In the field of soil life and soil regeneration, Claude and Lydia Bourguignon have been playing a central role for years through their research and through the patented techniques applied in their soil laboratory LAMS, where they do consultancy work for growers in France and abroad (as far as California).
Claude Bourguignon is an agronomy engineer who was at a time director of research at the INRA's soil microbiology department, he and his wife met in the INRA and worked 10 years there before quitting the institute and setting up their own soil laboratory (LAMS) in 1989. In the late 80s' there was no concern in the public institute about the detoriaration of the agriculture soils, like the increasing nitrates presence in water and soils, the thinking mode being to hide behind the EC norms on nitrates for example, and the authorized ceiling had been conveniently raised to keep the problem under the lid. In this regard they were a bit of dissidents in the fact that unlike the INRA they didn't accept the fait accompli of the soil deterioration by the chemicals used in industrial agriculture.
I must say a few things about the INRA, which is in some ways the result of the French Colbertism, this coupling of government spending, industry lobbying and state control to achieve certain economical goals. The INRA, with today 8500 employees and a budget of 880 million Euros has had a very pivotal role in the way the French agriculture turned from small family farms into large-scale industrial farms. Agriculture has been indeed one of the fields where this French big-government approach was applied after WW2 to implement the revolutionary benefits of the chemical industry to the (sometimes unwilling) farmers. But unlike in the Vendée in the late 1700s' where the central government had to send its armed troops to implement its revolutionary ideology, the farmers didn't resist much to the promised wonders of chemical sprayings and it was only years after the landslide of what we call now conventional agriculture that dissident voices like the one of Claude Bourguignon began to be heard. The INRA was originally a state-funded research institute then it became an EPIC, acronym for Etablissement Public à Caractère Industriel, meaning that the industry was largely at the wheel from then on, but anyway before that, the French administration has very early favored an industrial orientation for the French agriculture, envisioning (with the remembrement for example) huge fields with efficient machinery and the assistance of miracle chemicals. The INRA is now an EPST or Etablissement Public à caractère Scientifique et Technique (we French love acronyms).
Lydia explains that their work at LAMS can be summarized as helping the farmers and growers to be independant from the chemical industry which tries to sell them all sorts of products for whatever problem they may face. This help will in turn make them valorize their soils and as a significant result they will spend less money by avoiding (gradually if necessary) the use of chemicals.
The Bouguignons' consultancy work in the vineyards helps also the growers to later handle the issues by themselves, unlike the relation wineries have with enologists where the latter are seen as indispensable partners in the long term. When a vineyard gets its roots deep in the soil, irrigation is not useful anymore (in regions where it is practiced) and the winery will see results in the wine. This could even make the vintner less dependant from the enologist because the vines will find their natural balance. In California for example where they work regularly, and where the vineyards are routinely irrigated, they find often a disproportionate canopy which isn't adapted to the soil conditions, and the rebalancing has to be progressive (if desired by the grower in the first place) and also take into account the microbiological life. In France they noticed that the European directives or the Appelltion bodies give to the growers specifications which are not adapted to the soil conditions of the parcels. There are training types for example which are imposed by the normative appellation rules, even when certain varieties aren't fit for these training modes, and if the grower doesn't respect these training rules he may loose his AOC status. Actually, it is the soil, says Claude, which decides if you must have a Guyot double, a Guyot simple, a cordon de Royat or whatever, and imposing a general rule for a region is ignoring the reality of the soil.
The Bourguignons took a sabbatical leave for a year and went to the United States, and when back they organized their quitting the institute and the setting up of their microbiology-analysis lab, even though they had no customers yet. The real breakthrough they made at the time was when they could show to a grower that it was no mystery that he was dependant of all the phyto chemicals for his farming because there was no remaining life in his soils, no biological activity, no fungus, no insects. He was basically making soilless cultivation and was obliged to rely on all these chemicals.
