France: A Green New Wine Country?

France has been in wine news recently which isn’t inherently exciting or unexpected, until you dig into the reason they’re making headlines: growers in Champagne, Provence and Burgundy have launched a new quest for more environmentally sustainable winemaking. 

A noble cause, to be sure. To keep up with the demand of the market and the instability of the growing seasons these past decades, growers in most regions have turned to whatever fertilizers they can get their hands on to give them a leg-up in production. The problem is that most of these fertilizers are synthetic chemicals. In recent history, French wine country has been lightyears away from “certified organic” eligibility.

However, major winemakers in the region are beginning to change their tune and seek organic certification. According to an article by James Lawrence in Wine-Searcher, “the poster boy for this movement is the Languedoc,” a region producing the largest volume of organic wines in France. Former rugby player turned winemaker Gerard Bertand explains, “[Occitanie] represents 38% of French organic vineyards and 7% of the global organic vineyard.”

But Languedoc and Occitanie leads the organic winemaking pack in France by a long while. Elsewhere, organic certification feels a long way off. The use of synthetic chemicals in other regions, such as Bordeaux, may have declined, but, as Lawrence puts it “there is still a critical mass of producers in the region who rely on pesticides and herbicides to achieve  substantive yield.”

The conclusion Lawrence has drawn is that the organic winemaking revolution in France is more hype than actual change. Across it’s agricultural offering, France is still heavily reliant on synthetic chemicals and, as noble as ecological growing sounds, it isn’t an economically viable direction for much of the nation’s growers. In short: going organic is incredibly costly, especially if you are growing in a more inclement zone. Growers are already cash-strapped, attempting to earn an organic certification is an expensive and risky gamble. 

Although Lawrence’s article questions the legitimacy of the trend, he doesn’t question the value of the pursuit. “France needs more high-profile conversion stories to tempt others into the fold,” he says. The trouble with the ‘green wine revolution’ is that it is cost prohibitive to anyone but rich producers.

But, while it costs producers more to comply with organic certification than it does to depend on the trusty old pesticides, the pesticides cost the environment more in the long run. In truth, while synthetic chemicals have long seemed the ‘cheat code’ to a good season, despite weather, the opposite is actually true. Louis Roederer’s cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon explains that “by having deep-rooted vines on a very resilient soil without pesticides, our vines are more linked to the soil than to the climate.” So yes, an organic operation may require a steep investment, and yield less product, but that product will be stronger in the face of climate change and potential diseases.

In his article, Lawrence posits that the viability of a Green French Wine Country likely depends on French bureaucracies bankrolling the endeavor.