Vines, volcanos and biot’s servant doré
Biot’s good quality soil
Winegrowing dates back to Antiquity. By all accounts, grapevines were imported from Asia long ago and grew particularly well around the Mediterranean, where men selected and cultivated different varieties according to their qualities or their purpose. Grapevines need little water and can withstand drought and high temperatures without any damage, making it an ideal plant for a region where the summers are particularly hot and dry. The gravel and sand present in the soil are also important factors in quality, as they increase soil permeability over great depth and allow the roots to penetrate. These are the conditions found here in Biot.
It is well-known that volcanic materials create fertile soil that is particularly favourable for grapevines. Light and siliceous thanks to the naturally sandy nature of the local volcanic rock (andesite conglomerate), the materials also contain numerous minerals and enriched trace elements. These materials originated from ashes propelled by a volcano located off the coast more than 25 million years ago when cataclysmic events rocked the whole region.
Ashes, a natural fertiliser
When a volcano erupts, it spews tons of mineral materials. The falling ashes cover the soil with an enormous quantity of nutrients: lime, phosphorus, potash, alumina, iron, magnesia and more.
For example, a moderate ashfall can deposit 400 kg of lime and 40 kg of potash per hectare. The quality of Biot’s wine owes itself to the soil on these slopes, but also to its famous grape: servant.
Servant doré, a godsend for Biot
This grape variety used in Biot and in a few nearby towns was the subject of an original and fine-tuned technique for long storage. Once harvested with a part of the vine shoots, this late-maturing table grape was stored for several weeks in little vases with water and a piece of charcoal in a room protected from the sun. In this way, the grapes would keep without rotting until the following spring. This popular grape variety was sold in Italy and sometimes even exported to Paris. It was the foundation of an important food and commercial resource for the villagers during the first half of the 20th century, until transportation improved and competition arrived, devastating the industry.
The importance of vines in biot
During certain periods (from the 17th to the 18th centuries and during the first half of the 20th century), grapevines played an important role in Biot’s economy. They even lent their name to the neighbourhood of Vignasses.
The vine and the Knights Templar
Grapevines were probably grown here since the Middle Ages. We know a few details about what was happening in Biot in 1338, at the height of Knights Templar. For the Templars alone, five hectares of grapevines (or 125 fosserées, a unit of measure of the time) were cultivated on the territory of Biot. To cultivate the plots of grapevine, the commander of the Templars needed 18 men for tilling, 50 men for hoeing, 4 men for carrying the baskets and 21 women for cutting the bunches.
The height of the crop in the 17th century
The civil war in Provence at the end of the 14th century destroyed Biot and eradicated its agriculture, including grapevines. It came back strongly thanks to the colonists from Italy that came to repopulate the village in 1470. Grapevine farming increased and reached nearly one hundred hectares in Biot in 1609. The total area of the territory of Biot was 1,417 hectares, which was divided as follows:
Gardens ————————- 20 hectares
Grains and orchards ——— 900 hectares
Vines —————————– 96 hectares
Pastures ————————- 14 hectares
Moors and forests ———— 387 hectares
In 1609, the value of these 96 hectares of grapevine was estimated at 14,332 écus, or around 9,000 euros. This amount is comparable to the cost for a hectare of quality vineyard in France, which sells for between 9,000 and 15,000 euros.
In the early 17th century, it was said that wine from Biot “could not keep for long because it was sensitive to heat”.
The fall, revival and final demise of wine growing
Biot exported wine since the 16th century, but by the mid-19th century, a combination of poor sales and mildew had reduced the vineyard’s area to 20 hectares. In the early 20th century, there was a wine-growing revival with more than 100 hectares of vines in the 1930s, mainly thanks to a new grape variety, servant.
After the war, there was a steady fall in wine growing, until it completely disappeared as an economic activity.
The village vineyard, in the centre of the old town, is the symbol and witness of Biot tumultuous agricultural history, filled with heavy blows, lucky breaks, historical ups and downs and the difficulty our ancestors had to survive.
Vines and men in biot
The growth cycle of grapevines
The stages of the cycle
Each year, the grape develops with the seasons. It follows a growth cycle divided into several stages.
Winter: From November to February the grapevine enters a period of rest, known as the winter dormancy period. The sap no longer flows through the plant. In mid-November, the leaves fall, and the vine is pruned to remove the shoots and select the buds that will sprout and bear fruit the following year.
Spring: In March and April the buds break: the first shoots appear, and the buds begin to develop. The branches and leaves begin to sprout as well. The vine awakens, and sap flows once again in the plant. In early May, disbudding begins, where branches that will not bear fruit are cut, so that the sap is diverted to the fruitful branches. This is done entirely by hand and must be completed before flowering, which occurs late May or early June.
Summer: In July the fruit sets: the foliage continues to develop, and the flowers produce seeds. In this period, the leaves near the grapes are removed, which allows the bunches to get more air while avoiding competition for nutrients between the leaves and the fruit. In August it’s the veraison stage: the green grapes grow and ripen, turning red or yellow as they become less sour and rich in sugar and flavour.
Autumn: In September and October it’s harvest time. The grapes are harvested by hand. At the end of the season, the leaves fall and are carried away by the wind.
The grape varieties
Grape varieties in the Bâchettes vineyard: