Thursday, February 7, 2019

French Wine Estate Explores its Wild Side

One French estate has welcomed all creatures great and small in a bid to restore balance to the vineyards.

By Vicki Denig | Posted Saturday, 02-Feb-2019

In the world of organic viticulture, Bordeaux isn't particularly the frontrunner. However, amongst a slew of grand châteaux working with chemicals, Benoît and Delphine Vinet are pioneering the world of organic Bordelais biodiversity, encouraging not just the implementation of organic farming practices, but also the simultaneous existence of a thriving ecosystem, creating an oasis of wildlife, flora, and fauna, all within eight hectares on the region's Right Bank.

The Vinets founded Domaine Emile Grelier, named after Delphine's wine-loving, constable grandfather, in the early 2000s, situated in the small village of Lapouyade. Benoît, a vigneron for 15-plus years, and Delphine, an employee of the local town library, grew up in the French countryside to land-laboring parents, no strangers to the work of passion-fueled farming. After numerous years of working for other wineries, Benoît set out to pursue his dream: create a holistic,  self-sustaining winery, rich in biodiversity and organic viticulture.

Image result for domaine emile grelier

The Vinets began planting eight hectares of vines, slowly but surely gearing up for a life of sustainability. Though the transition didn't come easy – or cheap. At the beginning, Benoit worked for other wineries to make ends meet, while continuing to plant, prune, and train his own vines. After the first "three leafs", the winery was finally ready to bottle and sell their first wines in 2012, comprised of 100-percent Merlot within the designated Bordeaux Supérieur AOC.

But varietal Merlot is just the beginning of what the Vinets are seeking to create. At their winery, which operates more as a full farm, the couple has created an entire ecosystem surrounding their home. In addition to grape vines, 54 different types of birds call their estate home, as well as frogs, snakes, insects, and bats; flowers and wild orchids line the perimeter of the property, and fish splash through the manmade ponds dug into the property's soils.
Making bird boxes

The insect hotel
So why introduce such an array of animals, plants, and above all, competition, into a thriving vineyard?

"We've [moved from] a monoculture of the vine and replaced it with an ecosystem," explains Delphine. "At the vineyard, trees help create microclimates, as well has moderate temperature deviations (fighting against late frosts, for example)," she states. "Planted in rows, they become useful 'ecological corridors' for many animals, including birds and bats. In addition, they produce fruit, an interesting addition to a region mainly known for its vines."

Vinet explains that above all, these plants' roots help protect the soil from rain and heat, in addition to aerating the vines. "Additional plants also [naturally] create a high-quality mulch, which boosts the life of the soil, creating mushrooms and bacteria, which re-decompose into the soil." And perhaps the most important life force within the ecosystem? Bats. "Bats are nocturnal mammals, capable of eating up to 3000 insects per night, each," says Delphine, providing an extreme efficiency in fighting against moths, which lay on (and damage) the vines' berries. "Because the bats work on the whole vineyard (they move with a sonar), it's necessary to provide a relief; trees are very useful to them."

During the day, the ecosystem's 54 species of birds relieve the bats, hunting insect predators within the vineyards to feed their young. "The idea isn't to get rid of the insects, but to create an equilibrium," Vinet clarifies.

The domaine proudly boasts 10 'gites a chauves-souris' (bat houses), as well as seven hedgehog 'cabines' and four 'insect hotels'. In addition to the estate's 50 birdhouses, the domaine is also used as an owl refuge, with special owleries installed into the estate's many trees, used to recover and nurse the birds back to health. To nourish all of the animals within the ecosystem, as well as create new plants, the Vinets also constructed six ponds across the farm, which breed dragonflies, amphibians, salamanders, and water plants. However, to protect the bee population, the Vinets are careful not to construct or disrupt activity too close to the vines.

Most interesting of all, is that, contrary to popular belief, the couple claims to have not seen any competition between the vines and other existing flora.

"If we do not cut the plants, they do not compete with the vine," states Delphine. "In fact, when they are cut, they take water and food from the ground to repel because their goal is to sow, which causes stress for the vine. If left alone, they coexist well with the vine."

In terms of vineyard failure, the Vinets deem to not having seen much, with regards to introducing a world of biodiversity to their vines. However, they have found small technique adjustments to better their strategies.

