Sustainability, climate change and the Rhône
Following a talk last week on the impact of climate change and the advancement of sustainability initiatives in the Rhône Valley, we bring you some news on the eco-driven measures taking place in the region.
During a masterclass at the Crus and Côtes du Rhône press and trade tasting in London on July 6, Julie Coutton-Siadou, who is export media relations manager for Inter Rhône, outlined how the French wine region is facing the challenges of warming temperatures and extreme weather, both now and expected in the future.
Answering a set of questions posed by myself, she gave the following answers, which you can read below, taking in topics from energy use to water waste, regenerative viticulture to disease-resistant grapes, with, in each case, examples of Rhone responses at a regional and local level.
How is Côtes du Rhône encouraging sustainable wine growing?
In 2021, we unveiled Côtes du Rhône AOC’s pledges for the future: although it may seem recent, it was actually a mere structuration of existing practices that have been implemented by winegrowers of the appellation for several years. These 4 pledges – ensuring the transparency of practices, protecting biodiversity, respecting terroirs and preserving resources, and passing on a legacy – are the main themes drawn from the best practices of growers, formalized so that the appellation can communicate on the work that is being done in the vineyards and in the wineries, both to the industry and to all our winegrowers in order to encourage their propagation.
Beyond the question of labels, which is of course a central part, these pledges cover initiatives such as the protection of biodiversity, following an ‘Environmental Plan’ that Côtes du Rhône growers adopted, with a partnership with the League for the Protection of Birds, or initiatives concerning companies (not just the vineyards and the environment), with 20% of négociants having adopted a sustainable approach (CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility).
As a generic body, Inter Rhône also has to set an example: our teams started the process towards becoming certified sustainable (following the guidelines of ISO 26000 international standard). A strong emphasis is on the relationships with stakeholders, namely all individuals, groups, companies, who are affected by or can impact our organization’s actions. The objective is a ‘snowball’ effect to encourage others in the region and outside to get involved and implement sustainable practices.
How is Côtes du Rhône helping producers adapt to the challenges created by climate change?
Inter Rhône has three main missions: economic support, promotion of the appellations, and technical support. The latter is embodied by the ‘Institut Rhodanien’, where all our Research & Development is being carried. The primary focus of this research is climate change in its various aspects, with an array of research projects focusing on related topics.
- New varieties (ie varieties not yet authorised in our appellations’ rule books) are being studied, and the Institut Rhodanien conducts winemaking experiments (complete with a tasting panel). Recently, this led to the experimental authorisation of four varieties for Côtes du Rhône AOC : they are not yet part of the cahier des charges – which would take more than 10 years – but growers are allowed to plant them and include them in their blend, as part of experimental processes, in order to test their suitability for a potential future authorisation. Four varieties have been chosen, for their adaptation to drought and their late maturity, both useful in the context of climate change in our region. They are: Rolle – also known as Vermentino – indigenous Carignan blanc, a mutation of Carignan; white hybrid Floréal, and red hybrid Vidoc.
- Outside of the AOC framework, there are individual initiatives to plant other varieties, originating from Italy, Spain, Greece… yet the appellation is also a guarantee of style for the industry and for consumers: Côtes du Rhône’s DNA remains blending, and varieties are also selected for their organoleptic character, suitable for blending with our more traditional varieties and for respecting typicity.
- Other research on plant material includes studying Grenache x Syrah crosses, drought-resistant rootstocks, or studying yeasts and their effect on wine’s acidity and alcohol levels. For example, a study concluded in May 2022 showed that a specific (commercially available) yeast can lower the final alcohol level by 0.5% while increasing acidity by 0.75 g/L (source: https://www.institut-rhodanien.com/article/comment-ameliorer-les-vins-du-futur)
- All of the research is made available to winegrowers through the website of Institut Rhodanien, but also at events designed to share and discuss projects and concerns with the industry.
What is being done regarding water use?
Since 2018, Institut Rhodanien has implemented a network of reference vineyard plots to measure and monitor water stress across the region. This network is used to alert growers but can also be a tool to obtain a derogation for irrigation (irrigation being forbidden in AOC vineyards between 1 May and the harvest).
However, two aspects of water use are of utmost importance: ensuring the efficiency of irrigation and preserving the quality of water.
For efficiency, guidelines advise on shading strategies, on agroforestry, and combine weather data with detailed maps to identify priority areas. Another project relies on identifying where the soil actually captures water from rainfall and where soil reserves get replenished: around these areas, cultivators are encouraged to lower their use of chemical products, in order to improve the quality of water.
How bad is the situation in terms of water supply in the region now?
So far, 2022 is a very dry vintage. Usually, between October and June, the region receives between 400 and 600mm of precipitation. This year, this number is only 250mm, despite some rainfall in June.
