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Why vines in the Pyrenees may have the answer to combatting climate change

A Zoom masterclass held last Friday showed why vineyards in the Pyrenees may hold the answer to combatting the effects of a more extreme climate for wine growers.

Ancient plantings in the Pyrenean foothills contain a diverse set of varieties that are resistant to common fungal diseases and extreme temperatures. Picture source: Plaimont

In particular, a site called the Sarragachies vineyard, which is the oldest in France, and found in the south west region of Saint Mont, holds a range of ancient varieties with useful natural traits.

Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees, this plot is owned by the Pédebernade family, and is a pre-phylloxera vineyard believed to have been planted in the early 1800s, containing as many as 21 different grape varieties, seven of which are unknown.

Today, it is the only vineyard in France to be classified as a historical monument, but in 1999 it was re-discovered by the leading producer in Saint Mont, Producteurs Plaimont – a cooperative of wine producers based in the southwest.

But why is it key to finding a viticultural solution to climate change? Because this vineyard, along with other ancient plantings in this part of the Pyrenees, contain a diverse set of varieties that are resistant to common fungal diseases and extreme temperatures.

These forgotten and unknown varieties are ancient, naturally adapted vines with a range of traits that make them exciting options for a wine industry heavily focused on a narrow selection of grapes, many of them unsuitable for a warmer and more humid climate.

And two of them in particular have been selected by Plaimont and planted more widely to produce wines with low alcohol and naturally high acidity as a foil to other more recently planted grapes in the south west, such as Merlot, that produce wines with lower acidities and elevated alcohols.

The two grapes being produced now in commercial quantities by Plaimont are called Manseng Noir and Tardif – and both are late-ripening and disease-resistant.

Indeed, the Saint Mont region along with the surrounding Pyrenean foothills are considered a ‘Garden of Eden’ for wild vines (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) that grow naturally up trees, and represent the ancestral varieties for many of the grapes the wine industry uses today (see diagram below).

The genealogical tree of vines of the south west of France. The seven unknown grapes from the Sarragachies vineyard have been named Pédebernade 1-7 in honour of the family that manages the plot. Source: Plaimont

Over time, vines of this part of France have naturally adapted to the conditions, with producers working with them in small holdings over the past 300 years.

As these historic vines are planted along with other crops, growers have not been entirely dependent on these grape varieties for their income, allowing them to preserve the very old vines in this area of the country, especially within the Saint Mont appellation.

It is only in the past few years that a producer such as Plaimont has been working to isolate specific varieties in these historic vineyards, before working out their ancestry, and their characteristics, and then selecting certain ones to plant more widely.

However, such a wealth of native grapes in this part of France is in sharp contrast to the viticultural pattern across the rest of the nation.

Highlighting the France-wide reduction in grape selection in recent history, managing director and head winemaker at Plaimont Producteurs, Olivier BourdetPees said last week, “In 1950, 20 main grapes, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, represented around 50% of the vineyard area of France, but today, those same 20 grapes, represent more than 90%.”

His aim is to focus on the indigenous grapes of Saint Mont and its environs to preserve this cultural viticultural heritage; offer something different to producers in the rest of the world; create more “balanced” wine, while finding a potential solution to a warming climate – which is often more humid too.

He also said that he believes that the demand is coming for wines made from such forgotten grapes from a younger generation who are looking for something unusual and authentic, drawing a comparison with an increasing call among these consumers for heritage tomatoes and other foodstuffs.

Furthermore, long-standing wine drinkers may also be interested in wines made with grapes such as Manseng Noir or Tardif because they offer a lighter, fresher style of drink.

“Many don’t want to drink wine any more because the wines of today are not as drinkable as they were 20-30 years ago,” he said, referring to riper more alcoholic styles of wine from international grapes such as Merlot.

“We think that the foothills of Pyrenees, with its native grapes, and with freshness of the climate, is the best place to rediscover drinkable wines,” he concluded.

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Plaimont produces Moonseng by blending Merlot with the forgotten grape Manseng Noir from the south west of France

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