Grapes turning colour

In Brief

Malbec vines

Malbec vines at Domaine du Garinet


We have 2.5ha of vines, consisting of red malbec, chardonnay and sauvignon. They are situated on particularly well-drained and sheltered hillside sites on a limey clay soil containing a good proportion of stones. These assist both drainage and heat retention - important conditions for growing quality grapes. The parcels are well separated by woods and scrub – a considerable help in reducing pests and diseases. The malbec vines were planted in 1984, and the white varieties in 1998.

Our priorities

Our guiding principles in growing the vines are to obtain the highest possible quality grapes, and to respect the environment.


To a considerable extent, achieving ultimate ripeness and hence quality depends on the ratio of the leaf area to the quantity of grapes. We control the grape yield by careful pruning, rigorous shoot thinning and, in many years, a reduction in the number of bunches in the early summer (vendange verte). To increase the area of leaves exposed to the sun, we grow the vines higher than is usual in our area, with taller posts and extra wires.

Orchids in the vines

Wild orchids in the vines


We are not an organic property because we consider it is better to choose methods and pest control products according to the real properties of each possibility. Organic growers use pesticides too, and they are not always as benign as they are made out to be. They may have worse environmental properties than some non-organic products, as well as being less effective. See Organic Viticulture below if you’re interested in more detail.

Hand harvesting

Harvesting chardonnay


We harvest the grapes for our white and rosé by hand, and for the red by machine. Again, there are quality pros and cons for each method and it is not correct to claim manual harvesting as a total quality benefit. We sample the grapes very carefully for some weeks before harvest. Analysing the samples for changing sugar and acidity levels helps us to decide the optimum date for harvesting.


The sections below discuss how we work in more detail.

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Cultivation Methods - What we do

This section is about methods of vine cultivation, the difference between organic and other methods, how we grow our vines, and why.

Controlling Growth

To produce really ripe grapes, we need to keep the grape yield low, and to maximise the area of leaves exposed to the sunlight. We also want to keep the vines open and well aerated so that they will dry out quickly after rain, thus helping to reduce fungal diseases, especially botrytis or bunch rot on the grapes.

Vines in winter

Vines in the winter, waiting to be pruned

A key factor in producing really ripe grapes and hence high quality fruit is the ratio of leaf area to grape yield. This is because grapes are ripened primarily by the action of sun on the leaves, which promotes the metabolic processes that progressively reduce the acids and increase the sugars collected in the grapes. The importance of sun on the grapes themselves is very small, and indeed one of the functions of the leaves is to shade the grapes to prevent sunburn, to which they are very susceptible. Our key action to maximise leaf area has been to increase the height of foliage above what is normal in our region, which we consider is often too low. Thus we have taller posts and the foliage is cut very high in the summer at 2.20m.

Guyot pruned vine

Vine pruned as single Guyot

The first job of the season is the pruning, done in the spring. The majority of the previous year’s growth is removed, leaving just two shoots – on long one which will carry the fruit and one short one to provide the shoots for the following year, and which will also bear fruit. This method is called single Guyot after its French inventor. It’s the standard method in our area, and perhaps the most common in France. Crop yield can be controlled by pruning short so that there are fewer buds and therefore fewer grapes, but if it is overdone, the result can be shoots which are far too large and vigorous, so there’s a balance to be struck.

The next job is shoot thinning – removing excess shoots coming from double buds, or from anywhere other than the chosen buds left at pruning. This is most important in order to keep the foliage open and well-aired, and also to avoid a lot of extra shoots to cut off at next year’s pruning. In difficult years, several passes of thinning may be needed to control the foliage. In early summer we will use a special machine to remove some of the lower leaves from around the grapes. This of course reduces the leaf area a little, but it has important benefits in providing better aeration of the grapes.

In summer we will often have to remove some of the grapes to keep the yield to the desired level and to thin out heavy packets of bunches, which provide an ideal breeding ground for grape bunch rot. It’s a tedious and rather dispiriting job, but essential for high quality in many years.