Restrictions are in place, even on some structures that allow growers to tap from major rivers such as the Canal de Carpentras, which provides water from the Durance to 15,000 individuals or groups over 12,000 hectares and has been obliged to reduce its water intake from the river by 25%. This structure is also heavily conscious of the necessity to provide ‘clean’ water and has switched to mechanised weeding in an effort to get rid of all phytosanitary products.
What about organics?
The Rhône Valley Vineyards have a natural asset for sustainable viticulture: the Mediterranean climate and influence of Mistral (strong wind from the North) provide a natural protection against fungal diseases, already leading to a lower use of chemicals and more virtuous practices, without winegrowers feeling the need to obtain a certification, or making the switch to organic viticulture and High Environmental Value (HEV) certified practices easier.
There is a strong increase in the proportion of organic vineyards though: in 2021, 12% of the harvest is certified organic, representing 13% of vineyards (8,600 hectares).
We have been able to compile data from the départements, totalling the area under vine (any vineyard, appellation, denomination is included) for the six départements where we are located. This data shows that the certified organic area has been multiplied by two in the past 10 years. The current trend is a strong increase in the number of companies converting to organic viticulture (+65% over 4 years), but also expectation of a sharp increase in the certified vineyard area for the next 2 to 3 years (the area currently ‘in conversion’ represents 50% of the area that is already certified).
How is Côtes du Rhône helping producers with natural methods of pest control?
Integrated approaches are favoured, notably through biodiversity. The OAB (Observatoire Agricole de la Biodiversité / agricultural observatory for biodiversity) is a network through which several useful species are observed and counted. Bats, worms, butterflies, bees, invertebrates… in total, more than 220 ‘observation protocols’ are underway in the Côtes du Rhône, making it the most important network among French vineyards. Measuring the presence and evolution of these species is a first step towards protecting them, and in practice the estates implementing these protocols are also active in preserving and increasing biodiversity.
Several examples among these 220 include Domaine de la Romance (Gard) where Gilles Chinieu has observed an increase within the insect populations, or Domaine de la Bastide (Vaucluse) where Vincent Boyer also has beehives, plants bushes, flowers and trees to provide a natural habitat for the species.
Similar initiatives exist in Cairanne for instance, where 300 chickadee and bat nests are being installed in the vineyards, as part of the appellation’s environmental charter. In the Northern Rhone, a partnership with Coop’Tain has led to installing pheromone baits and bat nests, covering a total vineyard area of 900 hectares.
What about regenerative agriculture?
A bit like M. Jourdain in Molière’s ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’ having unknowingly speaken in prose his whole life, many winegrowers already use regenerative viticulture practices without knowing that there is a word for it.
Some estates (such as Domaine Dieu-le-Fit in Visan) do not till the soils and work on improving soil structure and microbial life. Vitipastoralism is a long-standing tradition in the region, for example Louis Lefebvre in Sabran (Gard) welcomes sheep in the vineyards (when it doesn’t damage the vine’s growth): the vineyards provide food for the animals and the practice supplies nutrients and manure while limiting soil compaction.
In AOC Costières de Nîmes, Michel Gassier is another winegrower committed to regenerative agriculture, experimenting in order to improve the health and life of the soils, to enrich biodiversity, and to promote economic resilience within the agricultural communities.
What is being done to help reduce energy use?
Here too, the practices are numerous, and there is not one standard that is being imposed on companies, but rather it is the total sum of their initiatives that fosters a virtuous cycle.
When designing their new building in Tavel, Dauvergne & Ranvier relied on eco-conception, having in mind the wellbeing of their employees but also the reduction of their carbon footprint, thanks to thermic efficiency of the building (the thick walls and roof help maintain cool temperatures in summer and warm temperatures in winter) and the installation of solar panels.
The Rhonéa cooperative has installed 850 solar panels, but a waste reduction program leads to sorting 98% of their industrial waste and recycling through valorisation 100% of their organic waste, while opting for lighter weight bottles leads to 115 less tons of glass per year.
Ravoire, after evaluating that glass bottles represent more than half of their annual CO2 emissions, has developed partnerships to collect and reuse their bottles through local networks, as well as implementing measures to ensure the reuse potential of said bottles (washable glue, printing rather than engraving lot numbers…)
Another telling initiative is the suppression of the plastic handles of “bag-in-box” packaging at Cellier des dauphins (where 3.000 hectares are HEV certified and nearly 1.500 hectares are certified organic): this sole initiative has led to a reduction of 153 tons of plastic in a year.
Finally, how is the Rhône helping to improve the ethical side of operations, such as community involvement?
Working as a community and passing on a legacy are major topics too. We have mentioned Inter Rhône’s corporate social responsibility certification, which is currently under way. Other entities, groups, or even appellations, are also engaged towards social and societal responsibility. In 2021, AOC Ventoux has published its ‘raison d’être’, which includes joining strengths with other actors of their territory, helping young growers settle, increasing the area’s attraction to encourage beneficial repercussions for everyone, holding recurring meetings to share best practices among winegrowers but also with other cultivators.