The cost of future proofing the vineyard

If you want to know the shape of things to come, and how much it’s going to cost, asking a pépiniériste is a good start, says Sophie Kevany. 

A Torres salvaged vine
A Torres salvaged vine

Pépiniériste is French for a person who works in a plant nursery, or vine nursery in this case. They are usually about three years ahead of the curve, because that’s how long it takes for a young vine to produce its first winemaking grapes. With wine growers in an increasingly tight spot thanks to climate change, vine disease and pesticide reduction needs, the question then for France’s top pépiniériste is: can growers plant their way out?

Pépiniériste is French for a person who works in a plant nursery, or vine nursery in this case. They are usually about three years ahead of the curve, because that’s how long it takes for a young vine to produce its first winemaking grapes. With wine growers in an increasingly tight spot thanks to climate change, vine disease and pesticide reduction needs, the question then for France’s top pépiniériste is: can growers plant their way out? 

The search for fungal resistance

Olivier Zekri, innovation director for France’s number one (and the world’s number two) vine supplier, the Mercier Group, thinks they might be able to. Interviewed in the middle of France’s second summer heatwave, Zekri’s answer begins, almost paradoxically, with mildew, a fungus that thrives in warm, wet conditions. “It’s a bit ironic to be talking about mildew resistance when we are in the middle of a heatwave. But 2018 was a terrible mildew year and it’s often the previous year that guides demand,” he says. As a result, he’s seeing a swift uptick in demand for what are known as hybrid or mildew-resistant vines. 

Of the 17 hybrid varieties currently approved in France, Mercier offers seven: Artaban, Floreal, Muscaris, Souvignier Gris, Monarch, Vidoc and Voltis. “Five to ten years ago the demand for hybrids was almost zero. Now we can’t keep enough in stock,” Zekri says, adding that in the 2018-2019 growing season, “we sold about 15,000 vines, everything we had. We are going to double availability and we expect sales to double, and it will be that way for the next few years.”

He said it’s not the mildew that’s driving demand, but the spraying required to treat it. “The main reason for the boom in hybrid demand is wine consumers. They don’t want pesticides in their wines. That’s very clear now,” Zekri says, and growers are responding. 

Bottles of hybrid wines make that equally clear, highlighting their pesticide-free – or almost free – nature on labels and technical sheets. They also tend to come in at a reasonable alcohol level of between 11.5% and 12.5%. There’s a third driver too. Although the cost of hybrid vines is almost double that of a traditional plant, the savings in terms of spraying are huge. “I was just talking to a grower who estimated the costs for treating his normal vines against fungus was about €2,000 ($2,225) per hectare,” says Zekri. “With hybrids those costs are now about €200 per hectare.”

In Bordeaux, where mildew is an almost constant threat, Jonathan Ducourt, sales and marketing manager at Vignobles Ducourt, lays out his figures. With an average planting density of 4,500 vines per hectare, multiplied by €2.40 per hybrid, the cost comes in at about €10,800 per hectare. By comparison, planting traditional vines, which cost about €1.30, would be €5,850. Then there are the savings. “Sustainable vineyard spraying [using minimal amounts of synthetic or copper treatments] about six to eight times a year, costs €400 per hectare,” Ducourt says. Then there is the €120-€160 for labour, which adds up to an annual €520-€560 per hectare. With hybrid vines, that sustainable spraying is reduced to only once or twice a year, meaning per hectare costs drop to a mere €50-€70. 

That’s not exactly the massive saving Zekri’s customer talked about, but that’s partly because Ducourt was using a minimal treatment programme. Nor are there any other transition costs, Ducourt says, because the hybrids are installed as part of his ongoing replanting schedule. 

Ducourt is still in test mode, regularly planting new hybrids and ordering them two years in advance to ensure he gets what he needs. Two types are already being used to make the estate’s first hybrid wine, Metissage. The red is from a Cabernet Jura vine, a fifth-generation hybrid resistant to mildew, odium and botrytis. The white is a Cal 604 or Sauvignac, a Sauvignon-Riesling-wild vines cross. For alcohol levels, the red is about 12.5% and the white is about 12%, about 0.5-1% lower than his AOC whites. 

Unexpectedly, given that many winemakers look for later-ripening grapes in these warmer times, Ducourt says he has discovered his hybrids ripen earlier. “We harvest the white in late August, early September. And the red in mid-September. It’s a much shorter cycle [to phenolic ripeness] and we are learning more about the vines with every vintage.”