Vines for wine do not normally require much fertiliser. We have one parcel on particularly poor soil where we need to apply a general fertiliser to increase vigour. For this we use organic preparations because they contain more organic bulk and a wide range of useful trace elements. They are also more expensive than non-organic fertiliser and more work to apply (greater bulk). From time to time we have analyses carried out, either of the soil itself or of vine leaf stalks. If these show a need for adjustment of a particular nutrient (potassium for example) we will choose a non-organic fertiliser to provide specifically this nutrient. These applications are made only when and where we know there is a requirement.

Weed Control

In all our vineyards, the larger part is covered with vegetation that has been allowed to grow naturally. This includes the space between the rows and the headlands at each end. This is kept short during the season by regular mowing. It stabilises the soil on our slopes, provides a natural environment for soil life, and also gives us an agreeable surface for work on foot in the vines. This is much appreciated by anyone who’s had to work in vines with a clay soil maintained by mechanical working! We use weedkiller once a year in the narrow strip beneath the vines. If our vineyards were flat, we would probably replace this by hoeing between the vines with specially adapted tractor tools, but this is particularly difficult on our vineyards, several of which have steep slopes and also slope across the rows, so that each row is at a different height to its neighbour.


Vines are subject to a range of fungus diseases. In our area, the most serious of these is mildew (strictly downy mildew in English). This disease, along with several others, came from America in the 19th century, being unknown in Europe before that. It causes mouldy spots on the leaves; modest attacks reduce the number and effectiveness of leaves available to ripen the grapes, reducing the quality of the wine. A bad attack can completely destroy the foliage and therefore the grape ripening potential of the vine, or attack the grapes themselves. Anti-mildew sprayings account for the majority of treatments in our area and most of France.

We try hard to minimise the number of treatments. Mildew spreads only during rain and therefore as long as it doesn’t rain, you don’t need protection. Many products are protective only if used before the rain; we tend to use those products that have curative properties and are effective if used after the contamination caused by rain. This avoids unnecessary treatments made because rain was forecast, but didn’t happen, so reducing (in some years substantially) the number of sprayings. There are however risks in this approach – if a long period of rain sets in, the mildew may have taken hold before it’s possible to go out and spray.

Physical methods of reducing disease are also important in minimising spray treatments. Our rigorous removal of unwanted shoots in the spring and partial removal of lower leaves in early summer help to keep the foliage open and the leaves and grapes aerated and well-exposed. The summer grape thinning helps to reduce the risks of grape bunch rot.


Swallowtail butterfly

Swallowtail butterfly - worth protecting!

Our vineyards are well separated from each other and a long way away from anyone else’s vines. We have a lot of uncultivated land (woodland and scrubland) separating our parcels. This may explain why we don't have much trouble with insect or acarien (eg red spider) pests. We use sprays only when we have a significant confirmed outbreak, and we always look for the product which is the least toxic and which has the least undesirable effects on the environment. In particular, it is very much in our interests to choose products that do not kill the useful insects that eat the pests. Newer products are becoming better in this respect, although there is still some way to go. For instance, bacteria and virus preparations that target one particular species of pest are becoming more available; the development of a wider range of such products would be very valuable.

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Organic Viticulture - To bio or not to bio?

Organic cultivation is called biologique in France or bio for short – not to be confused with biodynamic. Over the last 100 years or so, many manufactured products have become available to fertilise the soil and to combat pests, diseases and weeds. They can give larger yields, improve the quality of the crop and provide a more secure livelihood for farmers and lower prices for consumers. But they can also cause harm to farm workers, wild flora and fauna, and, in bad cases of abuse, to the consumer. There is currently a considerable reaction, both within the farming community and the public, leading to much stronger control on the usage of these materials, and the removal of many products from the market. For organic farmers, the solution is to choose the fertiliser and treatment products that they consider are least harmful environmentally and to minimise the need to use them by taking measures to prevent or avoid diseases and pests.