They patented their method to analyse the biological activity of the soils as well as the method for clay characterization, which means that their lab could work on secure ground. In practice, when they're contracted, they travel to the field or parcel of the grower, take earth sample at different depth and locations, the observation in the trench dictating which horizon to sample. Some of the analysis and life checks are made on the spot, say in the trench in the vineyard, then a 2nd row of checks and analysis will be made with the earth samples at the laboratory. After the full diagnosis is clear, they give advice to the grower regarding the way to correct the deficiencies. They also look at the roots, how deep they go, their shape, they check if the soil breaths, if there's oxygen going in, they measure the soil compaction at different depths, and all these data help profile the condition of a particular soil and see what's wrong in relation to the vine or crop it bears.
The video on the right comes from the BRF34 Channel.
Their son Emmanuel who studied in Aberdeen (Scotland) and wrote his thesis at the University of Christchurch in New Zealand, has specialized in soil micro-biology applied to crop agriculture, and since he joined them at LAMS in 2008, he is regularly consulted by regional councils or city administrations for tenders focused on diminishing the use of herbicides on public surfaces, making a picture analysis of the soil condition and things like that, proving that there's a growing awareness on the importance of the soil's life and water tables. Claude confirms that the biggest soil polluters in France are the home gardener, the DDE (the public service taking care of the roadsides and the SNCF (the French railroad monopoly). Speaking about this little-noticed pollution by the SNCF, you can see here a special train devoted to herbicide spraying (TGDGR) in action on this video (as well as in this video and this video), with the continuous spraying coming out the white car with windows. TDGR is tha SNCF acronym for these "special" trains, it means train desherbeur à grand rendement (high-yield herbicide train)...
Until recently LAMS was the only laboratory doing thorough soil analysis and evaluations, but a couple years ago another one opened shop, SAS. Otherwise, other labs doing soil analysis for coops and growers don't come to the vineyard, the samples are taken at a relatively-superficial depth (30 cm), sent by mail and the analysis is only chemical, giving way to an encouragement to correct the soil with this- or that product. Plus, the analysis being based on superficial soil cores, the suggested remedy may be off course as the vine roots may go 2 meters deep in a very different nature of earth. In this regard, these conventional soil checks should be free of charge because there's a direct connection between the conclusion of the lab and the suggested purchase of correcting chemicals.
While working with farmers they were very suprised to see that almost all farmers are ignorant about the real nature of the soil on which they work, most never really saw how this soil is composed deep under. Some growers seem to discover that the roots go down 2 meters deep in their parcel when they thought they'd be digging mostly on the upper horizons.
Another thing is the shortcut definition of a given soil as being of "clay-limestone" nature, Lydia says that you can have hundreds of soil types under this term and it's not very helpful to define a soil by "clay/limestone". Their analysis work will give a sharper definition of the soil and terrain nature, one that can really help the grower adapt his farming. For example in the face of deep active limestone in a vineyard they will advise a grower to opt for a rootstock adapted to this condition. Sometimes the grower says anxiously that his vines will never root that deep, and the Bourguignons have to make him understand that this is doable and that it's precisely where the vines will find their terroir and minerality. They tell him to refrain in using compost that will keep the roots on the upper layers, the vines can find natural magnesium or potassium at one meter deep and that's where they'll go by their own. In the long run, these growers will spare money because they realize that the many additions they were routinely making in the vineyard aren't necessary anymore.
With estates selling their wines at a good price they're more at ease to tell them the necessary steps to improve the life of their soil and adapt the canopy and vine parameters to the soil.
As for intermediary wineries, the growers following their advice are often subject to a lot of pressure from fellow conventional growers or coops executives who either tell them they're going to fail, or that their vineyard is unkept and dirty, and as the grower himself isn't very sure if it all will work, that's a very difficult situation and they feel isolated and bashed by the trade, wondering if they did the right choice. Fear is a very powerful tool to keep people in the conformist ways, Lydia says. But now with the organic/natural wine movement growing, while still pressured by their peers, the growers can lean on successful role models. Claude says that when they began to work in the Côte (Burgundy) there were 3 or 4 growers farming organic, Emmanuel Giboulot, Jean-Claude Rateau and Didier Montchovet. Now in 2013 there are 160 growers working organic on the Côte, it has changed a lot.