"For example, for trees, we understood that to succeed in planting, it is better to first plant the rootstock and then graft on the rootstock already installed. This helps to develop the root system before developing the tree. This ensures a better success of the transplant."

Image result for domaine emile grelierUnsurprisingly, the Vinets' work has piqued some significant interest in the larger Bordeaux region – including from other wineries, seeking to potentially introduce biodiversity into their own estates.

Château Coutet, located within the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, is another winery continuing to introduce plants, trees, and animals into the mix, as well as Domaine d'Eriane, located further south within the Languedoc region. Vinet also revealed that they are receiving calls regularly from surrounding neighbors – including a few undisclosed 'bigger name' wineries – calling on the duo for consulting and guidance on this style of farming. As of 2014, Domaine Emile Grelier became the first French winery to become a Refuge LPO, signifying their commitment to preserving and restoring local biodiversity.

As for the future, the Vinets plan to continue developing agroforestry, as well as grow the flora and fauna within the vineyard. Both Delphine and Benoît are interested in the implementation of biodynamics, and above all, hope to continue educating those surrounding wineries on the benefits of 'biodiversity farming.'

"After the war, chemicals were recycled in agriculture; little by little, farmers lost their common sense and cultures adapted to these modern techniques," says Vinet. "It is a mistake! Let us find our common sense, our good agronomic farming logic, and adapt the material to a respectful culture. It's effective! We do not invent what we do. We use old techniques that worked well and made sense."


Estate & Grelier's mile: The trees at the heart of the vineyard

Domaine Émile Grelier: trees in the heart of the vineyard

After having planted nearly 400 trees, Benoît and Delphine Vinet are laureates of the Arbres d'avenir contest. They continue to experiment with alternative practices.

Source: SudOuest 

A wooden house, planted on the edge of a forest. The natural setting corresponds to the spirit of the place. Settled in Lapouyade in the 2000s, winemakers Benoît and Delphine Vinet practice agroforestry. It is not a question of exploiting the trees, rather of reconciling their presence with an agricultural activity. The 400 trees planted in their vineyards led them to change their practices. An approach distinguished by the association Fermes d'avenir as part of its Trees of the Future contest.

"Viticulture, even organic, is a monoculture," says Benoît who had helped plant vines on these lands when he was a farmer at the Tutiac winery. At the head of the estate with Delphine, they wanted to "restore equilibrium and a certain biodiversity. A monoculture will attract insect pests of this crop. Fruit trees attract others and this limits the overdevelopment of the first ... »

Recreate ecosystems

The couple then contacted naturalist associations to recreate a welcoming environment for small animals and others. The first trees are planted in the rows of vines. "These are landmarks for bats when they come out of the woods because they are heading through their sonar. They hunt at night and as most insects have nocturnal activity. Very effective against cluster worms. Also insectivorous, birds that move into small huts planted on the plot take over during the day. "We counted more than fifty species of birds. The estate has even become the first winery to secure refuge status by the Bird Protection League (LPO).

In three or four years, even with young tree seedlings, winemakers are seeing big changes. It must be said that the landscape moves around insect hotels and hedgehog cabins. "The basis of the project is to reintroduce the tree. Fragment plots to recreate micro-climates, recreate relief, dig ponds, stop mowing to promote bridges between forest and vineyards, all that goes with it. We are testing a lot of things here. In addition, it's pretty and effective. The last planting campaign this year has planted 200 trees in the vineyards.

Associate cultures

"Originally, it is a forest liana," recalls Delphine. "The ancients practiced the joualle, a system of companionship between plants that consisted of climbing the vines on the fruit trees. The Domaine Émile Grelier is not yet at this stage but could develop market gardening.

Some onions and potatoes under a hay bale unrolled between the vines gave a very satisfactory first production. "At the time of co-working or carpooling, why not co-cultures? It would make sense. The happiness factor is often forgotten, but it is priceless. Like picking parsley in the rows of vines and seeing butterflies go by. "

Mini-conference of Delphine Vinet live TEDx Viroflay Friday, March 9  2018 on 
Presentation of the project of the Possiblerie, Thursday, March 15, at the Ecocitoyenne House of Bordeaux. And Wednesday, March 28, evening with the association Agronomists and veterinarians without borders at Zig Zag café, 73, Argonne course in Bordeaux.


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