While the world’s back was turned, France—a country with a wine history dating back to the sixth century B.C., the country that invented the world-renowned wine classification system, the source of arguably the most aspirational and expensive wine in the world for centuries—became one of the most progressive and rebellious wine regions in the world, while still maintaining its legendary rigor and traditions.
A recent journey to France helped me understand how these seemingly conflicting paradigms make perfect sense for the world we’re living in now. As I traveled through the Côtes du Rhône, I met farmers and vintners who were no longer content to simply maintain tradition; instead, they were reshaping the landscape, planting new grapes, producing new styles of wine, and transforming their manufacturing processes.
Looking beyond the Côtes du Rhône to other top-tier regions across France, this same scene is repeating itself over and over. “Regions like Bordeaux, for example, are focusing on environmental stewardship, but they are also now allowing several other grape varieties that can handle warmer climates and have shorter growing cycles,” says Marika Vida-Arnold, an independent wine educator and sommelier who previously served as the wine director at The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park. “It’s essential that individual producers, but also regulatory bodies, are now tackling these issues quickly and thoroughly, because the problem is only going to get worse.”
Côtes du Rhône
The Côtes du Rhône Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) harbors more than 1,200 independent, co-op and negociant wineries in 171 winemaking villages that pepper the banks for the Rhone River, from Vienne to Avignon. Individual producers and regional organizations are working in the vineyard and the cellar to protect the environment and transform the quality and style of wine that emerges from the region.
Currently, about 13% of the region’s wine is certified organic, and that number is increasing. Nearly half of the region’s winegrowers have obtained a HVE (High Environmental Value) certification, which prioritizes environmentally friendly practices such as improving biodiversity and water management and reducing reliance on chemicals.
Bucking conventional wisdom, some of the biggest brands are the most progressive.
At Rhonea, which has more than 7,100 acres under vine, with 400 family wine-growers each with 15-to-25-acre plots, a stringent approach to environmental standards has been adopted.
“Our goal is to have zero chemicals used in the vineyard by 2030, and at this point, our use is very limited,” says Valerie Vincent, Rhonea’s director of communications. “We use software and satellite technology to monitor grape health, including ripeness and hydration. Between that, an increased focus on biodiversity in and around the vineyards with cover crops, and the naturally dry and windy terroir, we do not anticipate having problems being certified organic by 2030.”
Another Rhone powerhouse, Cellier des Dauphins, with 2,500 hectares and more than 1,000 winegrowing families across 10 villages under its umbrella, has become the largest organic producer in the Côtes du Rhône, with 1,350 hectares certified. “We are also focused on reducing our carbon footprint,” says winemaker Laurent Paré. “Ninety percent of our supplies are sourced locally. And we are rethinking packaging. In the past three years, we have saved 153 tons of plastic and 61 tons of forest-certified cardboard by changing the packaging of our bag-in-box.”
It has also reduced its wine-bottle weights from 630 grams (22.22 ounces) to less than 400 grams (14.1 ounces). Next year, it plans to add 10 birdhouses per hectare of vines; the birds keep grape-munching insect populations under control and reduce the need for chemical pesticides. It also attracts native nesting bird species, which helps boost biodiversity.
Maison Sinnae, with 2,450 hectares under vine and 170 winegrowing families, has installed 500 bird and bat boxes and 11 weather stations around its properties. “By cumulating these actions and good practices in favor of a more sustainable production, chemical inputs are reduced significantly,” says Emmanuelle Rapetti, Sinnae’s head of communications, adding that the size of the company and number of people it’s working with has been a help, not a hindrance. “We share our findings and learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.”
The transformation in the Côtes du Rhône is stylistic, too.
The Côtes du Rhône has long been associated with GSM (a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre grapes) wines, but the AOC now authorizes 23 grapes, including recently approved lesser-known varietals such as couton, caladoc, and marselan, in a bid to help producers grapple with climate change.
And that may be just a taste of what’s to come.
“Next year, we hope to launch an initiative to test between seven and 10 new varieties that will tackle climate change,” says Denis Guthmuller, the president of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons des Cotes du Rhone, a winegrowers alliance. “We are looking at older, abandoned native varieties, and maybe a few Greek, Spanish, and Italian grapes. The goal is to find more grapes that are drought-resistant and can withstand extreme heat and cold.” Winegrowers will plant the grapes, see how they perform over a decade, and then submit them for final approval to the AOC.
Dauvergne & Ranvier is already reaping the rewards of forward-thinking blends, with up to 21 grapes—including whites—thrown into its red blends. “We ferment the early-harvested grapes in one vat, the ones that are harvested in the middle in a second and the late ripeners in a third,” says co-owner Jean-François Ranvier. “It can take more than three weeks to harvest all the grapes for one blend, because they all mature at different rates. For us, this produces a complex wine that truly expresses the terroir.”
Winemakers are also rejecting what they see as the overly oaked fruit-driven powerhouses that first put the Côtes du Rhône on the map for American consumers.
“When my mom took over as winemaker here 15 years ago, she changed the style completely,” says Maison Brotte’s current winemaker, Thibault Brotte. “I’m now adopting her style and pushing it even further. Everything we do is terroir-driven; we’ve eliminated oak; we use fewer sulfites; we’re experimenting with concrete eggs.”
Eleventh-generation winemaker Jean-Etienne Alary at Domaine Alary sees these changes as a matter of life and death. “We lost 40% of our harvest this year to frost,” he says. “My father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers, never experienced that. In addition to changes in the field, in the cellar we are doing fewer punchdowns, more pumpovers, and cooler fermentations; our goal is less extraction and fewer tannins. Now, we want wine that is drinkable and crushable, which is harder with global warming. But if you don’t move forward, you will die.”
