This was during a weekend in the Loire recently, I was visiting an elderly lady in a village to buy her vegetables and eggs and I saw this huge pile of recently-uprooted vines, obviously old vines that were still looking very healthy and fit for grape bearing. The woman in question although totally outside the hype of organic farming is growing all her stuff naturally, she also has a few sheep plus a couple dozen hens and that's always a pleasure to visit her and buy her stuff, this time I was looking for buying 10 kg of her wonderful potatoes, plus eggs and beetroot. The potatoes taste so good, they don't get chemical sprayings and the only fertilizers they get is sheep manure, and they're a steal at 1 € a kg...
These vines were given to her by a grower, it is pretty common in the French countryside to use uprooted vines as heating wood and for this lady with meager means this was pretty useful as she heats her house with a cook woodstove. Her son was going to cut this wood so that she could use it proprely.
What spiked my interest is first that the vines still had all their root system, and this was very interesting to watch the spread of roots in old vines that were intially farmed correctly with regular plowing and no herbicides/fertilizers. The woman told me that according to the grower they were 60 years old, that is, they were planted well before the time when easy conventional farming brought drastic changes in the root architecture and ultimately in the yields and quality of the grapes. Even if this vineyard was later sprayed with weedkillers and boosted with fertlizers, it still retained it's original web of major roots which was a useful indicator for me.
It had been for me an eye-opening experience to compare the two rooting systems during a visit a year ago at Georges Laval in Champagne (pic on right) : Georges keeps in his cellar the two types of vines hanging next to each other, the one that has been well-tended from the start with plowings and no fertlizers and the other one which has herbicides instead of plowings to handle the weeds and got regular inputs of fertilizers.
A picture speaks a thousand words and this one makes you understand instantly what wine is about and how everything is made (or not made) on the vineyard side...
On this picture (on right) you can see that the herbicide-sprayed, fertlizers-assisted vine on left has a completely-flat root system, the few roots that seem to go down actually do so now because of their weight, orginally they were all flat, adhering to the surface. There's no way this vine could have reflected a particular terroir or struggled hard enough to yield quality grapes. These kind of issues should be debated and taught in the enology and viticulture programs of all wine schools (with the subtitle : what sort of wine do you want to make ?) but I'm afraid it's not.
What struck me first while looking at this pile of vines is that in all of them the vinestock first dives straight into the ground about 20 centimeters like you can see on this picture, before beginning to spread its root system open, many of the roots going down verticalmly. While I have often seen such piles of uprooted vines near farms and country houses as heating wood, it is pretty rare that the grower has left the roots in place.
When a vineyard is not plowed from the very planting and gets its nutrients through fertlizers and irrigation, its rooting system will be mostly flat, adhering as much as possible to the surface to be as close as possible to its life-support assistance. The yields will be much higher of course, which is also why commercial wineries do that, the other reason being to spare money (scratching the ground or plowing regularly is time consuming and costly).
But I was to get more surprises and unexpected info on why these vines were uprooted in the first place. Like I wrote above, this elderly retiree is absolutely not into the wine issues and not into the organic-farming narrative with which we're familiar, she just grows her vegetables and keeps her farm animals free of chemicals by instinct and love for mother nature, and probably also because she has meager resources and it is economically sound to do things naturally.
As I was looking at the vines and explaining to her that old vines have deeper roots because of early plowings, she recounted me that the grower (who sells his grapes to the local coopérative) told her he didn't want to uproot this old vineyard but he was paid money to do that and that the vines he would replant at its place would be giving plenty of grapes in only two years. Now that's intertesting, she didn't fully understand why this grower reluctantly uprooted his vineyard and was paid by the authorities to do that, but I did : this pile of old and otherwise-healthy vines in front of me are the direct consequence of French and European subsidies given to the growers who uproot their old parcels or varietals deemed unwanted by the wine administration and replant in the place clones of Sauvignon or another international varietal. In this very region of Touraine I learnt from Olivier Bellanger last summer that these subsidies amount to 12 000 € per hectare, considering you replant clones of the varietal encouraged by the administration (like sauvignon). The replanted vines have to be clones otherwise you don't get the money, don't laugh, that is the state of things today, while all the artisan winegrowers I meet complain that they can't purchase or rent these old vineyards because the growers get so much money to just destroy all this viticulture heritage and plant high-yield junk instead.
