Margaret and Dick   


August '10: Where have all the roses gone?

Used to be, you would see a rosebush planted at the end of a row of grapes in the vineyard.  Roses give an early warning of impending fungus that could ruin the grapes, like the canary in the coal mine that would fall dead if the air turns bad.  It’s an ancient bit of wisdom.  Friend Doug asked, after biking around for several weeks, “What happened to all the rosebushes?”

We verified:  they are indeed far less common.  Some vineyards haven’t a single rose.  But perhaps not every miner needs to carry a canary into the mine.  Could a single rosebush signal for an entire vineyard?  This argument isn’t compelling:  you can pass acres of vines without a rose these days. 

An answer came from a young viticulteur (grape grower), Philippe Satgé, who took me on a tour of his family vineyards.  Not just any vineyards – these belong to one of the four terroirs of Limoux’s high-end Chardonnays.  The word terroir refers to the full environment – soil, weather, sun, wind, and traditions – that imparts a unique sense of place to a wine.  Four microclimates around Limoux produce Chardonnays with four distinct tastes, from “pear and citrus” in the hot Mediterranean terroir to “grapefruit with touches of mineral acidity” in the cool high valley terroir.  Forty growers prepare vineyard-designated wines that sell each year at the Toques-et-Clochers auction.   Each year a different village hosts the festival, a major French toque (chef) cooks a gourmet dinner, and auction benefits go to restore that village’s clocher (church tower).   Restaurants and wine sellers pay top dollar for those vineyard-specific Chardonnays.  “We call that barrel ‘white gold’ in our family,” said Philippe.  Blends of the remaining grapes go into terroir-designated Toques et Clochers bottles that compete well in the world market. 

Philippe told the story of generational change in Limoux’s evolving wine culture.  At age 30, he is responsible for 35 acres of prime vines.  Dad Emile retired two years ago.  Well, sort of.  During harvest time, Dad now only drives the tractor hauling the grapes; at other times he runs the family wine store and staffs the winery’s booth at weekly markets and festivals.  Emile was a national rugby champion of 1968 – a Limoux rock star.  His family had planted wine grapes for generations.  In 1946, Emile’s father co-founded what became Limoux’s largest wine co-op, Sieur d’Arques.  Some grape growers, tired of being squeezed on price by private wineries, banded together to buy their own equipment and make their own wines.  The co-op now numbers 500 grape growers with 5,500 acres of vineyards and has a marketing operation that dwarfs that of the private wineries. 

Emile Satgé became a marketing star for Sieur d’Arques in the 1980s as “the Rugbyman vigneron” (grape grower), touring internationally to promote the brand.  The time of football stars selling wines has past, but Emile is still a larger-than-life presence on the Limoux wine scene.  So I was surprised when he told me he’d retired, passing on responsibility to son Philippe. 

Philippe is working non-stop to maintain and improve the Satgé vineyards.  Thirty years ago, Sieur d’Arques made the move to higher quality at lower volume.  They ripped up vineyards of less desirable grapes to plant “noble” grapes such as Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  They bet that Limoux’s complex microclimates (partly Atlantic, partly cool breezes from the Pyrenees, yet with lots of Mediterranean sun) could produce wines that compete at higher price points.  Lower yield and higher quality were enforced by a demanding list of rules for planting, pruning, and harvesting. 

It isn’t easy.  Philippe showed me how he prunes each vine so only a single branch will bear fruit that year, concentrating the flavors, to follow the co-op’s rules.  He strips leaves that block sun from the grape clusters so moisture cannot accumulate, but he leaves a square meter of leaves at the top of the vine to harness the sun’s energy for the growing grapes.  On the day of our tour, Philippe had fired up his tractor at 3 a.m. to spray protective treatment on the vines during the cool night when the wind is low.  Even the grape harvest date is now regulated, not just by the sugar level in the grapes (alcohol level in the wine), but also by when the seeds have fully ripened (avoiding bitterness in the wine). 

Philippe could have chosen another pathway.  When he finished junior high school, Dad asked him if he wanted a career in the vines.  Philippe said yes, so Dad sent him to Limoux’s Institut de Saint Joseph agricultural program rather than to the university-prep lycée.  At 30, he brings fresh energy, confidence, and modern understanding of how to grow grapes for finer wines.

He was giving this tour using hand-written cue cards.  “I’m new at this vineyard tourism,” he said.  I reassured him that he’s doing it really well.  After he showed me the machinery, including the tractor with big floodlights for the night-time work, he led me to a little table under a shade tree.  He brought out bottles of Limoux’s four Chardonnay terroirs for a comparative tasting.  Same grape, four completely different tastes, all delicious.  Life is good in Limoux.

I asked Philippe about the disappearing rose bushes.  “We don’t need them anymore.  The grape growers’ association sends technicians out regularly to check sanitary conditions.  If there’s a risk of a fungus that could hurt growing shoots and later harm the grapes, they send out an email alert, and the growers know it’s time to make a preventative treatment with sulfur.”  A triumph of science over sentiment, I guess.

I’m sorry to see the roses go away.  It’s true, growing roses is a lot of trouble – roses are even more disease-prone than grapes.  I asked papa Emile if he had any nostalgia for the disappearing roses.  “Well, no, actually.  But we’re going to re-plant rose bushes again.  We’re developing a wine tourism business.  The tourists really love to see roses in the vineyards.”  Sentiment rules after all!

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