Is France on its way to ban pesticides?

If you thought Brexit was the only source of entertainment with yelling people, bickering politicians and social media exploding with discussions between people who don’t listen to each other, you’re wrong! France experienced a very heated summer, and climate change for once has nothing to do with it. The subject that heated people’s tempers more than the tropical temperatures was the introduction of so-called non-treatment zones for farmers, proscribing them to spray pesticides within a certain distance of neighboring homes and schools. 

On September 9, 2019 the French government launched a 3-week national consultation on a proposal to ban the use of pesticides in a 5 metre zone from housing for low crops and in a 10 metre zone for high crops, including vines. France is the first country to launch non-treatment zones to protect the population’s health, the proposal being a joint effort between the three ministers of agriculture, health and ecological transition. Debates on the use of pesticides are obviously not new, but a very symbolical and highly mediatised case accelerated things substantially in 2014 when school children in Villeneuve, a town in Bordeaux’ Blaye region, became nauseous due to the spraying of fungicides in next-door vineyards.

Several attempts were undertaken since then to introduce non-treatment zones and other measures, that were subsequently withdrawn by court rulings after protest of agricultural lobby groups. French farmers and their representative bodies vehemently oppose government plans to curb the use of pesticides, arguing that they will lose thousands of hectares. They also point to the fact that spraying procedures have evolved already and that they follow strict rules on the use of pesticides, based on scientific research. Factors such as the speed of wind, the amount of pressure, and the type of spraying device used, are indeed taken into account before deciding how, when and where to spray. These arguments, however, did not placate civil society groups and environmental organizations, who find the farmers’ efforts and the government’s current proposal too little too late.

Enter a whole new dimension in the debate, as organic and natural wine enthusiasts started asking why it was necessary to use pesticides in the first place. However appealing this thought may seem, conventional farmers were quick to point out that copper, accepted in organic agriculture, is a fungicide, and not particularly good for people’s health either. The 2014 Villeneuve case aptly demonstrated their point, as one of the two vineyard owners who were charged, was an organic wine maker.

Daniel Cueff, mayor in the Breton town of Langouët, decided to take the law in his own hands and banned the use of pesticides and herbicides within 150 metres of housing. Needless to say that this caused quite a stir, some farmers arguing they would lose entire plots if this became a national measure. Unfortunately for Mr Cueff his decision was overruled in court, the judge arguing that decisions on the use of phytosanitary products are the mandate of the minister of agriculture. The latter, Didier Guillaume, was also quick to declare that non-treatment zones of 150 metres would be “madness for the consumer”.

There is, however, an alternative for the government’s one-size-fits-all regulation, and that’s curiously an alternative that Didier Guillaume favors in the first place : local charters. The idea is that local citizens and farmers get together and work out a compromise that suits them. Only in the absence of a local charter will the national rules be applied. This solution is also largely favored by the farmer organizations, who would hate to see “Paris” imposing rules on them. While the local charters leave room for flexibility and compromise, it is, however, no option not to have non-treatment zones at all. They may be reduced to 5 metres instead of 10 “if more performing spraying devices can be used”. If the idea of locally negotiated charters seems a good idea to some, it may prove challenging in areas where the powers that be are also in the business of wine making. Again, the 2014 Bordeaux case was telling, as the local mayor at that time was actually one of the two vineyard owners who were charged for spraying in the presence of school children.

At the date of publication of this article, the number of comments on the ministry of agriculture’s website grew to a whopping 27,000. While other consultations mostly fail to attract any attention at all, this one clearly shows that the heated summer is very likely to extend in a heated fall. With France topping the Food Sustainability Index, which also looks at sustainable agriculture, for three consecutive years, it comes as no surprise that it is the first country putting non-treatment zones on the political agenda. While it will be interesting to see what the final outcome will be in France, it’s equally intriguing to see how little debate there is in other countries. Will France’s regulation provoke similar initiatives in other EU countries? The French chest-beating that comes with the acknowledgement of their efforts on sustainability might just trigger new dynamics elsewhere. Or then again, it also might not.

