by Martin Walker
This is a nervous time for winemakers, scanning the skies and weather forecasts for these last weeks before the harvest. After a very wet May and June and a hot, dry summer they now hope for some late decent rains before dry weather for picking the grapes. Above all they pray for none of the hail storms that can devastate an entire vineyard in minutes. It is always a gamble, to pick a little early and avoid the risk of hail, or to hang on for those extra few days for the full ripening.
But many of them in the Bergerac will be facing another dilemma, whether or not to join the growing local trend towards organic wines. There are now more than 2,000 organic vineyards in the world and over 900 are in France, but that still accounts for only four in every hundred French vineyards. Along with Alsace, the Bergerac has the most of all the French regions and more and more of our local winemakers see it as a useful and beneficial way of making the Bergerac distinct.
The Saussignac district south-west of Bergerac stands out, with half of its vineyards now organic or in the process of becoming so. It takes time. They also arrange organic wines tours and walks. Information and a map is available by email from Caro Feely at email@example.com, whose own Terroir Feely is not just organic but bio-dynamic.
But all around the Bergerac and in Montravel, Monbazillac and Pécharmant the trend is clear. Château de la Jaubertie, one of the region’s finest vineyards, is now marketing a Natura brand (stocked in the organic section of my local Intermarché) which is excellent value. At recent contests I have attended, it is the organic wines from Château Les Hauts de Caillevel, from Château La Robertie, Château Richard, from Château Puy-Servain, from Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure and Domaine Coquelicot that are winning prizes.
Going organic is not just about environmental fashion. France is one of the world’s top three users of fertilisers, spending over 2 billion euros a year on these chemical additions of pesticides, weed killers and other substances to the soil. The run-off from the farms is affecting rivers and causing massive algae blooms in estuaries. About 20 per cent of all French fertiliser goes onto vines, which account for only 5 per cent of arable land.
This is not simply a French problem, although Decanter magazine found that nine out of ten bottles of French wine tested contained significant quantities of pesticide. Tests in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found levels up to four and five times the maximum amount of arsenic permitted in drinking water. Of the more than 1,300 bottles of wine tested, nearly one-quarter had arsenic levels higher than the EPA’s maximum arsenic level for drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion (ppb).
So it makes sense to look out for the little green label that says AB, which stands for Agriculture Biologique. But this only takes us part of the way, since the European Union shrinks from defining an organic wine and says AB signifies only that the grapes themselves have been grown organically. And a great deal of chemistry takes place in the chai in the process of turning the grape juice into wine. Even AB winemakers can use sulfites in jaw-dropping quantities. The natural tannins in grape skins usually add about 10 milligrammes of sulfites to a litre of wine, but even AB wines are allowed up to 160 mg per litre in red, 200 mg per litre in white and 400 mg per litre in sweet wines.
There is a second classification, symbolized on the label by a green square with little white stars in the shape of a leaf which means organic techniques have been used in making the wine. Vineyards must wait four years “in conversion” before applying for organic certification and they face much tighter controls than conventional vineyards, with organic certification every year, together with additional spot checks.
The basic rule about organic farming is that it seeks to treat the soil rather than just the plant, to keep it healthy, full of micro-organisms and encouraging biodiversity. Conventional vineyards may look impressive, with the wines regimented and weeded with military precision, but I’d rather see them buzzing with butterflies and bees, with herbs and orchids growing and wildlife wondering between the vines.
This can carry risks. Sue Miller and Humphrey Temperley of Château Lestevenie at Gageac-et-Rouillac have a wildlife camera in the vineyard, which recently caught a badger upon its hind legs nibbling away at the grapes by night. Thank heaven there were enough left over to make their blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc into the finest red wine I have ever drunk for less than ten euros a bottle. It truly is a spectacular wine, but so is their luscious rosé and their dessert wine just won a coveted Guide Hachette award. All that, low sulfites, no sugar or other added chemicals!
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.