Vineyards at War

BY HENRY SAMUEL, in Paris – Daily Telegraph,  London, SEPTEMBER,2011

The makers of the most expensive Burgundy wines have changed the rule book to make grape-picking by hand compulsory in an attempt to defend the region’s age-old traditions.Afbeelding 101

The makers of the most expensive Burgundy wines have changed the rule book to make grape-picking by hand compulsory in an attempt to defend the region’s age-old traditions.

The domains, which say that machines damage taste and are bad for the vines, want other top Burgundy wine makers to follow suit, with the hope of a total ban on machine-picking in the region by 2014.

The Vosne-Romanee boasts famed vineyards, notably the legendary Romanee-Conti, which produces the world’s most expensive wine, at up to €13,000 a bottle.

For the past fortnight, thousands of seasonal workers have been toiling under the sun to pluck precious pinot noir grapes destined for Burgundy’s top quality red wines, its grands crus, using methods little changed since Cistercian monks cultivated the land 1,000 years ago.

The owner of the Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair in the Cote d’Or, central Burgundy, has rallied the big five producers in a united front against mechanization.Afbeelding 104

Louis-Michel Liger-Belair still ploughs his land with a horse – he insists tractors compress the soil too much – and bottles wine when the moon is waning as it improves taste.

Wine has been a family tradition since Louis Liger-Belair, one of Napoleon’s generals, created the domain in 1815, and the chateaux’s motto states: “As long as man seeks to correct nature instead of listening to her, following her, and helping her, he will be on the road of error.”Afbeelding 032

So when Mr Liger-Belair saw harvesting machines within the walls of Clos de Vougeot, a celebrated grand cru vineyard dating back to 1330, he saw red.

“When tourists come here and see machine harvesters in these ancient vineyards, it is an embarrassment,” he said.

Only a handful of winemakers use machines in the area, as little as two per cent of grands crus producers, but Mr Liger-Belair said these were “terrible for our image”. “When we sell wine, we sell dreams,” he added.

The machines compress the soil, damage fragile pinot noir grape skins and weaken the older vines when they shake them to make bunches fall, he said. Hand-picking costs € 2,000 per hectare, twice as much as with a machine, and the idea of a ban for all Burgundy grands crus and even the lower quality premiers crus has met with resistance.

“I’m against banning machines,” said Frederic Gueguen, of the Chablis appellation, 90 per cent of whose white chardonnay grands crus are machine-picked. “Machines have improved hugely since the 1970s, they don’t affect quality and are a fantastic tool. I challenge anyone to distinguish between a white harvested by hand or machine.”

Faced with such opposition, Mr Liger-Belair is now moving towards the idea of a charter that producers can sign voluntarily to “shame” machine users.Afbeelding 107