Affordable pinot noir from Burgundy : a case of sour grapes?

In my previous post I told you about the tastings of pinot noir I organised a few years ago for my final dissertation to become a sommelier. I wanted to find out if it’s possible to find decent pinot noir under 15€. You already read that New Zealand pinot noir was doing very well in those tastings. But how did Burgundy fare? More than half of about 40 pinot noirs we then tasted were Burgundies.

I will not beat about the bush : exactly one Burgundy was considered to be good by the tasting panel. Not a great result… Some might argue that it is impossible to find good Burgundy under 15€, and if I were to re-do the exercize now, I would probably set the cut-off point at 20€ considering the sometimes crazy price increases in Burgundy.

What struck me the most was the very low quality of some of these bottles. It is actually very rare that I find a wine outright bad, even generic supermarket wines under 5€. They can be uninteresting, bland, lacking character,… But so sour, or harsh, that it is actually difficult to finish your glass, let alone the bottle, is something that hardly ever happens. And yet, amongst those entry-level Burgundies, there were more than a few of those. A useful reminder that Burgundy does not only produce some of the world’s greatest, but also wines you just want to pour down the drain…

Fortunately, the one Burgundy that was good, was also really good. In total I did three tastings and in every one there was always one or two wines that cost around 30€, so double the price of the other wines, just to make sure that everyone in the panel remained attentive and rated the wines on their real quality and not just based on the fact that these were mere “budget wines”. The Burgundy that scored really well, was actually thought to be the more expensive wine, with someone even suggesting it could be a 1er Cru… Well, it was definitely not a 1er Cru, not even a village wine, but the Burgundy 2012 of François Legros, a wine maker based in Nuits-Saint-Georges. It had a complex nose, well-integrated wood, good structure and length, probably helped by the vintage, which generally produced wines with more body, structure and potential to age.

Since this was the only Burgundy to perform so well in this price category, I decided to keep buying this wine. For the occasion of this post I opened the three vintages that I still have : 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Burgundy 2013

 

The brick rim shows obvious evolution in the color. Mainly red fruit in the nose. The toast aromas that were more prominent a couple of years ago are now completely integrated. This wine is undoubtedly the slimmest of the three, reflecting the vintage’s freshness and accessible style. Not so much margin left here though, so drink up.

Burgundy 2014

 

The evolution also starts to show here. The nose is a bit shy upon opening. There is fresh red fruit and a nice cedar wood touch. This wine was packed with fruit when I drank it about a year ago, which is much less the case now. I read somewhere that some 2014s might be in a closed phase right now. Or is the fruit already fading away? I kept some for the day after and the wine was more open and refined on day 2, so not at the end of its life yet. A beautiful example of the vintage again, with good acidity and tart red fruit being the drivers of this wine.

Burgundy 2015

 

The color is somewhat darker, more concentration in the core. The fruit is riper and tending more toward cherries. The profile is generally much rounder and riper. I actually had to cool it down a bit, as the acidity that normally plays the role of balancing the wine was here more on the background. On day two the wine showed a very different wine, boasting succulent raspberries and more freshness. It obviously still had to shed its baby fat. This wine has the greatest potential of the three and will really shine in a year or two. Very nice!

Even though I had drunk each of these wines before, it was very interesting to be able to compare them now. In general the quality stays at a good level, which is remarkable for Burgundies of around 15€. To be able to deliver consistently well-performing wines, also in challenging vintages such as 2013 and 2014, is a feat of winemaking so bravo to Mr Legros for that. And despite the price increases also for this wine, they remain modest (so far), and contribute to making decent Burgundy pinot noir accessible for wine lovers.

The 2015 sold out in my wine shop, so I hope to lay my hands on the 2016 soon. Probably my favorite Burgundy vintage of the last ten years, so very much looking forward to that!

