Disease-resistant grape varieties. A new era for winegrowing

This week’s headlines, bringing further discredit to Monsanto and chemicals in general, will have strengthened many winegrowers’ belief in the need to ramp up their environmental credentials and embrace cleaner ways of farming vines. Vignobles Foncalieu, a group of 650 wine growers with 4,000 hectares under vine across the South of France, grasped the nettle over a decade ago and is now leading the way in the search for the perfect balance between respect for the environment and a viable business.

60% whites and rosés

At the end of the 1980s, Vignobles Foncalieu, based in Arzens near Carcassonne and which markets around 40% of its wines in bulk, broke new ground by choosing to specialise in white wines amidst an ocean of reds. The experience it notched up over the years, and investments in winemaking equipment geared to the specific requirements of white wines, then prompted the co-operative group to try its hand at rosés, way before the colour reached its current popularity ratings. Consequently, 60% of its production is now either white or rosé, with the pendulum swinging in favour of rosé. Its range runs the gamut from quaffers to high-end food wines, and its varietal range reads like an ode to diversity – it has 24 white varietals alone. Its next move was to study the feasibility of introducing non-local grape varieties more suited to the hotter, drier weather fuelled by climate change. Albarinho, Piquepoul noir and Sauvignon gris are now well-established components of its varietal range. But with every success, chief viticulturalist Gabriel Ruetsch decided to set the bar even higher.

Alternatives to organic

The group advocates a multi-pronged approach designed to seek out the best options for environmentally-friendly winegrowing. Over 30% of its vineyards – equating to around 1,700 hectares – now use mating disruption to combat grapevine moths; 31 hectares are farmed organically, with over 150 ha in the switch-over phase; and for the 2019 vintage, just under 1,000 ha will be certified HVE or High Environmental Value. But perhaps its boldest move yet is the phase-in of newly-minted disease-resistant vine varieties capable of warding off the usual suspects that are downy and powdery mildew. “We have been interested in disease-resistant varieties for a long time”, said chairman of the board Michel Servage at a press conference in Montpellier in mid-May. “They are the best solution for rapidly and effectively reducing the use of agri-chemicals”. In 2016, the group planted its first hectare of Artaban, produced by French research institute INRA. “The challenge is getting enough vines to plant”, explained Gabriel Ruetsch. “The choice is still restricted but it’s improving all the time”. In 2017, Vignobles Foncalieu planted Vidoc, then in 2018 the German varieties Souvignier gris and Monarch rouge. It will also be planting monogenic Bouquet vines as part of a regional scheme for the deployment of disease-resistant vines. With its first white wines from Floreal due to be released in 2021, the group soon hopes to have around 10 hectares of disease-resistant vines planted, up from a current three. “Society is telling us to produce wines more cleanly. It’s not always simple to convert a huge vineyard area – in our case 4,000 hectares – over to organic, it’s a huge investment”, added Servage.

A world first

Disease-resistant vines do not necessarily imply that the vines are not sprayed at all. “We decided not to go down that route”, said Ruetsch. Nevertheless, the vines were treated just twice. Artaban offers the ideal solution for producers looking for high-cropping vines. Foncalieu estimates that it could have produced 15 tonnes per hectare, though chose to rein in its output and cropped at between 4 and 5 tonnes. In terms of flavour and aroma profile, the resultant red wine – branded NU VO TE, which phonetically means new release or novelty in French – shows similarities with Gamay. It is designed as an easy-drinking wine that can be chilled and has a consumer-friendly price tag of 6.90 euros. Though its first 2,500 bottles attracted clients from countries such as Japan and the Netherlands keen to buy this world first, its varietal name is patently missing from the labelling. “Consumers are sensitive to GM issues and we didn’t want to cause any confusion”, explained export sales and marketing director Alexandra Ladeuil. The lack of varietal statement also gives the group more flexibility for blending – starting with the 2019 vintage, production will be doubled by blending in the second disease-resistant varietal planted, Vidoc. “We are now at a turning point”, claimed Michel Servage, “we are on the cusp of a new era for winegrowing”.   



NU VO TE is made from the French-produced disease-resistant grape variety Artaban


From left to right: Gabriel Ruetsch, Michel Servage and Alexandra Ladeuil.

Sharon Nagel. A freelance journalist and translator, Sharon Nagel spent 25 years writing for the French wine trade journal ‘La Journée Vinicole’ and now writes for Vitisphere. A judge at several international wine competitions, she also co-ordinates the Sauvignon blanc steering committee and has contributed to several books.