Vignobles Ducourt plants “disease-resistant vineyard”

Read this Decanter article:

This is an important piece of news. As we struggle all over the world with the need for increased agricultural production, we are also facing a determined onslaught by unscientific and ahistoric “back-to-the-past” fundamentalists who wish to ban all pesticides etc. while at the same time banning genetically modified organisms. I am certain this is an untenable position in the long run, but in the short to medium term their influence is great, and has already set the world back decades in the development of sustainable methods for nourishing the world in a clean and safe manner.

The vine is a notoriously heavily-sprayed crop, whether the sprays are “conventional”, organic or biodynamic. Vitis vinifera, such as we use it in the vineyards of the world today, is to a large extent (and with large variations among varieties) a highly manipulated and very fragile being. It is of course a fallacy to say that just because a spraying agent is organic or biodynamic, it is intrinsically “natural” and therefore not harmful to the environment or people’s health. There certainly is a tendency for less spraying in organic and biodynamic and other “natural” practice, but a complete avoidance is extremely rare, and I would contend that some of the sprays used in biodynamic practice in particular are poorly understood in terms of their long-term effect on health and the environment.

If there is a need for avoiding or minimising spraying in vineyards – and I think there is – we need to grow intrinsically healthy, disease-resistant vine varieties. There is much research being done to achieve this, and this has brought about some very resistant and healthy varieties, many of them so-called inter-specific varieties. However, the issue is that these are new varieties. There are several problems with new varieities, chief among them that they do not taste like the varieties that are already known and loved. This gives problems with commercialisation, and also potentially with the perceived terroir expression of any given area in the longer term.

While I welcome Ducourt’s will to address several serious issues, as professed in the Decanter article, I have to deplore the fact that they feel the need to repeatedly stress that the varieties planted are conventional crossings bred specifically for health. While the new varieties may be excellent varieties, we have come to associate the great wines of Bordeaux with very specific varieties and their expression in that area. What if suddenly Bordeaux came to be made from very different varieties with a completely different expression, only in the name of vine health?

Surely, the proper way to go about this – not just in terms of health and environment sustainability, but also in terms of climate change robustness – would be to genetically modify existing varities to be much more robust, while maintaining their well-known and much-loved characteristics? This may be much easier said than done, but surely it is worth the effort. I am not so much a fool that I think that an area’s vinous expression, or the varieties grown in that area, remain immutable over time; that is demonstrably not the case. But to potentially resort to wholesale replacement of varieties that have been demonstrated to produce some of the best wines in the world would be commercial and cultural folly, and all that because caveman ignorance makes it politically impossible to use the best and safest method at arriving at solutions that would not entail such potentially devastating changes.

And no, we cannot in the longer run sustain the world – or, indeed, that small fraction of it that produces wine – with organic and biodynamic farming practices. Not in the face of the future onslaught by climate change and the inevitably much-stricter demands that will be placed on environmental factors and food safety as a result of an ever-increasing world populace.

Yours truly

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5 Responses to Vignobles Ducourt plants “disease-resistant vineyard”

  1. Tom Maresca says:

    Bravo, Ole! A very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I hope some followers of the Bio-Organic religion will read it with an open mind.


  2. erl happ says:

    Hi Ole, its good to come to my desk to find that Ole Udsen has been busy, And I like the forthright style and the common sense.
    Consider however that vinifera vines were not sprayed in Europe before the arrival of the American diseases in the late 19th Century.. Consider the tedium of driving ones tractor down each and every row and the tendency to sleepiness in the closed in cabin, The heat that accumulates behind the glass, The blast of the air conditioning and the noise of the engine.. It’s no fun.
    Fortunately it is rare to have to spray pesticides in Australia and if one has an open canopy that admits the sun its harder for the funghi and the rots to get going, So some adaptation is possible. In low humidity climates the need is generally less. However, in moist maritime climates we ramp up the application of elemental sulphur to the French Maritime Rate, perhaps triple the rate that one would use in the inland and at perhaps twice the frequency.
    On the rare occasion that I have sprayed pesticides, against grasshoppers for instance I reckon that if it will kill the insect I too am at risk and I hate being at risk. I once witnessed a team of half a dozen black men in South Africa driving tractors with open cabs working in formation. That was a horror to see.
    The biggest concern is not pesticides, because little should be used, but herbicides that can have insidious results that do not become apparent for many years. I hear that Glyphosphate is banned in Europe. The materials actually sprayed on the vine have to run the gamut of fermentation that has a cleansing effect. In our situation there is from 2.5 to 4 months between spraying and harvest and that also helps.
    In urban situations there is drift and that’s hard to control. In rural areas drift is less of a problem.
    But is the vine variety that important? Flavour is as much a result of terroir, cultural methods and time of picking as it is vine variety, Cabernet Sauvignon has a different expression wherever it is grown.
    So, my considered opinion is that cross-breeding, selection and the genetic manipulation will have a place because there is much to be gained. And I congratulate these guys in Bordeaux for making the point that we don’t have to be satisfied with the status quo. Its a good story, it will attract attention, its risky, its brave and I for one hope that the result is attractive. I have written to the centres of research in Australia and suggested that the objective of coming up with a no-spray vine is worthwhile. So far no reply. They probably reckon I am an idiot.

    • Ole Udsen says:

      Hi Erl,

      Many thanks for your enlightening response. I guess the bottom line is that, yes, there is a need to develop no-spray vines.

      Apart from that, I must of course agree that the need for spraying varies enormously from place to place, and also from year to year. This year, for instance, even the normally arid regions of southern Italy have had so much rain and humidity that peronospora runs rampant. In such a year, I would think that spraying is much higher than normal.

      In terms of variety being important or not, I agree that certain regions will affect wine styles in certain ways, but my contention is that this is typically a result of the interplay between varieties and place, not that a region will make all varieties taste the same. Hence my contention that if we change out, say, cabernet sauvignon with something else, the flavour of Bordeaux-as-we-know-it will change. It has changed in the past, and no doubt will change in the future, but these changes have generally been over decades or centuries, and I am sure many will contend that the changes have mainly been for the better, in both agricultural and flavour terms. If the change-out of varieties occurs as a result of the need to reduce spraying – and not in order to improve/refine flavour – then we are getting it wrong, given that genetic modification practices might be able to slightly modify existing varieties to maintain flavour profile while becoming more disease-resistant.

      You are certainly not an idiot, and your proposal to develop spray-free varieties is both enlightened and rational, but I guess that public opinion remains overwhelmingly against genetic modification, and so even research centres might have to consider whether to spend scarce funds on projects that are in public disfavour. Alas.

  3. Hi all,
    First of all; thanks for sharing and commenting about our experiment we are currently running at our winery. We believe new resistant varietal can offer an alternative way to the viticulture we have known in the last decades. We are just at our first year of planting so we will draw conclusions later; We still have to make good wines from these varietals and experiment more.
    Also our biggest challenge might be to find consumers and distribution for theses wines so we can really affirm this works and it is economically viable.
    Let’s keep our finger’s crossed and hope other winegrowers will plant their own resistant vineyard so we can exchange and improve all together!

    • Ole Udsen says:

      Many thanks, Jonathan. I think that what you are doing is important and points at some of the most important – and least discussed – aspects of wine. I wish you the best of luck and many happy customers.

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