How the World’s Most Progressive Wine Country became the Stodgiest

France, a country with a wine heritage dating back to the sixth century B.C. and the country that created the wine classification system, which is the source of perhaps the most expensive and aspirational wine in the entire world, was able to turn the tide. It became one of the world’s most innovative and rebellious wine areas while maintaining its legendary rigours and traditions.

Recent travels to France have helped me see how seemingly contradictory paradigms can make sense of our world. I met farmers and vintners as I travelled through the Cotes de Rhone. They were not content with maintaining tradition, but we’re actively changing the landscape, planting new grapes, creating new wine styles, and transforming their manufacturing processes.

This scene is repeated repeatedly in France’s top-tier regions beyond the Cotes du Rhone. “Regions like Bordeaux are now focusing on environmental sustainability, but they’re also allowing other grape varieties that can withstand warmer climates and have shorter growing seasons,” Marika Vida-Arnold, an independent wine educator and sommelier who was previously the wine director at The Ritz-Carlton New York Central Park. Producers and regulatory bodies must now take action quickly to address these problems, as the problem will only worsen.

Cotes du Rhone

The Cotes du Rhone Appellations d’Origine Controlee (AOC) houses more than 1,200 independent, cooperative, and negotiate wineries located in 171 winemaking communities that line the banks of the Rhone River from Vienne through Avignon. Regional organizations and individual producers work in the vineyards and cellars to transform the wine from the region’s vineyards and improve the quality.

About 13% of the wine in the region is organic at present, and this number is growing. Nearly half the winegrowers in the region have an HVE certification (High Environmental Value), emphasising environmentally friendly practices like improving biodiversity and water management and decreasing reliance on chemicals.

Rhonda has over 7,100 acres of vines and 400 family winegrowers with plots ranging from 15 to 25 acres. A stringent approach has been taken to the environment at Rhonda.

Valerie Vincent (Rhonea’s director for communications) says that the goal is to eliminate all chemicals from the vineyard by 2030. At this point, however, we are very limited in our use. We use satellite technology and software to monitor grape health. This includes ripeness, hydration, and other factors. We don’t anticipate problems becoming certified organic by 2030 due to this greater focus on biodiversity around the vineyards with covered crops and the naturally dry, windy terroir.

Another Rhone powerhouse is Cellier des Dauphins. It has 2,500 hectares of land and over 1,000 wine-growing families in 10 villages. It has also become the largest organic producer within the Cotes du Rhone. Laurent Pare, a winemaker, says they also focus on reducing their carbon footprint. Ninety per cent of our supplies are locally sourced. We are also rethinking packaging. We have reduced plastic consumption by 153 tonnes and cardboard usage by 61 tons in the forest over the last three years by redesigning the packaging for our bag-in-box.

It also decreased its wine-bottle weights by 630g (22.22 ounces) to less than 400g (14.1 ounces). It plans to build 10 birdhouses per hectare next year. The birds help keep the grape-munching insects under control and reduce chemical pesticide use. It attracts native nesting bird species, which helps boost biodiversity.

Maison Sinnae has 2,450 hectares of vine and 170 wine-growing family members. It also has 500 bird and bat boxes and 11 weather stations. “By combining these actions and best practices for a more sustainable production chemical inputs are significantly reduced,” says Emmanuelle Rapetti (Sinnae’s head, communications). She adds that the company’s size and the number of employees it works with have benefited, not hindered. “We share our experiences and learn from one another’s failures and successes.”

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