These primes d'arrachage (uprooting subsidies) are indeed doing a lot af damage across France and also in other wine regions of Europe. This mindless and shortsighted policy is officially motivated as a way to counter wine overproduction, but the result is that the uprooted parcels are often the one that are old with low yields (the qualitative ones, in short) and the replanting vineyards will be uninteresting clones of generic varietals, which means that the overall quality of the wine pruction will be lowered. If you read French (but you can google-translate that) here is an interesting piece by an insider (the woman who wrote that is herself a winegrower in the Languedoc) on this issue of these uprooting subsidies. First we learn that it costs huge amounts of money to the taxpayer (when you know that the end result is to erase valuable old parcels it's even harder to swallow) : back in 2008 there had been 175000 hectares uprooted throughout Europe (22700 in France) over the course of 3 years for a cost of 464 millions euros just for 2008. In her piece she linked to a European document overlooking the issue of subsidies and production control. You can read this document here, another informative thing showing how European and French bureaucracies want to regulate everything in the wineries, thinking their kafkaiesque convolutions and spending will miraculously better the quality of wines. Just try to read a few pages of this text and you'll understand how disconnected there European bureaucrats are from the reality on the ground. The subsidies were managed and distributed at the time in 2008 by an obscure administration named Viniflhor and since 2009 it is managed by FranceAgriMer, the French administration in charge of overlooknig agriculture and fisheries.
Catherine Bernard who wrote this piece recounts how she herself couldn't find a way to purchase and old parcel of Syrah in the Corbières to a winegrower who was to retire soon. She says it was a rare parcel, located in a wild canyon with schists undersoils, the Syrah vines were trained in goblet like they used to be around Condrieu from which they came here. The grower uprooted the whole thing, for the alleged reason that vines had made his whole life difficult. More recently she was refused the purchase of a 30-are parcel of Carignan which had low yields of 20 hectoliters/hectare, because the owner wouldn't let it go under 6000 €, the equivalent of the subsidies he'd get with the uprooting and a later replanting. Welfare money is indeed destroying valuable parcels and although it has been going on for years, the administration is not aware of the problem.
If you browse down this other administrative document by the French Ministry of Agriculture and go down to the page 23 (or 6/26) you can find interesting informations on the amount of the diverse subsidies a grower can reap for different actions on the same hectare, and one
of these is oddly irrigation, meaning that while the usual narrative is that Irrigation is forbidden in France, it is actually condoned and even encouraged with subsidies. The amounts keep changing along the years and for 2012/2013 they could reach a maximum of 8800 € per hectare as detailed page 23 including 800 € for the installation of an irrigation system.
Speaking of the subsidized uprooting, Languedoc has been champion for years, but I'm afraid (I hope I'm wrong) that the best parcels (the small parcels on slopes or in remote locations unfit for tractors and combines) were taken out first by convenience and that much of what remains in place is not really fit for quality wine. This graph on the right show the mounting volume of vineyards that were uprooted in this region since 1977 in order to make the production of Languedoc fall by 60 % : 170 000 hectares from 1977 to 2011, and I don't want to know about the total cost for the taxpayer...
Languedoc is interesting to study when thinking to uprooting subsidies because it is the region that got such a large surface of vineyards erased over the years, but what you read on these great parcels being uprooted by growers to survive could be depicting growers from other regions as well. When you sell your grapes to the coop or the négoce, you're paid by the volume and not by the quality of your grapes, growers often struggle to make ends meet as the money they get for their grapes is low and their operating costs are dangerously close. Yet, the consumer could make this change if he wasn't chasing the lowest bottle price in the supermarkets.
Like this post [in French] rightly points out, we all need to buy the wines of these vignerons who keep working with varietals despised by the administration, like in the matter Carignan for the Languedoc. For the information, the administration encourages warmly (and with our tax money) the plantation of syrah, viognier and merlot because in the mind of the wine authorities these are varietals that fare well on the international market. In short, the same writer says, resist and buy the wines of Barral, Gauby, Olivier Jullien, Pierre Quinonero, Maxime Magnon, Cyril Fhal, Izarn, Jérôme Bertrand, Alain Chabanon and Pierre Clavel. I still think that the move to quality wine would be more efficient without these counterproductive welfare subsidies, and encouraging growers to vinify and bottle their old parcels would be rewarding for everybody.
The writer marvels at the nice old Carignan vines on this small parcel shown in the picture, but he says he's not sure these vines are still in place as he wrote this piece. It takes also a lot of self-sacrifice to growers who listen to their instinct and delay the uprooting of these parcels in spite of their low yields : if they're selling the grapes to a coop (other than the one at Estézargues) there's little chance they get paid according to the quality and low yields.
The European program that manages these uprootings is named the OCM vin, for Organisation Commune du Marché Vitivinicole. The Cour des Comptes, which is a European-level court of auditors in charge of checking how the tax-payer's money is spent, stated a couple years ago (source - in French) that this policy of subsidized uprooting was off the mark and had perverted effects on the restructuration of the vineyards. The article says the total amount of these subsidies is 1 billion € for the permanent grubbing in the 2008-2011 campaign and 4,2 billion € for the restructuration of vineyards (read : grubbing with replanting). According to the article, the Cour-des-Comptes report also says that in spite of being intended to reduce the wine excess production, these subsidies actually translated into more wine, something which anyone with a bit of common sense would understand without being paid big salaries for months by a European administration : it's been years that vignerons on the ground know and say that the parcels that are uprooted are the old ones with low yields and the replanted clones are of the high-yields type (even the rootstocks are highly productive)...
Of course don't expect anything to change on this issue in spite of this late realization, subsidies will remain in place and old vines will keep being erased.