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Climate Change And How France’s Winemakers Are Trying To Make A Difference

Climate Change And How France’s Winemakers Are Trying To Make A Difference

Cristal Guiet

Part One – The Affects of Global Warming on French Wine Production

In this two part series we will explore that effects of climate change on the French wine growing industry.  The first part addresses the effects that climate change has had on wine production. In part two we will learn what actions French winemakers are taking to try to slow down climate change and what initiatives different individuals in the industry have engaged in to preserve their livelihoods and the continuation of ongoing wine production in France.

Global warming is a hot topic and the 2021 climate change conference in Glasgow was a stark wake up call to the entire world, it was time to take a reality check as to just how serious the problem has become.  World leaders were asked to make commitments as to how each individual country would strive to reduce their carbon footprint.  

President Emmanuel Macron said “We have decided to make France a model in the fight against climate change.”  France has kept this promise and treats climate change very seriously.  The decommissioning of coal burning power plants in 2021 was big step in the right direction.  France has historically been known as a country that is dedicated to trying to reduce their carbon footprint on the environment and takes climate change very seriously.   However despite the various environmental protection measures that the government has put in place there are many environmental agencies and activists in France that still feel that it is too little too late.

So what is the impact of climate change on the French wine industry?

France produces 16 percent of the world’s wine.  In 2019 production in France dropped 19% due to extreme weather conditions.  Extreme weather conditions are defined as  – mild winters (which cause the buds to develop earlier then they should) followed by freak frosts (resulting in burned buds which will not produce grapes), hailstorms (which destroy vines and anything that has started to  grow on the vines), sodden vineyards (which result in the vines and grapes being more susceptible to diseases such as mildew) and finally rising temperatures are now becoming the norm. 

Sadly 2022 is no exception and French winemakers once again are faced with a challenging year and are trying to estimate how much damage has been inflicted on their 2022 vintage hopes both in the final production and the resulting financial losses that will be incurred.  After several weeks of above average temperatures (France recorded the highest temperatures in the spring since the scientists started recording temperatures in the country),  as a result storms have ravaged several appellations in the Loire Valley, Roussillon, Savoie and Gascony.  Hailstorms and strong winds destroyed vines and grape flowers leaving many vineyards in ruins.  These viticultural regions are not alone as earlier this year, Bordeaux and Bergerac also fell victim to extensive damage to their vineyards that was caused by late frosts affecting vines that were just beginning to come into bud.  Champagne and Burgundy have been spared for the moment, however those producers are not holding their hopes high that their production will not be touched by extreme weather conditions further into the growing season.

 Already in 2003 winemakers began to realise after the summer heatwave that it was evident that the planet was warming up and the effects were beginning to become apparent.  Wine producers began to realise that climate change was no longer a just a worry but had now become a reality

To better understand the impact that climate change on grape growing it is useful to understand the  normal vine growing cycle: (dates given for the northern hemisphere)

  1.  Budburst – March and April
  2. Shoot and leaf growth  – March and May
  3. Flowering and fruit set – May to June
  4. Vèraision (end of grape growth) and berry ripening – July to September
  5. Harvest – September to October (October and November for Vendanges Tardives (Late Harvest)
  6. Winter Dormancy – December to March

Harvest records in Burgundy date back for nearly 700 years.  In 1540 historians recorded a massive drought and fires throughout the region causing a massive rise in temperature that necessitated an exceptionally early harvest which resulted in a grape harvest that produced wines with high alcohol and sugar content (something that was unheard of at during that time period).

Grape harvest dates are an excellent way to track climate change as winemakers through the centuries have carefully documented and continue to record the vine cycle and harvest dates each year.  Grape harvest dates are a direct result of the conditions of the growing season.  If the weather is cool then the grapes take longer to reach maturity, when it is hot the reverse is true.

According to the records kept by the French Government, harvests are taking place 18 days earlier then 30 years ago. It is clear to see that rising temperatures are causing a reaction in the grapes as well as changing the overall wine.  The temperatures have risen so much that harvest in now often taking place in early August instead of September.  In southern regions of France such as Roussillon, temperatures have reached an unheard of 40°C making it necessary to either harvest the grapes at night or very early in the morning to keep the harvested grapes cool enough before the winemaking process begins. Reports of burned leaves and withered fruit is now commonplace.

 Alcohol levels and sugar levels are affected by the scorching temperatures and over the past 50 years average alcohol levels in France have risen from 11.5 percent to 14.5 or even 15 percent!  The continuing rise in alcohol is attributed to the faster maturation of the grapes producing higher levels of sugars which converts to alcohol when the wine is made and even the colour of the wine can be affected.  Higher levels of sugar reduce the acidity in the wine which makes it harder to keep grape varieties such a Chardonnay fresh on the palate in the final wine that is produced.  This is the same effect that occurred in the 1540 harvest in Burgundy.

In Bordeaux wine producers are concerned about the future of the Merlot grape variety as it thrives best in cooler conditions and if the temperatures continue to rise, it is predicted that it will be the first grape variety to fall victim to extinction.  Merlot makes up 60% of Bordeaux grape production.  It goes without saying that the loss of Merlot would have catastrophic consequences for Bordeaux!

In conclusion climate change is affecting the future of wine everywhere in the world and it is not just up to winemakers but also for wine consumers to make every effort possible to lower our carbon footprint – Think locally act globally and Santé!

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