The end is nigh! Sort of… it’s rapidly dawning on me that I’m in what feels like the final stretch of this program. At the time of writing, I have only two months left of school, followed by a month of travel and wrapping up in Bordeaux, then a summer-long internship in Canada (more on that later) and then a thesis defence back in France to finish the final year. Even though there’s technically 10 months to go, being able to go home in three months makes the program feel much shorter, even though it’s getting very busy.

We start January by leaping headfirst into wine business, with courses on wine marketing and business planning. As my captive audience (mwa ha ha!!) I’m sure you are surprised to hear that wine even needs marketing (right?!), but I promise there’s more to it. For two days we play the wine equivalent to the lemonade stand game, with slightly different parameters. Our imaginary wine companies are trying to decide whether we should try to sell locally, where demand is decreasing (… can you tell this game was written in France?), or invest in exports where demand is skyrocketing, but the market is unfamiliar and unstable.

Wine consumption in France has been decreasing steadily since the ’80s, which is where wine marketing comes in. Global wine consumption peaked during the economic crisis but has been relatively stable since 2009, thanks to increasing consumption in the New World. (That’s you guys!  Keep up the good work – I’d hate to have to trigger another economic crisis just so you’ll buy my wine…) Credits: FranceAgriMer, AgriAfrica.

This is simply the beginning of our final few months, focusing on honing our real world skills. The wine business classes give us practice planning out the reality of what my own first few years as a vigneronne will look like – what level of loans I’ll need, the investments I’ll need to make, what kind of cash flow I can generate, and what impact those pieces of information have on other management decisions. It’s exciting times, to be able to plan it all out on paper,

One of the benefits of this style of program is that we are able to enjoy a mix of regular lecturers as well as visiting consultants and researchers. While the first few weeks of business are a little more up my alley, the latter half of January is taken up by a world-renowned viticulturist, Dr. Richard Smart. We have been waiting eagerly for our Smart sessions since his visit last year to the 2nd year class, and now it’s our time to Get Smart…

I think they made a movie about him some years ago. Hmmmm…. something’s off about this poster. Oh wait… that’s not how you hold a wine bottle!

The first promise Dr. Smart makes is that we won’t want to plant a vineyard by the end of the week. He’s here to teach us the basics of world viticulture, with a focus on his specialty, canopy management (taking care of vine foliage), but has a particular message to share with us about trunk disease. Trunk disease is a slow killer of vines – said by some to be as bad as the phylloxera plague that ravaged vineyards across Europe in the 19th century and resulted in the need for a permanent solution of European vines to be grafted onto American rootstock to survive. Trunk disease actually refers to a family of maladies – esca, eutypa and Botryosphaeriae dieback, to name a few – which attack the trunks of vines and cause them to decrease grape yield over time and shorten their natural lifespan considerably. In fact, vines are able to live for hundreds of years in the wild, and anything less than that is a result of what we do to them in vineyards. There is no known cure for trunk disease, only preventative measures that can be taken, if one is aware of the issue.

Feeling Smarter already – our discussion in the classroom leads quickly to a show-and-tell session in the vineyard. We cut open a young vine, and sure enough, the black cankers indicate the presence of disease.

One method to remove it is to perform tree surgery, and cut out the diseased wood from the centre, but the research is still very new.

It is scary stuff – a little like never wanting to eat at a cafeteria again after studying food-borne pathogens in my first year at university. The worst part of this exercise is that we are finding the black spots on very young vines, planted within the last few years, which means infected material is coming from the nurseries. This is a problem because it is impossible to detect without cutting up the vine, which can easily infect surrounding vines especially during pruning seasons when the cut surfaces of vine branches are particularly vulnerable to infection by fungal spores.

It’s also hard to point the finger as, like cancer cells, trunk disease cells are regularly occurring in the vines, but do not become pathogenic until under stress. However, once contagious, the fungus produces spores that release into the air and attach themselves to readily available sources, like open cuts on the vines, from having just pruned. Once the new vine is infected, the fungus slowly makes its way down the trunk to the base, contaminating the sap as it goes, and killing the vine completely when it reaches the ground. (Don’t worry – I still want a vineyard, but I’m going to be sourcing my plant material very carefully.)

We decide to explore this premise further at our favourite Finnish-French chateau, and kidnap the good doctor for a weekend jaunt to the other side of the Garonne River. My friend has a plot of Sauvignon Blanc that is struggling, and we’d like to see what’s underneath. Sure enough, we find trunk disease on a variety of vines – newly planted vines, older sickly vines, and even those which appear to be quite healthy. There are some invasive techniques to resolve this issue, but the simplest preventative measures are to practice safe pruning – protect pruning wounds to avoid additional infection – and renew the trunk when infection is detected.

“Smells like trunk disease!” the Smart technique for identification involves a few more steps, though. We know it is esca on the right, thanks to the patch of soft (reddish) wood in the core of the trunk. And the black spots on the photo below indicate Botryosphaeria dieback, or black dead arm. This trunk disease is serious business!

It’s not all doom and gloom – now that I’m back in Bordeaux I am enjoying the programming at the Cité du Vin, our not-even-one-year-old wine theme park. While the exhibits are neat for those new to the technical side of wine, the programs are perfect for those who know a little bit more. There are tastings on regions in France and around the world, as well as lectures and interviews on a wide range of topics (although Biodynamic wines seem to be cropping up a lot…!)

The Cité du Vin’s elegant spiral design is supposed to be modeled after the swirl of wine in the glass… right before you breathe in the aromas. The Cognac tasting requires a little swirling in order to identify all these aromas. And Aubert de Villaine, of one of the world’s most famous wineries: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, comes to chat about Burgundy, biodynamics, and the heritage of wine.

There’s a quote I hear for the first time from Aubert de Villaine, which reads:

“Il n’existe pas de vignoble prédestiné, il n’y a que des entêtements de Civilisation.” – Pierre Veilletet

“There are no great vineyards predestined, there is only the stubbornness of civilization.”

Well, I certainly have that in spades. I’ll probably need it once the great wine venture gets started, so in the meantime I’ll just soak in everything I can while I’m here.

Right now I’m soaking in the new tasting room at Cité du Vin.

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