A hybrid industry

Asked where his hybrid education began, Ducourt said with research from INRA, France’s national agricultural research agency, and another producer, Vincent Pugibet. 

Based near the town of Béziers in France’s south-eastern Languedoc-Roussillon appellation, the Pugibet family has been growing hybrids for the past decade. They now have 80ha and produce about 600,000 bottles a year. Sold mainly in Germany, the UK and US, the wines include Domaine La Colombette (an 11.5% Souvignier Gris, Muscaris white blend), Infamous Gold (an 11.5% Cabernet Blanc white) and Scandalous One (a 12.5% Cabernet Noir). As with Ducourt’s wines, the lack of pesticides is a sales feature. 

Discussing the wider issues of climate change, and the merits of later versus earlier ripening, Pugibet stresses two things: uncertainty and diversity. As examples, he points to this year’s heatwaves, last year’s rains, and 2017’s exceptional spring frosts that resulted in one of France’s smallest post-war harvests. More of the same can be expected, he predicts. As well as planting hybrids, Pugibet has enlarged his vineyard. “It now extends over more than 40km. So during violent weather episodes we don’t risk losing everything.” 

He grows other grape varieties as well, which spreads the weather risks over a longer harvest period. “We are able to mature over almost two months. We start between August 10 and 15 and finish at the beginning of October. In the future we might start at the beginning of August and finish at the end of October.”

In total, Pugibet is testing more than 40 different grape varieties including Cabernet Blanc, Cabernet Noir, Cal 604, Muscaris and Souvignier Gris. His cost estimates are much the same as Ducourt’s, with one difference, subsidy loss. “In Languedoc, European aid for replanting is around €13,000 hectares. Except in special cases, you’re not entitled to it for hybrids.”

Beyond vine types, Pugibet believes that to properly future-proof his vines, irrigation is required. “Things are changing and people are beginning to see that irrigation is more necessary to combat increasing dryness.” Pugibet uses drip irrigation, which is allowed for Vin de France and IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée or Protected Geographical Indication) wines. “There is plenty of water. We irrigate using water from the Avène thermal spring, and drip irrigation is not a huge consumer. And it is not costly.” 

His estimate for the pipes and system installation is about €2,000 per hectare, plus water costs of €150 to €200 per hectare, depending on the year. “That’s about the price of 2 hectolitres of wine,” he says. 

Ancestral vines

Another approach being pioneered in Spain, where the problem is less mildew and more heat and drought, is the planting of ancestral varieties, meaning varieties that have fallen out of use, for whatever reason. The costs here are harder to estimate, mainly because, as winemaker Miguel Torres Maczassek explains, the project began as a cultural and philanthropic exercise in viticultural archaeology. 
General manager for Familia Torres winemakers, Torres is part of the family’s fifth generation. Torres, along with his sister and father, has spent the past three decades developing what is now 53ha of six different ancestral grape varieties. The recovered vines, which are planted in different soils at different altitudes, are Garró, Querol, Gonfaus, Pirene, Moneu and Forcada. Limited edition wines from the last two are due to be released later this year and early next. 

Explaining the timeline, Torres said it starts with the two to four years it takes to ensure the vines are virus-free and then reproduce them. Next comes 10 to 15 years of field tests in different soils, microclimates and altitudes, along with test vinifications. 

What Torres can put a cost on is the other viticultural changes made alongside the ancestral project, mainly aimed, in this case, at delaying harvests. One of those is Gobelet-style training. This basically means allowing vines to evolve into a bush-like state. Under the bush cover, grapes are kept cooler and the soil retains more moisture. The practice is cheaper, he says, than using wires and posts for trellising, but more labour-intensive because tractors can no longer be used. 

The other cost Torres points to is drip irrigation, which he too feels is a useful investment given that extreme weather conditions are likely to increase in the coming years. His system costs about €6,000 per hectare, while average water costs are about €300 per hectare. Finally, Torres adds hail nets, particularly for its cooler, high-altitude experimental vineyards in the Pre-Pyrenees. These cost about €5,000 per hectare, plus an extra 30 hours manual labour for each hectare for opening and closing the nets as needed. 

Looking to the future, the work being done by Ducourt, Pugibet, Torres and others looks set to pave the way for two significant shifts in the wine world. More growers planting more diverse vines in both traditional and new locations. And, for consumers, a wealth of novel flavours and aromas, lower average alcohol levels and fewer worries about pesticides. Both worth drinking to. 

Sophie Kevany

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International, available in print or online by subscription.

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