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What Are Winemakers Doing To Slow Climate Change

What Are Winemakers Doing To Slow Climate Change

Cristal Guiet

In the first article of this two part series we looked at how climate change is affecting wine production in France.  At COP 26 last year world leaders made promises at to how their individual countries would take action to slow climate change.  Vines are one of the crops that are most affected by climate change.

With a history of wine dating back to the 6th century B.C. and the creators of the world renowned classification system, the French wine community has become one of the most progressive and rebellious wine regions worldwide whilst at the same time maintaining its strict wine production rules and traditions.   The 2003 growing season in France made French winemakers realise the future of the wine industry was under threat and France decided that it was time to address climate change. A variety of different techniques are used during the growing process and through to the when the wine is ready for public consumption. 

One threat to winemakers is the threat of extinction of certain grapes varieties such as Merlot in Bordeaux which is not tolerant to high temperatures.  A solution that winemakers are exploring is the possibility of growing grape varieties that are more well adapted to hotter weather conditions such as Sangiovese.  Winemakers have begun to realise that traditional varieties are in danger and are beginning to suffer the effects of climate change and are willing to experiment with varieties  that are better suited to higher temperatures.  It is a clever solution to an ever increasing problem, it does not resolve the rising temperature issue, however replacement grape varieties is one solution to ensure the continuity of wine production.  The process of being allowed to use replacement grape varieties however is easier said than done as in France the appellation rules are very strictly enforced by the Institute National de l’Origine et de la Qualité INAO who dictates which grapes can be used in different regions to meet the very precise appellation requirements.  Luckily there has been a small bit of leniency regarding the use of varieties that are less susceptible to ongoing climate change, but in order for drastic changes to be made in grape varieties that are used, wine growers must present their reasons for the change to the AOC (resulting in a lengthly review process that can last up to ten years!).  To the delight of Bordeaux winemakers the INAO has authorised the use of six new grape varieties in Bordeaux in a step to address the issue of climate change.  Four red varieties – Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional as well as two whites Alvarinho and Liliorila which are varieties that are adapted to shorter growing seasons and higher temperatures which create hydric stress (which refers to the lack of water in a plant and affects the vegetative cycle of the vine).

Other winemakers have adopted more environmentally friendly ways of producing their wines.  Winemaking requires a lot of energy, from the production process, crushing the grapes, fermentation, pressing and then filtering but then while the wine ages it needs to stay at a constant temperature which requires humidifiers and refrigeration which have to run for years and years.  Château Pupille in Sainte-Colombe in Bordeaux cools their cellar completely by using its own PV panels and battery system.  Château Pupille is one among many wine producers that are now using solar power for their electricity needs.

In 2020 The French Agricultural PV Specialist Sun’Agri has created solar panels that are installed into vineyards.  The solar panels are placed 4.2 metres height and they can be moved using AI in real time so that the panels are always at the ideal tilt according to the sunshine and water requirements as well as the soil quality how the vines grow and the weather conditions.  The vines are protected the crops through the AI technology.   Irrigation of vines in France was not permitted until 2007.  Now irrigation is permitted between 15 of June and 15 of August, however certain appellations only allow irrigation if sanctioned by the independent authorities of that appellation.

With the temperatures reaching record heights early in the growing season, the panels which are built on a platforms above the vines provide shade and will help to conserve the water in the soil.  Winemaker Pierre Escudie uses this new technology at his winery near Perpignan where he cultivates Marselan, Grenache Gris and Chardonnay grape varieties.  It is a game changer and has protected his crops whilst his neighbours are struggling with the erratic weather conditions.

Other winemakers have dedicated part of the proceeds of certain bottles of wine to be donated to the Carbon Trust to lower their carbon footprint.  Cellier des Dauphins, a very large Rhône producer has made some important changes in its packaging by lowering the weight of their 75CL bottles from 630g to 400g as sell as changing the packaging of their Bag in Box reducing the use of plastic and cardboard.

Another very important step (it takes three years in France to become certified) is becoming an organically certified vineyard or having the vineyards certified at HVE (Haute Valeur Environmental – High environmental value) meaning that biodiversity, lowering the reliance on chemicals and water management are improved. In 2020 17% of all French vineyards were certified organic and the number of producers choosing to become certified organic increases as each year passes.

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In the Champagne Region the Comité de Champagne has recently agreed to reduce its usage of chemicals by 50%  and to treat all wastewater as well as reducing the carbon footprint of bottles by 15%.

But individual producers are also trying to reduce their environmental impact by making changes to their vineyards and cellars.  With initiatives such as increasing the biodiversity of their vineyards by creating areas for birds and other wild life to use as shelter.  Some producers use horses or other strong animals to till the land between the vineyard rows and use a minimalistic approach to their cultivation methods leaving weeds and flowers to grow between the rows encouraging bees and other insects to live among the vines.  Trees are planted around the vineyards and beehives installed nearby to further encourage biodiversity.  Chemicals are used less and less frequently and many winemakers that buy in grapes have very strict rules regarding the use of chemicals on the grapes that are purchased.  Some producers are also trying to reduce the amount of wood used in the ageing process and have found that this creates a fresher flavour of wine.

It is very encouraging to see so many winemakers take these sort of initiatives and the wine community only hopes that these changes will make a real impact in the damage that has already occurred to the damage that has been caused by climate change and the overworking of soils and chemical abuse that has been caused to them.

By supporting these forward thinking winemakers around the world we are also doing our part to ensure the continuation of the wine industry and the survival of our planet.  Santé!

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