '#lavignecontinue' shows how French wineries have been getting creative to meet the demands of the 2020 vintage growing season without compromising the coronavirus lockdown.

While many businesses have halted operations under Covid-19 confinement measures, the agriculture sector has been allowed to continue, and French wineries have been finding ways to tend vineyards that have started their journey to the 2020 vintage.

A rallying initiative from French wine industry group Vin et Société has prompted growers and négociants to use social media platforms to showcase current activities in strict adherence to new safety precautions.

More than 1,700 posts have been published on Instagram alone using the hashtag #LaVigneContinue – ‘the vine continues’ – in the past week or so.

Several high-profile producers are involved, including Châteaux Talbot, Pavie Macquin and Guiraud in Bordeaux, Billecart-Salmon in Champagne, and Domaine Michel Lafarge in Bourgogne.

Pictures and videos have been shared showing bud breaks, trellising work and ploughing efforts during warm, sunny days – albeit concerns linger about April frosts.

‘We no longer eat together’

In Gevrey-Chambertin, Nicolas Rossignol has adapted to the ongoing situation by reorganising the team at his eponymous domaine.

‘I have asked everyone to use their personal vehicle to get around,’ he said. ‘In the vines, it is one to a plot, or else we leave two or three rows between us (2 to 3m) if we have to work in the same place.

‘In addition to tying up and fixing trellising, we are also starting to plow. I have two tractors, so each driver has their own.’

A resourceful touch has also seen distillation liquid from a batch of marc de Bourgogne used instead of commercial, hard-to-find hand sanitiser. ‘It’s around 80% alcohol, so it’s ideal for disinfecting hands and equipment,’ Rossignol said.

‘In the same vein, we no longer eat together. Since we’ve had fine weather, everyone has lunch outside. You just have to go one at a time into the kitchen to reheat your dish.’

Charles Lachaux, of Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux in Bourgogne, said the team there must also travel in one car per person.

He told Decanter.com, ‘We split people into small teams and they work some rows apart from each other. They use a lot of soap, hand sanitiser and small cleaning towels. But the rest is fine and we have the luck to be working in the vineyards at the moment – the sun is shining everyday.’

Château Cos d’Estournel, in Bordeaux’s St-Estèphe appellation, posted a photo of a new bud with the caption,  ‘On the plateau of Cos, life carries on in our vineyard, unwavering.’ The estate said new rules have been put in place both in the vineyard and in the cellar: ‘The vine growers continue to carry out their work, each one being alone on the plot for which they are responsible for as usual; their only daily contact is the vineyard manager who discusses with them respecting the safety distance.

‘In the cellar, the activity also goes on but with a reduced team and strict hygiene and distancing measures. We are currently preparing the bottling of our 2018 vintage and the topping of our 2019 vintage in barrels.’

At Château Troplong Mondot in St-Emilion CEO Aymeric de Gironde posted a Youtube video detailing the new measures undertaken in the vineyards, which include workers and horses kept at a minimum distance.

‘Each person is separated by two rows to make sure we don’t have any connection or contamination.

‘The vines haven’t stopped due to Coronavirus so we have to continue taking care of [them]. Right now we are ploughing and attaching (training) the different vines – we are about two weeks in advance of the regular, average schedule.’

Also in St-Emilion, winemaker of Château Pavie-Macquin, Cyrille Thienpont told Decanter.com that vineyard workers go directly from their homes to a precise vineyard plot, working and eating alone during the day.

‘From the beginning, we’ve asked our workers to keep their tools in their cars and we’ve provided alcohol spray in order to sanitize them twice a day.

‘In the third week of confinement, the challenge is to keep this focus on safety measures.’

Elsewhere, in cellars across France, the topping up of barrels is largely being undertaken by one person, where possible.

‘We are ready to respond to increased demand’

In the areas of bottling, labelling and shipping, some estates have varied shifts to continue operations, while others have stopped for now – hoping to resume once the lockdown is over.

‘We know the current situation is only temporary, and we are ready to respond to increased demand as soon as it comes,’ said Louis-Fabrice Latour, president of the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) and CEO of the Louis Latour wine house.

‘Managers of wineries and estates are keeping a close eye on when normal production activity can resume, whilst ensuring the health and safety of all concerned.’

Merchants in France and beyond have reported strong wine sales in recent weeks, as buyers have sought to stock up.

Fabrice Bernard, president of Millésima SA, said orders were up significantly in March versus the same month of 2019. ‘At the very beginning of the crisis people bought a lot of rosé, certainly because of the good weather. Now people buy all types of wine,’ he said.

‘The good news is that we will produce wine for everyone’

Louis Moreau, president of the BIVB Chablis, said, ‘It’s keep calm and carry in Chablis.’

‘The buds are ready to go, starting to show 15 days in advance compared to the last 20 years. [We are] hoping that the good weather will [be] maintained. The vine doesn’t stop and we look forward to continue to press on in the vineyards so we can [release] a wonderful Chablis 2020 vintage.’

Pierre-Jean Sauvion, president of communication at Loire Valley wine council, Interloire, and winegrower for Château du Cleray in Muscadet, said, ‘In the Loire and all over France, most wine growers are carrying on and continuing to prune. France is mostly locked down for industry, but not agriculture, so the good news is that we will produce wine for everyone.’

He said that it was easier to respect social distancing rules in the vineyard, because there is more space than in the cellar. He added, ‘Our winegrowers are professional, so every decision keeps in mind the protective instructions in terms of hygiene and security.’

See also: 

Bordeaux en primeur cancelled, so what happens now? 

Survey forecasts economic impact of Covid-19 on US wineries

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