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Two years ago, Pierre Cazeneuve, the owner of Bordeaux’s Château Paloumey, made what he calls “a choice and a bet.” While replanting a four-hectare vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon in Haut-Médoc, Cazeneuve skipped two rows for every 27 rows of vines. In the gaps, he planted 135 trees of local species: linden, maple, elm, white mulberry, and a flowering shrub called mock privet. He had lowered the vineyard’s potential yield by eight percent, decreasing winemaking capacity. But the aim of these saplings—“to introduce as much biodiversity as possible”—was more important to him.
“They are baby trees! We will wait five to ten years to observe the [initial] impacts,” Cazeneuve says, though he only has to look at his neighbors to see the benefits. Some Médoc estates planted trees a dozen years ago, establishing the region as a leader in agroforestry. That has much to do with where they’re situated.
The Médoc vineyards are located in a wild natural environment, surrounded by forests, enjoying a particularly rich biodiversity. According to the Médoc Wine Council, the region is adopting agroforestry practices to recreate natural corridors for insects and animals, and to restore the natural conditions of life in the soil. These practices are not currently integrated into the production rules of the wine syndicates, but they are encouraged at all levels of wine viticulture here, and Médoc producers are working to amend AOC regulations to incorporate sustainability and biodiversity practices as mandatory. For them, the integration of trees and shrubs into the management of their estates promises to improve the vineyards’ health, increase their resilience against climate change, and, ultimately, benefit the quality of the wines.
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Cazeneuve’s foray into agroforestry is the newest evolution in the rehabilitation of a venerable estate that had fallen on hard times. When his family purchased Château Paloumey in 1989, the vines had long since vanished. Cazeneuve’s mother, Martine, planted anew, “giving new life to this beautiful Cru Bourgeois Superior that time had forgotten.”
When Cazeneuve took over in 2015, he converted to organic viticulture. Tree planting is the latest step in what he calls “my environmental engagement.” He believes the trees will create a microclimate to help moderate heat and drought, and he anticipates them offering habitat for birds and beneficial insects that prey on vineyard pests. He looks forward to the tree roots increasing the biodiversity of the soil, connecting to vine roots through networks of mycorrhizal fungi that boost plants’ nutrient and water intake.
“There will be maintenance costs,” he says. Trees need pruning and other care. “But I can’t wait to see them growing and changing my vineyard landscape. I believe the wines will be better thanks to this decision.”
One Haut-Médoc wine that serves as precedent is Claire Villars-Lurton’s Ceres de Haut-Bages Libéral. This organic-certified, sulfate-free Merlot is made from grapes grown biodynamically on an eight-hectare plot containing upwards of 800 fruit and hardwood trees. Designed by artist François Houtin, Ceres’ label depicts an ash tree wrapped in and supporting a grapevine, both above and within the soil.
“The wine expresses the characteristics of its terroir and limestone soil without artifice: a beautiful freshness, fruity aromas, and a mineral touch,” says Villars-Lurton, a third-generation winemaker and head of four prestigious Bordeaux châteaux. Trees help make that happen.
“They are connected with the vines through their mycorrhizal fungi, which allows the vines to assimilate amino acids and other nutrients,” explains Villars-Lurton. “The vines are in connection with their terroir, and our wines reflect that personality. Our wines are complex, alive, dynamic, and so different from one estate to the other.”
Villars-Lurton and her husband, Gonzague Lurton, own the most biodynamic vineyard acreage in Bordeaux. For them, agroforestry and biodynamic farming are inextricable. “It is a global approach for increasing biodiversity,” says Villars-Lurton. She planted her first kilometer of hedgerows at Haut-Bages Libéral, her Grand Cru Classé estate in Pauillac, when she adopted biodynamics in 2007. Every year, she installs 120 trees on another hectare of the 30-hectare property. At Margaux’s Chateau Ferriere, also Grand Cru Classé and biodynamic, she is using hedgerows to connect the vineyards to the surrounding forest.
Along with cover crops, Villars-Lurton’s trees and hedges have helped her vines develop resistance to mildew and other diseases. They contribute organic matter to soils, feeding beneficial microorganisms. They aerate the soil, allowing it to receive and hold water. They also sequester carbon, contributing to the fight against climate change. “We have to inspire other viticulturalists to understand that naked soil is dead soil,” says Villars-Lurton. “Our goal is a living soil.”
In Médoc’s Moulis appellation, Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier, the second-generation owner of Château Anthonic, turned to trees after traditional organic methods like composting and cover cropping failed to rehabilitate soils depleted by the chemicals his father had used to control rot. Cordonnier had been at it for eight years when, in 2011, he planted his first hedge and discovered garter snakes nesting under its mulch. Trees, he realized, were the means of “recovering a living soil and ecosystem.”
A water and forest engineer by training, Cordonnier quickly installed a four-kilometer network of native hedgerows. On every parcel he’s replanted since 2017—nine of 28 total hectares—he has introduced a mix of 18 local tree species. “The first measurable result is the explosion of biodiversity,” says Cordonnier. The trees and shrubs offer nesting places and food for birds and bats, as well as host roots for mycorrhizae. With the help of the mycorrhizal network, the soil’s organic matter increased for the first time in decades. Winter frost damage has lessened in parcels closest to the hedgerows, and in summer, the trees act as air conditioners, sucking groundwater through their roots and transpiring it from their leaves. “We also fix a lot of carbon,” notes Cordonnier.
Now he’s introducing agroforestry at Château Lestage Darquier Grand Poujeaux, the 10-hectare estate he recently acquired. “It is costly in the short term, but the resilience of a living and covered soil is much better in the long term,” he says. “The job is more complex but more exciting. You’re not fighting against nature but dealing with her. My hope is to see a change in the Médoc landscape with a lot of trees spread through vine parcels.”
To that end, Cordonnier, Cazeneuve, Lurton, and five other Médoc producers have formed an agroforestry association, an as-yet-unnamed GIEE, or government-recognized interest group, among farmers with the goal of ecological resilience. Stating their theme as “The Tree at the Service of the Vine,” Cazeneuve says the viticulturalists hope to “learn from each other.” He dreams, too, of organizing an international viticultural agroforestry summit to shore up the global industry’s capacity to help save the planet.
“Agroforestry is still new in the Médoc. It is a real life experiment of a new way of making wine,” he says. “My goal is to produce great, authentic wines, but the way we produce them is also important. As farmers, we have the chance to have a positive impact on our environment by changing our work. How could we refuse this opportunity?”
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