In the Côtes du Rhône, where the famous Mistral wind and the generally dry climate make organic and biodynamic viticulture if not easy, at least reasonably achievable. Champagne? The severe climate makes eco-farming much more challenging. Rain and poor soils mean that grape-growers face mildew, chlorosis, and other challenges.
But as one of the most highly sought-after terroirs commanding the steepest prices—plus the undeniable demand for organic wine from consumers, especially younger ones—producers are pivoting to organic and even biodynamic farming.
The Comité Champagne recently committed to reducing its use of chemicals by 50%, treating all winery wastewater, and reducing the carbon footprint of bottles by 15%. It also announced that it aims to “achieve 100% sustainability in Champagne winegrowing,” but did not specify how it defines sustainability or when that end could be achieved. And the region has a long way to go: Only about 600 of the region’s 33,000 hectares are certified organic, according to the most recent figures from the Association des Champagnes Biologiques.
Still, individual producers are transforming their vineyards and cellars.
In 2013, Cristal released its first biodynamically certified vintage. Cristal’s parent company, Louis Roederer, began implementing biodynamic farming about a decade ago, but began farming everything organically in 2000. Frederic Rouzaud, the CEO of Louis Roederer, has said that “We are in awe of nature’s magic, and we strive to serve her as best we can in order to reproduce some of this magic in our wines.”
Maison Henriot, with about 90 acres of estate vineyards and with winegrowing partners who hold close to 350, is undergoing organic conversion itself and is financially supporting growers who sign on to do the same. Alice Tétienne, the chef de cave, sees the conversion as an opportunity to produce superior Champagne simply because it requires so much more attention, which naturally leads to a better product. “Organic viticulture requires a strong study of the vine throughout its vegetative growth,” she says. “Time is left for observation and precision. It is demanding and takes time, requiring presence in the vineyard, and a focus on the actions carried out there.”
But the house sees the need for more than mere organic farming. “Organic certification only deals with part of the environmental axis on which the entire wine and wine industry must work,” says Tétienne. “We also promote biodiversity, and research and develop new tools to fight climate change in every area. We are working on reducing our carbon footprint in packaging by carefully choosing suppliers and partners and monitoring their origin.”
Stylistically, there are rumblings of change, though, like the conversion of the vineyards, the developments are relatively small, and in some cases, officially quashed. A few years ago, when biodynamic Champagne maker Lelarge-Pugeout used estate-harvested honey in its dosage instead of sugar shipped from halfway across the globe, the AOC stepped in and forbade it. The producer was told it could apply for permission, but as of now, it has not received it.
Bordeaux, a region that arguably commands an equally lofty place as Champagne in the world of wine, in terms of esteem and prices commanded, has pushed ahead more aggressively in both environmental and stylistic terms.
According to new data from the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB), there has been a 43% increase in the amount of land certified organic or in conversion in 2020, and 75% of all vineyard area had a certified environmental approach in 2020, whereas only 55% qualified in 2016.
And in a move that shocked many, and delighted others, France’s Institute National de l’Origine et de la Qualite (INAO) officially approved the use of six new grape varieties in Bordeaux wines to “address the impact of climate change.”
The four reds—arinarnoa, castets, marselan, and touriga nacional—and two whites—alvarinho and liliorila—are much less well-known than the region’s traditional grapes. But all are described by the CIVB as “well-adapted to alleviate hydric stress associated with temperature increases and shorter growing cycles.”
For Jonathan Ducourt, the owner and winemaker at Chateau des Combes, with close to 1,200 acres under vine, winemaking is an intrinsically holistic process. “We leave more than 170 hectares [about 420 acres] natural, with forests, lakes, grass fields, hedgets, and wildlife living undisturbed,” he says. “We maintain and restore old windmills, vineyard sheds, and other buildings so they can be used by birds and animals as shelter. We recently discovered 11 different species of bats living around our vineyards.”
That biodiversity helps ensure the grapes remain pest-free naturally, says Ducourt, who has also been experimenting with disease-resistant grapes since 2014, and has 13 hectares [32 acres] planted with cabernet jura, a hybrid cabernet sauvignon, and sauvinac, souvignier, and muscaris. He prunes late for the frost-sensitive vines, and is adjusting his ratios of blends, using less merlot and more cabernet and petit verdot to create brighter, more fruit-forward wines.
Groupe Larraqué Vins International, with 212 acres under vine and about 108,000 cases in annual production, is also focused on exploring more modern flavor profiles by using less wood in its aging process and aiming for fresher flavors, says sales manager Julien Salles. “I am also very interested in seeing how malbec and petit verdot add new dimensions to our blends,” he says. “There is a great precision of fruit that is less heavy and very interesting.”
At Clarence Dillon and Clarendelle, export manager Erika Smatana says they deploy “strict specifications from partner growers” to ensure no chemical weed killers are used. “We have also initiated an environmental approach at the company level,” she says. “Our warehouse is built of concrete, insulated and covered in solar panels to handle our electricity needs. We have planted a forest of 250 trees and set up beehives to encourage biodiversity” around their estates.
These changes are coming—it’s hoped—in time to make a real dent in the damage already done to viticulture by climate change and generations of over-working and abusing soil with chemicals. This year, the French government has reported the smallest vintage in decades, largely due to post-bud frost and hail.
And as it turns out, changing the substance and style of wine to suit the planet’s current conditions isn’t just the right thing to do for the environment and the future economic sustainability of brands: It’s the right thing to do for our palates. Two recent studies analyzing independent critics’ scores of 200,000 wines show that eco-labeled organic California wines score 4.1% higher than conventionally grown California wines, and certified organic and biodynamic French wines scored 6.2% higher.
Making a good wine doesn’t have to just be about flavor—but that will always matter, and it’s heartening to see that producers who are paying it forward for the planet are reaping benefits in the glass, too.