Avignon 2024: Shaping Sustainable Vineyards

The Szekszard region of Hungary, west of Sarkoz, has a long history of cultivating grapes

Discussions around terroir and vineyards usually conjure up images of verdant rows of vines surrounded by olive groves, sleepy streams and a beautiful landscape dotted with trees and flowers. In practice, this is far from the truth. Increasingly mechanised vineyards rely on large, uninterrupted fields, channelled waterways, and vegetation kept at bay by copious amounts of glyphosate. Although making up only 3% of France’s agricultural land, vineyards represent more than 20% of the country’s pesticide usage. This is a concern for the sake of biodiversity as well as for those winemakers whose very livelihood depends on their vineyards, and for consumers whose search for a taste of terroir is already being threatened by climate change.

International experts at the second edition of Avignon’s Vignoble & Biodiversity Conference hosted by Birte Jantzen and the association of Châteauneuf- du-Pape wineries in January 2024, discussed the complex issue of biodiversity at the grass-roots level and the impact of different activities in, and under, the ground.

Three different levels of soil management illustrated the challenges and opportunities facing farmers and viticulturalists. Professor Marc-André Selosse from the MNHN, the national natural history museum at Sorbonne University, Institute of Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity, spoke about the importance of soil fungal populations. Far from being an afterthought in the pursuit of abstract biodiversity, they are an integral part of a vineyard’s ability to uptake water and nutrients, especially in an unpredictable climate. He explained the devastating effects of groundcover removal through chemicals or excessive tilling, which destroy fungal filaments, whereas rolling or cutting leave the root systems unharmed for the next season.

Above ground, sheep, pigs and fowl are increasingly seen as essential helpers to viticulturalists, between them providing manure, removing ground cover and feasting insects. Flocks of sheep roaming through vineyards have become an iconic symbol of biodiversity in the vineyard. Jean-Francois Agut spoke about the improved
economics and soil health of his Côtes de Gascogne vineyard as a result, while Églantine Thiery spoke about the practicalities of allowing livestock to roam. Still, innumerable legal hurdles have to be overcome, especially in regard to keeping bird and swine flu outbreaks contained. Double fences are essential, as are contractual agreements between the livestock owners and the winery.

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Improving biodiversity, and hopefully also wine quality, should be the prime objectives. For this, innovative techniques like key-line planting or even a return to historic ones such as contourline planting, which involve arranging vine rows to follow the natural contours of the land rather than in straight lines which do not take into account the slope of the hill. They not only aid in channelling rainwater but also reduce erosion, thereby preserving soil quality and ultimately the health of the vines.

Other alterations in vineyard layout can help water management even further. For instance, “swales”, which are alternating ditches and mounds perpendicular to the hill slope, designed to capture water runoff. This stored water can then be utilized by the vines during periods of drought, which is increasingly crucial due to climate change. At the same time, “swales” (and other ditch systems) serve as temporary ponds, providing spawning grounds for frogs, other amphibians and insects.

The conclusion from every speaker was clear. Safeguarding soil health is no longer an impossible dream and it isn’t just about making vineyards look good; it’s about making good wine in a way that can be repeated for decades to come.