Taking the pulse of sustainability in Europe

Dom de Ville, director of sustainability and social impact, reflects on his main takeaways after trips to Spain and Bordeaux this September. We’ll report in more detail from these visits in the next few months.

Mulch at Chateau Ferrier, made by dead cover crops between the vines, which improves soil health.
Mulch at Chateau Ferrier, made by dead cover crops between the vines, which improves soil health.

I came back from my recent trip with so much to share on what our producers are currently facing in the vineyards.  My notes are below so you can hear directly from the people making your wine, but if you don’t have time to read them all, here are my top takeaways from the trip.

My takeaways at a glance:

  • Climate change is THE major challenge 
  • Adapt or die 
  • More technical intervention in the vineyard 
  • Sharing the wealth 
  • Organic or not?
  • The rise of regenerative   

Climate change is THE major challenge

Unsurprisingly, climate change impacts dominated the conversation. Common comment from all is that ‘normal doesn’t exist anymore’. What they mean by this is:  

  • Extreme weather events are commonplace and increasing in frequency, for example less frequent rain in Priorat, but when it comes it’s 100mm in a day, rather than the normal 20mm. There is also more extreme heat and generally a warmer climate overall. In Bordeaux, this means more humidity.    
  • More unpredictable weather: hot in March, cold in June, frost in April. Growers in Bordeaux now have up to nine weather apps that they watch vigilantly and draw on to continually change plans according to the weather, particularly at harvest time.  
  • Weather is increasingly localised with micro-climates; what is happening to you might be very different to what is happening a few miles away. Mas Doix in Priorat had normal annual rainfall of around 400mm, whereas Tomas Cusine 20km away had less than half that (150mm) and lost 60% of production this year.  
  • Changing weather changes the type and quantity of pests and disease farmers have to deal with – grape worm, mildew etc. 

Nothing surprising there. But what this means is that growers are having to continually rethink and change their practices not just from year-to-year, but throughout the year. I think what did surprise me was the level of adaptation to climate change that is already required and is already happening. The impacts of climate change are not a future event, they are very much here and now. 

Adapt or die  

Every person I met said they are now having to spend vast amounts of their time in the vineyard – much more so than in the past – observing and reacting to the vines and then adapting their plans throughout the year. This is partly out of necessity (climate change) and partly because they now know so much more and are able to constantly adapt and improve practices and techniques.

For example:  

  • Growers might plant cover crops in spring to improve the health of their soil (more nutrients, better water retention, reduced erosion) but then they suddenly need to churn them into the soil in June as there’s been no rain and they are taking too much water away from the vines.  
  • But at the same time, cover crops can reduce the temperature of the soil by up to 20 degrees which provides significant cooling for the vines – so this can also bring a huge advantage, meaning it is a difficult decision, having to constantly weigh up trade-offs and make decisions. 

Other examples of adaption: 

  • Leave the canopy to grow longer to provide shade 
  • Looking in Spain at how they can irrigate (building reservoirs), where they have never had to before. (There is no option to irrigate currently in Bordeaux if the wines are to be appellation labelled) 
  • Planting on northern facing slopes to reduce sun exposure 
  • Planting local varieties (changing the grape blend proportions or planting more heat-resistant varieties) – e.g. merlot not coping well in parts of Bordeaux (frost, disease) and some changing to cabernets sauvignon and franc.  
  • Planting varieties that are resistant to local diseases – e.g. Chateau Thieuley planting sauvignac, as it is more resistant to mildew.
  • Some moving to polyculture – fruit trees, olives – partly for their biodiversity/soil health benefits and partly to spread the financial risk in the future – if grapes fail, then maybe the fruit trees won’t.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to adaptation. There are similar principles (about improving soil health and biodiversity, for example), but each grower is implementing this differently. What is common is that they are all having to think about it much more (than their parents did) and adaptation is expensive, slow and highly technical (‘you only have one chance a year to get it right’).  

There were a number of comments that those who don’t adapt, and adapt now, won’t survive in the longer term. Climate change, loss of soil health and biodiversity, changing nature of pests and disease, toughening of regulation (particularly in the EU), changing consumer expectations, increasing costs of inputs – are all things that growers need to face into.  

Play Video
Château Thieuley in Bordeaux explain their sustainable approach.

More technical intervention in the vineyard 

Similar to the point above, it increasingly seems that farmers also need to be scientists to grow grapes. There is no easy recipe to follow, you need to spend more time in the vineyard, analysing and observing the vines.  

  • Edouard Moueix (from Jean-Pierre Moueix) does a soil and vine analysis every 15 days. The data is examined over the year and used to develop the next year’s treatment plan. This enables them to give the vines exactly what they need, when they need it (e.g. magnesium, potassium, iron, nitrogen) – for example by planting specific cover crops that provide the right nutrients to help the vines and soil combat viruses 
  • Herencia Altes are conducting a 5-year study with a local lab to analyse the impact of cover crops on soil health, grape quality and vine health. Have so far found: 
    • No cover crops = wine is lighter, higher yield 
    • Full cover crops = yields are 50%, wine darker, more intense, more concentration, better for ageing red wine 
    • Half cover crops (e.g. every other row) = 75% yield and the wine is halfway between the two, probably best approach overall. 
  • A number of producers in Bordeaux test for chemical residues at the end of the winemaking process (Fitochek) to understand which residues remain and then adapt the process the following year accordingly. 