Taking gewürztraminer to a higher level

The Alsace uses a concept of “noble varieties” to define which grapes can be used in the areas that are designated as “Grand Cru”. I’ve always wondered what could be meant with “noble” varieties. The grapes that are used to make the highest quality wines, I read everywhere. OK. Riesling is one of those grapes that no one will question, I suppose. But why do the noble varieties in the Alsace include pinot gris and not pinot blanc? Or pinot noir for that matter? And then there is muscat and gewürztraminer, both noble varieties in the Alsace. On the one hand, I’m very happy that there are still regions that want to cultivate the traditional varieties, and that do not massively plant sauvignon blanc or chardonnay. On the other hand, these are not my go-to grapes in general. The grapy character of muscat and the aromas of lychee and rose in gewürztraminer tend to be rather dominant. I like it when a wine invites me to sniff and sniff and sniff again before I even consider having a sip. Then when you do take a sip, the wine sinks in and makes time stop for a couple of seconds. It gives you that whoa-moment that every wine lover wants to experience once every while. I think I have not tasted the right muscats and gewürztraminers until now to experience that. Luckily I recently had a chance to taste the wines of Domaine Lissner…

It was without great expectations that I went to a wine fair in Ghent, called PURr, dedicated to natural and organic wines. I’ve been to a couple of such wine fairs before and had my share of, well let’s say, animal aromas… I don’t mind when they are there a little bit, they can actually add complexity, if you’re open for it… But when it’s too much, it’s just too much, off-putting even. In whites you will then find aromas of apple cider or ashes. It was therefore a nice surprise to taste very fresh and complex wines at the stand of Theo Schloegel of Domaine Lissner. We started off with a muscat that was not grapy at all, and that had a crystal-clear acidic structure. Very refreshing and salivating. It was the gewürztraminer, however, that made me silent for a moment.

IMG_1594This gewürztraminer comes from the Grand Cru Altenberg de Wolxheim. When Theo poured this wine, his tone became somewhat worried. He said : “Please, take your time to taste this wine, at least one full minute!” After he repeated this one or two times more, I was aware that this wine was a) very dear to him, b) not just a quaffer, and c) that he probably has his share of people who come to wine fairs to down as much as possible. He then said : “You should actually drink this wine in ten years time!”. He then repeated once more : “Really, take your time to taste this wine!”

The first sniff at my glass made it clear from the start : this is indeed not “just a gewürztraminer”. No can of lychees in my glass, but a mineral start, followed by orange, exotic fruit such as pineapple, and a bit of curry powder. Nothing overwhelming, rather a subtle, yet intense nose that makes you sniff and sniff again. The first sip revealed a bit of the spiciness that you can have with gewürztraminer, but again very well dosed. The mouth feel was very round and the concentration of the wine was enormous. You could almost chew on this. Definitely no simple summer quaffer. By then, I could perfectly imagine why this wine should be drunk in ten years time! And also why I needed to take my time… Another interesting thing about this wine is that it is completely dry. Gewürztraminer is sometimes made with a bit of residual sugar to make it off-dry. No such thing here. The remarkable consequence of that is that this wine has a whopping 15,5°C alcohol… Luckily well integrated.

As you might expect, this is the kind of wine that invites to eat with it. I matched this wine with rojak, a fruit and vegetable salad commonly found in Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s an eclectic mix of pineapple, mango, bean sprouts, toasted peanuts and, in this version, fried tofu. The dressing is a mix of lime zest and juice, oil, sambal oelek and sugar. A very refreshing, tangy salad, yet at the same time lightly sweet and hot. This turned out to be an absolute winner with the gewürztraminer, because the lime and the chilis added a bit of structure to the wine, while the wine beautifully echoed the mango and the pineapple. A great example of how one and one can be three…

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Hit the ro-jak!

So here we are. All of this goes to show that you just need to keep tasting and exploring! Otherwise you miss out on these hidden gems, made by super passionate wine makers, who put their heart and soul in it. And with stunning results…

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Cheers!

I joined the French Winophiles this month, a group of wine bloggers who publish one article a month on one central topic. Please join our chat on Twitter. Simply tune in to the #winophiles hashtag on Twitter this Saturday, June 16 at 10am CDT. You can also check out the #AlsaceRocks hashtag for more Alsace fun during and after the chat.

Here’s a list of Alsace wine suggestions from the Winophiles :