Speaking about wineries converting to Biodynamy, Claude says that they just came back from Italy where he's working for Ceretto in Barollo, and this estate is officially certified organic this year (he's in biodynamy too), with a very difficult weather like in France, and lots of rain. And the vigneron, Alessandro Ceretto checked his vineyard after all this rain, measuring the mildew counts, and he happened to have noted fewer mildew incidences than in the conventionally-farmed vineyards around. Mr Ceretto was himself surprised to fare better than his neighbors, he expected his vineyard to be more fragile under such weather conditions. Claude Bourguignon says that today, the chemicals don't do the job anymore, like for the humans where the antibiotic resistance is spreading alarmingly, and the time is ripe to switch to an organic farming. The Pasteurian dogma according to which you have to eradicate the microbe is over, it is time to realize that microbes can be around if the terrain (both the plant and the soil) is healthy.
Watch this intervew of Bernard Ronot (in French) about how he converted his wheat farm from conventional to organic. He shows at one point how the earthworms do the job in his soils.
Lydia learnt with Jacky Rigaux how to taste the wines with a focus on the terroirs and recognize through the touch of the wine in the mouth the nature of terroirs. the father of this approach is Henri Jayer, she says. [read __in French__ this thoughtful text by Jacky Rigaux on tasting and terroir]
Lydia bourguignon begins to say that they don't understand the need for this classification, especially that the same administration people who lobby for it don't do anything against what is akin to terroir destruction in the same climats, when for example cement walls replace low stone walls, or when growers use heavy machinery to smash the bedrock supposedly to improve the terroir qualities (see below the picture I shot a few years ago about this terroir landscaping).
Another man shared this dissident view about this UNESCO bid, they say, André Porcheret, a man who also points to the uprooting of fruit trees in these climats, the destruction of the meurgers (the old and tiny stone huts along the vineyards) and other "modernization" moves. He also said that the real problem for the vignerons is the excessive weight of laws, decrees and regulations in France [but that doesn't seem to bother the state-employed pushers of this UNESCO bid].
And though, at the beginning of this UNESCO bid 4 years ago, the Bourguignons were contacted as scientists and they conducted more research on these climats. It must be said that already since the 1990s' they had established through their systematic sample analysis of the Burgundy terroirs that the Benedictine and Cistercian monks had indeed chosen exactly the best terroirs, slopes and the best variety to plant on them. After being called in for the UNESCO bid they set up a classification index solely based on soil analysis on the Grands Crus, the Premiers Crus and the Villages, measuring the clay, the types of clay at different depths and they found out that almost 100 % of the Grands-Crus climats selected by the monks were on target, on the best suited terroir, and 85 % of the other climats were too in the right location. These monks could have as well decided to plant the whites in the Côte de Nuits but they didn't, and in the Côte de Beaune, they chose very particular slopes and locations, working patiently and empirically along time. These monks are the real genius, the Bourguignons say, but this truth was not in line with the admitted narrative in the academia and administration circles. They regret that there's this reluctance in France to credit the traditional actors because of ideological reasons. These people hadn't today's tools and made their classification just by tasting along the years and centuries. One of the academics pushing for the UNESCO bid argued that the Bourguignon's desmonstration was incredible and asked that they be kept out of the project. Other important historians of Burgundy like Jean-François Bazin and Jean-Luc Lecat (who died recently) were kept out of the project by the academics behind the project, because their views were not in line with the official one.
You can read here Jean-François Bazin's book Histoire du Vin de Bourgogne.
Recently some people are using the finding of a gallo-roman villa and its attached vineyard near Gevrey Chambertin (dated from the first century) to argue that the people at that time had a different thinking about the terroirs than the monks that came later, and that these Gallo-Romans considered at the time the plain fit for wine. But the Bourguignons say that this proves that even in the Academia, people seem to ignore how life was organized in the antiquity : the villa owners of the Roman era always had parcels nearby the property for consumption and daily needs of the slaves and the lower-rank staff, and finding this parcel near the ruins doesn't mean the masters of that time drank wine made from the plain.
About this Unesco thing : The last news seem to hint that the listing of the climats in the World Heritage list fades away [sigh of relief...].
Claude Bourguigon's book Regenerating the Soil (in English)
France-Inter's podcast on the Bourguignons
Lecture (video) by Claude and Lydia Bourguigon about the soil life.
Video in English with the Bourguignons in a vineyard (Graperadio)
Radio program (podcast) on France Culture with Claude & Lydia Bourguignon (march 31 2013).