Our approach is very similar – the difference is that organic viticulture is limited by their regulations to using a small range of so-called ‘natural’ substances. We do not believe that the best basis for choice is the dogmatic belief that only ‘natural’ substances are acceptable and that all ‘artificial’ materials are to be proscribed. We believe it is more effective in every way to consider all products and methods as possibilities, and to choose on the basis of the best information about the real properties, good and bad, of each option.

To illustrate this, consider the protection of vines from mildew - this is the most common fungus attacking vines in most parts of France (and elsewhere) and is responsible for a high proportion of all protective sprayings. The only reasonably effective anti-mildew treatments allowed in organic viticulture are those based on copper. An example is Bordeaux mixture, whose active ingredient is copper sulphate. These products have been around a long time, and have some good properties. On the other hand they are not bio-degradable (copper is an element) and are very toxic to earthworms, soil bacteria and fish. Copper residues on the grapes can destroy the precursors of wine aromas on certain varieties, particularly sauvignon, thus reducing wine quality. Their effectiveness can be insufficient to contain a serious outbreak of mildew in difficult weather conditions.

Furthermore, copper is a material with other very valuable properties, particularly for electrical conductors, and is not easy to replace. Like all minerals, the exploitable reserves are finite and reducing. A vinegrower in France using only copper fungicides against mildew might use about 4kg of copper metal equivalent per hectare in an average year, less in a dry year and more in a wet year. An average size family property of say 15ha will therefore use 60kg of copper per year. This is going to be spread over his 15ha and is permanently lost and irrecoverable. Finally, the extraction, smelting and purifying of copper is not environmentally friendy, causing desecration of large areas of land, air and ground-water pollution and consumption of considerable energy. It is therefore difficult to see how copper products can legitimately be regarded as 'natural' products, nor to see why they should be preferred on environmental grounds, unless all alternatives were even worse.

But increasingly, there are alternatives not authorised in organic viticulture which are better environmentally. Good examples are the anti-mildew products based on phosphonates. Potassium phosphonates are 16 times less toxic to rats than copper sulphate, six times less toxic to earthworms, 30 times less toxic to birds, 6 times less toxic to bees and 9 times less toxic to fish (source: IUPAC). They do not have unacceptable associations with severe long-term health problems - they are not mutagenic (unlike copper sulphate), carcinogenic nor endocrine disruptors. They have no toxicity classification, while copper sulphate is classified Xi (irritant). They have properties not possessed by copper fungicides that help to reduce the number of treatments needed:

Other modern fungicides have curative as well as preventive properties. This allows for use after rain, which can avoid unnecessary treatments before rain that is forecasted but doesn’t happen. Among these products also are some with better toxicological and environmental properties than copper.

We'd like to make it clear that the purpose of this discussion is not to diabolise copper fungicides, but to show that the rigid criteria for accepting materials used in organic viticulture is leading to poor choices for the environmental goals they seek. The organic movement is far from having the monopoly on environmental responsibility which is widely claimed.

The meaning of the much-abused word ‘natural’ needs clarifying. To organic farmers, it usually means an absence of synthetic organic molecules that do not occur (or have not yet been observed) in nature. In the wider use of the term by the general public, it’s not obvious why Bordeaux mixture, a combination of lime and copper sulphate, manufactured in a chemical factory, should be considered ‘natural’. Our view is that examining the real properties of each technique and product scientifically and with an open mind is more effective than using vague labels such as ‘natural’ as a criterion for acceptance or banning.

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Beyond Organic


This approach to agriculture is based on the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. As with organic farming, anything considered ‘artificial’ is banned, but it also advocates treatments involving tiny quantities of supposedly life enhancing materials, somewhat similar to homeopathic medicine. These are usually prepared by being inserted into various animal parts such as cowhorn or deer bladder and then buried in the soil for a period before use, to ‘activate’ them. Biodynamics considers that the positions of the moon, stars and planets are important, and that there exist ‘cosmic forces’ which can be harnessed to aid cultivation. Thus preparations for treating crops must be stirred in the appropriate directions in order for the cosmic forces to be taken in.

