How much longer will we drink French wines? – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Asking such a question might seem provocative or even senseless but French winemakers are getting more and more worried by the growing number of grapevines dying of incurable diseases. During the last 15 years 13% of all the French vineyards died or became unproductive. 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) out of 750,000 hectares (1855,000 acres) of French vineyards! What could become an absolute disaster is mainly due to two diseases the flavescence dorée and the Esca for which there are no known treatments.
This could be only a beginning. Every year 0,5 to 1% more vineyards are concerned and all that wine growers can do is pulling up the dead vines and burn them all. Even worse if more than 20% of the vines are sick they have to pull up the all vineyard! Even if they can afford planting new ones and wait at least 3 years for a new harvest it is an estimated loss of one billion Euros each year.
France is not the only impacted country: Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Hungary even Australia and Argentina have to face the same problem without knowing the initiating cause. Pernicious effects of modern agriculture? Clonal selection? Global warming? Soil condition? None hypothesis has yet been retained.
Unlike mildew or oïdium that kill the leaves and the bunch of grapes but don’t kill the stock, the flavescence dorée and the Esca attack the whole plant. And unlike mildew that can easily be treated with Bordeaux mixture made with copper sulphate, these two scourges have no cure.
The Esca is the oldest vine disease, already known by Romans and Greeks during the Antiquity. Wine growers used to efficiently treat their vineyards with a sodium arsenite solution until 2001 when its toxicity to farmers was acknowledged and its use was strictly forbidden. Since then they are powerless to fight these terrible fungus that can destroy a vine within a few days or even a few hours! By then all they can do is burn the plant from roots to leaves and grapes.
The first cases of flavescence dorée occurred in 1950 when a specific leafhopper came all the way from the USA carrying an awful bacterium that infects the vines. But for unknown reasons it began to spread exponentially 15 years ago and once again we have no treatment. The only way to fight it is to kill the leafhopper that sucks the sap of the vine thus infecting it. It takes 3 successive sprayings of insecticide to eradicate it and organic wine growers are far from being enthusiastic about it!
It all seems like we are facing a crisis as serious as the one faced by the wine growers in the second half of the 19th century when the phylloxera began to destroy the vineyards. This tiny aphid also came from the United States and ruined three quarters of French and European vineyards within 30 years. The European grape varieties were saved from complete annihilation by using an American rootstock that was naturally immune to the terrible little bug.
Today there are very few vineyards in France growing without an American rootstock. One of them was classified as Historic Monument in 2012. The Sarragachies vineyard is located in the Gers region close to the Pyrenees. There are only 600 vines but of 20 different grape varieties and some of them are said to be 180 to 200 years old! Even if its wine is not a Grand Cru this vineyard is the first and only one to get such a prestigious award.
A more select wine is made with grapes growing on non-grafted vines. The Bollinger Champagne house makes a very special vintage called “Vieilles Vignes Françaises”. This Champagne is made with a Pinot Noir variety that managed to resist the phylloxera attack. No need to say that drinking this Champagne combining the wonderful know-how of the Bollinger house and these very special grapes is a unique opportunity to taste a Champagne the way it did in the 19th century!
Wine growers of the 19th century succeeded to defeat the phylloxera and we can trust the current professionals to find a way to save their vineyards. Everywhere around the world they look for a way to fight back these terrible plagues and we can trust their resourcefulness to ensure us pleasant wine tasting for the decades to come!
Text © Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Photos X and © Frederic de Poligny