Interesting comments from a number of producers in Bordeaux about ‘returning to the past, but with new technology and techniques from today’ (my grandfather had trees in the vineyard, my father removed them, we’re now putting them back).  

A five-hectare rewilding project at Herencia Altes to boost biodiversity around the vineyard.
A five-hectare rewilding project at Herencia Altes to boost biodiversity around the vineyard.

Sharing the wealth

There was a stark disparity between smaller producers and larger, wealthier producers when it comes to their ability to adopt more sustainable practices.  

  • Smaller producers are doing what they can, but paying the bills is their primary concern (Sumarroca, Tomas Cuisine, Dutruch). Changing practices brings with it a financial risk. This doesn’t mean that they cannot change, they just need to go slower, be more thoughtful about what practices to change (and in what order) and they need to learn from those who have gone before them (as they cannot afford to make mistakes themselves).  
  • There was some discussion that the wealthier producers, such as Chateaux Ferrière and Cheval Blanc, have a responsibility to continue to experiment and innovate, then find more ways to share their experiences, expertise and what works/what doesn’t work with the smaller, less wealthy producers.  
  • This is where a Supplier Forum could help. How can we take learnings and experiences from the wealthier, cutting edge growers, package them up and make them easily available to others who don’t have the resources to innovate and experiment themselves.  

Organic or not? 

Interesting debate in Bordeaux about whether organic or biodynamic is the right way to go in wetter, more humid climates.  

  • Arguments against: 
    • Organic can require much more chemicals and diesel. This year organic growers in Bordeaux have had to do 22 sprays with copper sulphate (4kg per hectare) vs the conventional growers who have sprayed half as many times. This then requires a lot more diesel use. 
    • It’s more expensive – diesel, people in the vineyard (to monitor vines) 
    • Yield is often lower - 20 to 30% less grapes 
    • Cannot charge customers more for organic 
    • It can be seen as something only the wealthy growers can do, but not those on the margins who are thinking about how to pay the bills today 
  • Arguments for 
    • Less synthetic chemicals, less harm to biodiversity/nature, less harm to soil health, less chemicals in the wine 
    • Electric tractors are becoming a reality – so diesel use will come down (however they are expensive) 
    • If soil is managed well (e.g. through cover crops) then the ecosystem within it will be in better balance and will naturally control the vigour of things like mildew (which is a fungus), meaning growers will need to do less treatments. Claire Villars (Chateau Ferrière): This year we sprayed less than 2kg per hectare of copper-sulphate on our vines compared to other organic growers who have sprayed up to 4kg. This is because we have healthy, living soil. Mildew is a fungus and our healthy soil controls the vigour in which it grows. It self-maintains the soil ecosystem in better balance. 
    • Organic is good, as long as you are also taking a holistic approach to sustainability – e.g tackling packaging, carbon reduction, human rights.

A number of producers said that they are in effect organic, but they don’t want the label as it is too restrictive. For example, some years they would rather do one targeted synthetic spray, rather than 10 organic sprays. They prefer to be ‘holistic and targeted’. Better to have a broad sustainability certificate – such as Terra Vitis or HVE 4 – and be improving practices everywhere, rather than just focusing on being organic.  

Note: Being organic in Spain seems to be much easier and is less of a debate, as it is drier and there is less pressure from mildew. 

Tim Sykes, our buyer for Bordeaux, discussing the benefits to vines of cover crops and agroforestry at Chateau Cheval Blanc.
Tim Sykes, our buyer for Bordeaux, discussing the benefits to vines of cover crops and agroforestry at Chateau Cheval Blanc.

The rise of regenerative 

The principles of regenerative agriculture seem to be gaining ground. The concept is very practical, easy to understand (it’s simply about healthy soil), intuitive – and has a good chance of becoming the widely accepted wisdom. Even McCains chips have committed that 100% of their potato crop will involve regenerative agricultural practices by 2030. 

Nearly all the producers I met are following some of these principles, but not necessarily calling it or recognising it as a ‘regenerative’ approach. They simply say ‘this is just what we do’ or they might have a different term for it, such as ‘Agro-Ecologie’ or ‘conscious agriculture’. But many growers seem to be adopting the principles precisely because they are intuitive and make sense.  

Tim (Sykes, The Society’s buyer for Bordeaux) remarked how much Bordeaux has changed. Not long ago it would be brown except for the vines – it’s now much greener.  

We also saw the starkest example of what a more regenerative approach can do for soil health. When we walked on Chateau Ferrière’s soil it was bouncy, it smelled earthy, it was full of life and moisture, it has little erosion – and as a result the vines need fewer treatments. We then walked 10 feet to one of their neighbour’s vineyards and the soil was hard, dusty and seemed more lifeless and more susceptible to erosion.

Dom de Ville

Director of sustainability and social impact

Dom de Ville

Dom, our director of sustainability and social impact, has overall responsibility and accountability for our sustainability plan, and has been involved in sustainability for most of his 20-year career, including ten years in international development.

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