Pests and weeds can be controlled by spreading ashes made from the seeds or body parts of the pests – these must be spread at the correct astrological time (for example when Venus is in the constellation of Virgo to discourage field mice). Demeter is the principal control and certifying agency for biodynamic agriculture.

While the care and concern of biodynamic farmers for the environment is beyond question, we cannot accept for example that the position of the planets has anything to do with agriculture. The use of burnt parts of one’s adversary to discourage it sounds like primitive magic and we despair at the invention of ‘cosmic forces’ of an undefined nature and for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

Natural Wine

This term applies rather more to winemaking than viticulture - it is being used, particularly in the UK and US, to describe the practice of winemaking using only grapes (organically grown), and, as far as possible, little or no other materials such as added yeast. It has no formal definition or legally recognised meaning. Its adherents claim that the wine tastes better than ‘conventional’ wine, and is better for one’s health. It has the disadvantage of being rather unstable and therefore has to be stored at 14° or below permanently, including during transport, and so is rather considerably impractical. There seems to us to be no good reason to deprive oneself of most of the tools that have evolved over the years to improve the quality of wine.

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Pesticide Residues in Wine

In 2008 the organisation PAN (Pesticide Action Network) published the results of analyses made on a small selection (40 bottles) of wines from European producers. This report was fairly widely publicised in the general press, sometimes under rather alarmist headlines. The report said that all the non-organic wines tested contained residues, while only one of the six organic wines did.

To put this into perspective for the ten French wines tested, thirteen pesticides were found across all the French samples. Of these, seven were botrytis (grape rot) fungicides, three were mildew fungicides, and three were acaricides, used against pests such as red spider mite.

Of these thirteen, five were found in only one sample each at concentrations close to the limit of detection (below 1 part per billion = 1 microgram per litre). Of the remainder, the concentrations ranged between 1 and 240 micrograms/l. Compared with the official allowed limits, the average concentrations found ranged from 0.2% to 1.0% of the limits. The highest figure for an individual sample and pesticide was 4.7% of the allowed limit. Three of these thirteen products are no longer used in France.

The levels of the allowed limits can of course be questioned and have indeed been revised downwards since these wines were produced, but even against the current limits, the quantities leave a very considerable margin. Modern analysis methods allow the measurement of extremely low concentrations and it is therefore essential to remember that the mere presence of a substance may be of little importance if the concentration is extremely low.

All but one of the six organic wines sampled contained none of the pesticides investigated. This is hardly surprising since organic growers do not use them. Strangely, the survey did not test for the fungicides that are used in organic cultivation – sulphur and copper, which are indeed chemical pesticides and have their undesirable properties along with the rest. The objectivity of the survey is obviously weakened by giving a clean bill of health to organic wines having neglected to test for the pesticides they are likely to contain.

It is largely accepted by most winegrowers, whether organic or not, that the issue with pesticide use is primarily about the environment, and not threats to the health of consumers of the product.

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We think the increasing polarisation between ‘organic ‘and ‘the rest’ is highly regrettable. It’s neither correct nor desirable to label all agriculture that does not conform to the organic prescription as ‘industrial’ or ‘intensive’, as we see increasingly in the media. Organic does not have a monopoly of environmental responsibility and there are good arguments to suggest that the dogmatic rigidity of only ’natural’ products is not the best approach.

We will continue to need the help of science and technology to provide food and other agricultural products of high quality at a cost which is affordable, and which provides a decent standard of life for farmers, who are mostly not owners of vast factory farms. The challenge is to use the power of scientific knowledge correctly to achieve this in an environmentally safe and sustainable way.

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