Could a Train Line Endanger the Sweet Wines of Sauternes?

A new high-speed rail would cut across Bordeaux vineyards and may threaten the fog behind noble rot
Dec 19, 2014

A high-speed train project threatens to cut through historic Bordeaux vineyards in Graves and could damage the fragile ecosystem that produces the fog and the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. "We don't know what would happen but we can't take the risk," said Aline Baly of Château Coutet in Barsac. "We have an important microclimate that distinguishes us from other appellations around the world. The fog is vital for producing beautiful, wonderful wines that people love."

The LGV, a massive European project to connect Paris to Spain with a high-speed train, will run across 3,000 acres of farmland and 7,000 acres of forest in three departments in the southwest of France. The northern line between Bordeaux and Paris is already under construction. The next phase linking Bordeaux to Spain and Toulouse at a cost of $11.8 billion awaits final government approval.

“All that money and it only gains 30 minutes on the trip to Toulouse and a minute for Dax,” said Berenice Lurton, owner of Château Climens in Barsac. “They could renovate and improve the existing train lines for far less money. It’s absurd.”

Opponents of the LGV threaten to take their complaint to the Court of Justice of the European Union if the French government approves the current plan. The châteaus of Sauternes and Barsac argue that the link between the Ciron river and the defining characteristics of their terroir is protected under the appellation system of the EU. Without noble rot, there is no Sauternes and Barsac. And the cool waters of the Ciron are crucial to noble rot. “A terroir is more than the soil and subsoil—it’s a wider environment,” said Lurton.

The Ciron river begins in the Landes, a humid forest planted by Napoleon to dry up a vast, malaria-infested swamp, creating the largest pine forest in France. The river meanders along a sleepy course toward the Garonne while hundreds of streams flow into it. For most if its length, a tall canopy of trees on the riverbanks shade the water. Even in the heat of summer, it’s a cool, quiet place, where herons are a common sight. Eventually the river winds its way around Sauternes, passing at the foot of the village of Bommes, near Château La Tour Blanche, before running into the Garonne.

The difference in temperature between the cool Ciron, which hovers around 57° F, and the warmer water of the Garonne create the famous morning fogs in autumn that give rise to Botrytis cinerea. The fog burns off by afternoon, leaving drier conditions. The alternating weather allows the noble rot to develop in such a way as to create aromatic, richly complex sweet wines.

“If the waters of the Ciron river warm up, the production of fog will be more complicated,” said Xavier Planty, president of the Sauternes and Barsac AOC and co-owner of Château Guiraud. “We can’t risk screwing it all up.”

Looking at a map of the proposed train line, it’s difficult to imagine a route that could impact the Ciron valley more. The proposed LGV route leaves Bordeaux in the direction of Toulouse, passing through the Graves. After the Graves region and before Barsac, the path heads south into the Ciron river valley, where it splits, one line shooting south through the vast Landes forest toward Dax and the Spanish border and another heading to Toulouse.

A 62-mile swath in the Ciron valley crosses 84 tributaries, 30 streams and the Ciron itself three times, requiring viaducts, dykes and ditches. Forest trees will be clear-cut for construction.

“It’s monstrous; a very destructive project,” said Philippe Barbedienne, director of Sepanso, a federation of environmental protection associations opposed to the plan. “It will slow the flow of water, including the streams running into the Ciron. Trees will be cut. And the water will warm up. All of this will negatively impact the conditions that create noble rot.”

Châteaus located along the first 3 miles of track also face loss of forest, vineyards and buildings. This includes two châteaus in Pessac-Léognan and seven in the Graves. “They’ve already blocked [306 acres] of mine—vineyards and cellars, which means I can’t sell it or do anything with it,” said Paul Ragon, owner of Château Le Touquet. “I’ve built a cellar, invested so much.”

Environment France Bordeaux Sauternes / Barsac News

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