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How France’s wine industry is adapting to climate change

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The French vineyards have had a difficult year thanks to the effects of climate change – with late frosts, hailstorms, repeated heatwaves and a historic drought. The industry is trying to adapt to this tricky new reality through a variety of techniques, from bringing back forgotten grape varieties to moving their vineyards to new locations.

The scorching heatwaves of the summer forced winegrowers in several regions of France to start their harvest early. In the southwestern Languedoc-Roussillon they kicked off the harvest period at the end of July. Harvesting took place at the beginning of August in Haute-Corse, the northern part of Corsica. Both regions harvested one to three weeks earlier than usual.

“The 2022 vintage is complicated for the French wine industry,” said Laurent Audeguin of the French Wine and Wine Institute. “The heat causes the grapes to burn and ripen too early in most regions; the necessary aromas don’t get time to develop.”

“The rise in temperature also lowers the acidity of the wine and increases the alcohol content,” continues Audeguin. “So the whole balance is upset.”

Climate change hits hard

The drought exacerbates the problems caused by heat waves. Normally, vines with their deep roots can draw water from quite far into the soil. But this year, groundwater levels have completely dried up, especially in the south of France. Without water, a vine loses its leaves and the grapes stop growing.

“The quality is affected, but so is the amount of wine we can produce,” Audeguin said. “In the parts of France where they have not yet started the harvest, we are waiting for a few drops of rain to change the situation.”

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But due to the climate crisis, such harvests are becoming the norm.

“Climate change has systematically affected wine production since 2010,” said Nathalie Ollat, a wine expert at the French agricultural research institute INRAE. “This time we had hail, heat waves and drought. It really brings out the effects of global warming.”

Last year was already disastrous. The French wine industry suffered a heat wave in the spring, followed by frost in 2021, which destroyed a significant number of vines. Heavy rainfall subsequently caused diseases such as powdery mildew that attacked the plants. Likewise, 2020 saw unusually early harvests due to a historically warm spring. “These phenomena will undoubtedly repeat themselves,” Ollat said.

“I don’t know a single winegrower who doesn’t believe in climate change,” Audeguin said. “They have to live with global warming on a daily basis.”

The French grape harvest takes place on average three weeks earlier than 30 years ago. And there is much to lose, both economically and culturally: the export of wine and spirits contributed 15.5 billion euros to the French economy in 2021.

Bringing Back Forgotten Species

So the wine industry is trying to adapt. In August 2021, it drew up a national strategy to protect the vineyards.

“We have to draw on the huge variety of grape varieties,” Ollat said. “France has about 400 grape varieties, but only uses a third of them. The vast majority have been forgotten – considered insufficiently profitable at one time or another.”

Some of these forgotten grape varieties could be well adapted to the new weather conditions. “Some, especially those from mountainous environments, ripen later and seem particularly tolerant of drought,” Ollat continued. “They could turn out to be particularly interesting.”

In the French Alpine region of Isère, winegrower Nicolas Gonnin is a specialist in these forgotten grape varieties. When he took over the small family business in 2005, he decided to uproot the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay factories installed by his grandparents in the 1970s and planted only local varieties with names barely known to the general public – such as Jacquère , Mondeuse Noire and Viognier .

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The benefit is twofold, Gonnin said: “It allows us to reconnect with our local heritage and produce wines with a real identity. At the same time, we must rely on the diversity of grape varieties offered to combat climate change. In the past, people understood this well and grew a multitude of grape varieties, all with different characteristics. This approach allows us to keep production going despite frost, drought and heat waves.”

In addition to his day job, Gonnin also works at a center for the study of vines trying to put those ancient Alpine grape varieties back into use. So far, we have managed to get 17 of them in the French national catalog, a necessary step to be able to grow them again.

“The other solution would be to look for grape varieties abroad, especially in other Mediterranean countries,” Ollat said. “In 2009 an experimental vineyard was set up in Bordeaux to evaluate 52 potential new varieties from France and abroad, especially Spain and Portugal. It is very promising.”

A third option is hybrid grape varieties, genetically modified in the lab to better withstand drought or frost. “But this option hasn’t been explored much at this stage,” Ollat said, mainly because of the cost.

Winegrowers have done several other experiments. Some are adjusting the density of their plots to use less water, while others are thinking of purifying wastewater to boost irrigation systems. Others try to shade the vines by planting trees. “There is even the example of a vineyard that has installed solar panels on the vines to shade them while they produce electricity,” says Nathalie Ollat.

A more extreme possible solution is to simply move the vines to a more favorable spot. “Global warming will make some areas more suitable for growing vines,” Audeguin said.

“We are already seeing such relocation initiatives on a small scale; they did it in Brittany, for instance,” he continued. “This can be promising if there is sufficient funding. That’s not to say we could make Bordeaux in Brest [on the western coast of Brittany]but it does mean that new wine varieties can emerge.”

“The nature of the French wine industry will be completely different by 2050,” concluded Ollat. “And the exact nature of that change will be determined in part by the results of the experiments taking place across the country. We could have irrigated vineyards in the south, others that have disappeared, as well as long-forgotten grape varieties that have been brought back. Perhaps Burgundy wines will go from using one grape to multiple varieties. And maybe on top of that we have completely new vineyards in completely new places.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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