“We need to change our approach to handle what lies ahead” – Samuel Masse, Former CEJA President and organic winemaker

The Domaine de Favas is an organic vineyard with a focus on biodiversity. At its head are Samuel and Geoffrey Masse, who took over the farm from their grandparents and transformed it into a modern and sustainable project. Farmers of Europe talked to Samuel Masse, winemaker and former CEJA President.

Samuel and Geoffrey Masse are the 22nd generation at the head of the family exploitation that has grown into an ecosystem. Aware of the challenges of our century, the brothers changed their approach and committed to sustainable agriculture.

“This exploitation has not always exclusively been a vineyard”, says Samuel Masse, who took over the family business in 2012 after studying viticulture and oenology followed by an internship in wine management in the United States.  “Viticulture has existed in the region for a very long time. It was already present in Roman times and only really took off in the region in 1855 following the construction of the Montpellier train station.”

It was only after the end of the First World War that Samuel’s ancestors began to specialize in viticulture. A century later, the production, although mainly viticultural, is diversifying once more. A return to the roots, since the vineyard also produced olives and silkworms and bred sheep in the past.

Switching to organic

As soon as he took over, Samuel continued to bring his grapes to the cooperative winery, while gradually changing his approach from that of his grandparents in order to produce his own wine. He would begin to eliminate herbicides in 2013, but the process of transitioning to organic and obtaining the certification really began in 2018 with Geoffrey’s arrival on the farm.

“From the beginning, I had hoped my brother would join me, which he did in 2018. The arrival of my brother has really allowed me to realize my initial projects with the transition to organic farming and the further development of our own wine production with taking care ourselves of bottling. 2021 is an important moment for us: it is the completion of the three years of conversion, meaning we can now place the European organic logo on our bottles.”

A transition that was far from easy, he explains, the main difficulty being that they had to relearn how to work with some forgotten tools. The lack of follow-up and training in the use of these new tools during the adaptation period was an additional difficulty. Finally, another aspect that should not be overlooked is that of remuneration during the transition period:

“As long as we are not certified organic, we are not paid the price for organic products. We invest in equipment and time, but we don’t get a fair return on our work combined with the fact that starting a farming activity for young farmers is a very difficult period.”

“We were fortunate to have land in the family, although we still rent it today, which is not the case for a lot of young people who want to become farmers. Unfortunately, many young people abandon their projects because they have not found land and sometimes, even those who managed to get started have to stop because they simply can’t survive. I believe in giving more support to young farmers who start their farms and for those who decide to turn to organic farming. We need to provide a decent remuneration for those wanting to take that step during the transitional period, so it is sustainable for them.”

A year in the vineyard

The vineyard is a year-round job. November to April is the winter pruning period of the vines which is very important because it determines and conditions the coming harvest. Then, in March, the brothers start with the mechanical weeding, followed in May by the cleaning of the vines and the maintenance of the young vines. Summer is a more quiet time in the vineyards, with only maintenance of the soil and grassy strips to take care of. However, it is a  busy period on the estate with the organization of summer events and direct sales. Finally comes the harvest period which takes place from mid-August to mid-October. The harvest is done either by machine or by hand, but always with family and friends.

“After the grape harvest, it is time for the autumn and winter vegetative rest. We let the grass grow and get help from a flock of sheep to maintain this vegetation cover that will last all winter until spring. The big advantage of sheep is that they clean and fertilize at the same time without using fossil fuels. We turn this cover crop over in June to prevent it from damaging the vines. This process supports the development of organic material in the soil.

Sheep are also great for the biodiversity on the estate: they brush themselves all over it and leave their wool behind, which is then used by birds to build their nests.”

Experimental approach to a sustainable operation

The Domaine de Favas has the advantage, in addition to its family history, of being the only farm producing its own organic wine in the community. Furthermore, Samuel and Geoffrey are among the few winemakers in the region to age their wines in handmade clay jars. Moreover, they are young farmers in a region where the farming population is ageing. They are also always looking for new, more sustainable techniques that are better adapted to climate changes.

“We go for an experimental approach and are always looking for new techniques, since we can’t use the (chemical, red.) products of our grandparents. We work closely with schools and universities and create real test protocols.”

The narrow hedge pruning of the vines, known as trimming, has been used for a long time in trained vineyards adapted to mechanisation. This practice appeared to be detrimental to the region’s vineyards during the summer of 2019, when a heat wave peaking at 46 degrees Celsius burned many vines with grapes being too exposed to the sun. “We trim and prune the vines to help grapes ripe and reduce the risk of rot, but that summer all those grapes were lost. The 2019 heat wave is a symptom of what’s in store for us with global warming. After this episode, we got used to letting the vegetation grow more so that it can cover and protect grapes from the sun. It is a risk in a wet year, though. Our ancestors have always been able to adapt, and I am convinced that we must change our approach and adapt our practices to meet the challenges ahead.”

Text: Kim Schoukens – Pictures: Samuel Masse/Domaine de Favas

This article appeared in Farmers of Europe 2021-1.

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Author: Kim Schoukens

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