Sep 11

 Winegrower anxiety continues over South West France high-speed rail line

Tag: Regionensigi.hiss @ 17:03

LGV South-West France: disastrous, absurd and unpopular, but stilla possibility

Sauternes wine producers and environmentalists remain anxious over the proposed high-speed rail line or LGV (Ligne à Grande Vitesse) that would link Bordeaux and Toulouse and Bordeaux and Dax. The project, seen as “disastrous, absurd, unpopular and even outdated”, threatens the unique ecosystem of the Ciron river valley (a tributary of the Garonne) and with it the region’s famous Noble Rot. In a statement, Winegrower associations from Sauternes and Barsac said:

“Technocrats and tunnel vision politicians wish to destroy forever an environment, a way of life and a terroir that has made us the envy of the world to save what? A mere 30 minutes* journey-time”.

The Public Enquiry, set up to examine the project, has published its finding against the LGV, with 96% of those 14,000 people who contributed giving a negative response. In spite of well-founded arguments and an overwhelming majority, the LGV continues to be defended by hard-liner supporters. If, by some cruel fate, the project is declared to be in the public interest and is passed, our environment, our production and the entire wine sector in the region will be in danger.

The LGV will not pass directly through the vineyards of Sauternes but will actually damage them in a much more serious way in that it will destroy the natural environment that makes the wines from this region so utterly unique. The wines of Sauternes and Barsac owe their centuries-old history, their exceptional finesse and their worldwide reputation to Botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as Noble Rot. Botrytis cinerea is a microscopic fungus that develops in very specific, very rare microclimatic conditions, found in the ecosystem of the Ciron river valley. It is this unique ecosystem that is under serious threat from the LGV.


The Ciron valley is at the heart of the miracle that is Sauternes wine. In the Ciron basin, several under-water streams and shallow water tables flow into the river that is bordered by steep banks and shaded by riparian woodland. It is therefore a naturally cold (14oC) river, that winds through Sauternes and flows into the Garonne at Barsac, causing the mists and fogs that in turn

Press release – September 2015


* Page 5 of the submittal to the Public Enquiry

bring on Botrytis cinerea in the grapes. If the vineyards of Sauternes and Barsac have developed over the centuries in the downstream section of the Ciron, it is precisely because the river makes the wines what they are. The combination of cold and warmth is the key: the Ciron runs in to the Garonne and the difference in temperature creates the morning mists in the valley. These spread through the vineyards covering the ripe grapes with moisture. In the afternoon, the sun dries off the damp. Instead of spreading through the vines like normal grey rot, there is the formation of Noble Rot.

As it attacks the grapes, the fungus transforms them, modifying their metabolism, bringing about concentration, rebalancing of the acids and the creation of glycerin, which gives fat and fleshiness to the wines. Most important of all, perhaps, is the incredible multiplication of aroma precursors it causes: when the must is fermented, these liberate the hundreds of aromas that give Sauternes wines their perfumed complexity.

Sauternes and Barsac wines have been prized throughout history and throughout the world, from Jefferson to the Tsars of Russia, from Colette to Cocteau and Coco Chanel. Today they are known and exported all over the world, in particular, the 27 Crus classified in the 1855 Classification as Premiers Crus Classés, and the one and only Premier Cru Supérieur, the iconic Château d’Yquem.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that these unique wines are made according to wine regulations lodged with the EU, which cite the Ciron valley as a determining factor in the terroir and intrinsic character of the wines. The Sauternes and Barsac vineyards represent 6,000 hectares of which 2,200 hectares are under vine. They are home to 170 producers and provide a direct and indirect living for thousands of families. They contribute massively to the economic and social life of the region and to the preservation of the landscape. Indeed, the remarkably beautiful and historically rich countryside around Sauternes and Barsac is attracting increasing numbers of visitors through wine tourism initiatives that promise a bright future for the appellation – and beyond.


With its very special humid ecosystem, the Ciron valley is home to an extraordinarily rich, and in many cases, rare, varieties of plants and wildlife. One of the most impressive is the residual forest one of the only ones of its kind and home to a beech grove that is more than 40,000 years old. It has survived glaciations and climate change thanks to the cool microclimate of the area, in which it plays its own part.

It is not only the subject of studies by INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research) but has also been placed under priority conservation by INRA’s Commission for Forestry and


Genetic Resources, given its genetic pool and the current threats from climate change.The Ciron valley has exceptional biodiversity on other levels too. European mink (threatened with extinction), cistudes (European tortoises), otters, countless varieties of freshwater fish, bats and insects thrive alongside varieties of sub-alpine plants and rare mushrooms….

The Ciron valley is unique and as such, it should be considered part of our common heritage, to be protected at all costs, above all now, when we know our changing climate has so many repercussions. Sadly, we are seeing the reverse. The valley is under attack by massive infrastructure projects that all too often serve no useful purpose. One only has to look at the enormous white elephant that is the Bordeaux-Pau motorway.

If anyone is in any doubts as to its uselessness, they only have to look at the official statistics on the number of cars and lorries that use it.


The South West LGV is quite simply an affront to sense, logic and respect for what we should hold most dear. It will tear through the river valley, cutting the Ciron three times, along with 30 of its tributary streams and 80 sub tributaries. The argument put forward by the RFF (Réseau Ferré de France – the French Rail Network) that there will be no adverse effects on the environment is ludicrous. The effects on the hydric network of streams and brooks and the boggy areas around them will be devastating and irremediable. The damage will not only be caused by the massive construction work but by the weed killers that will be used to maintain the ground on the sides of the tracks. The RFF refutes the idea that our vineyards will suffer on the grounds that the line will not directly run through them. Do they not understand the root system of a vine plant? Have they ever seen a plant survive when its roots are destroyed?

As growers, we put several arguments to the Public Enquiry, many of which had been formulated by recognized, accredited environmental groups using irrefutable scientific evidence.

TIGF (Transport and Infrastructure Gaz de France – the French Gas transport and infrastructure division) on the other hand, showing gross incompetence, argued that the route had been planned around a large knot of gas pipelines, of which the RFF patently had no prior knowledge and which would cost billions of Euros to move!

Not only is this colossal project open to scrutiny from the point of view of public interest, there are serious doubts as to its financial viability. The Cour des Comptes (the French legal administrative


body charged with overlooking and controlling public spending) has itself severely condemned the country’s obsession with the development of high speed rail links, which have not proved as economically and environmentally beneficial as was thought.

In this context, what, one might wonder, are the political and industrial vested interests that could defend the project, that, without exaggeration, we qualify as, quite simply, grotesque. It seems a strangely bad idea given the present economic situation in France and the amount of opposition to other sensitive development plans around the country. If the French President himself has asked for further consultation, we find it hard to believe how such an insane scheme could see the light of day. Yet we remain anxious, particularly, given the obstination of certain politicians such as Alain Rousset, President of the Aquitaine Regional Council, who only recently called on people to demonstate in favour of the venture.

The socio-economic, environmental, human and cultural consequences of the LGV will clearly be catastrophic.

Opponents of the project, whether they are winegrowers, environmental groups or local people are very determined. They are keen to avoid demonstrations getting out of hand but it is clear that the commencement of such an unpopular scheme will see feelings running high, with the risk of civil disobedience, heated demonstrations and the types of occupation of land and property as we have seen in the case of the proposed airport at Nantes. This would be utterly regrettable for all concerned. If the French government wishes to avoid this unfortunate scenario, it must purely and simply abandon this absurd and dangerous project.”


Lettres de Châteaux

05 56 44 63 50

Xavier Planty contact:

06 11 03 16 31


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