On 23rd February 2023, the French Minister for Ecological Transition Christophe Béchu stated that “we should prepare for a 4°C rise in temperature” which is only a theory at the moment. But the consequences of global warming are already visible when looking at French vines. The crucial questions are then: Are French vineyards under threat of disappearing due to the changing climate? Is it a fantasy or a very real problem? What solutions are available?
CLIMATE CHANGE – HOW DOES IT EFFECT VINES?
An increase in the average temperature, varying rainfall, changing weather patterns (more episodes of extreme weather such as heatwaves, hailstones, frosts, floods) and a delay in the vegetative cycle are all consequences of climate change that every French wine region experiences. What effect will that have in the vineyard?
- Acceleration of the vegetative cycle
For several years now, every stage of a vine’s growth and development has started earlier than before. This goes for the appearance of buds and flowers which are naturally very susceptible to spring frosts to the harvests which have been taking place on average three weeks earlier than they did in the 1980s.
- Drought and water stress
Depending on the area and the time of year, rainfall has become even more uncertain. For the vine, a lack of water is harmful and water stress limits yields and impairs the ripening of the grapes. During extreme cases of drought, a significant amount of the harvest can be destroyed.
- Chemical and organoleptic imbalances
The grapes are less acidic and more sugary on average which creates wines with higher alcohol content and with more flavours of cooked or jammy fruits. For example, in Languedoc, the wine was generally 14% in 2015, whereas it was 11% in the 1980s. Another thing is that harvesting when it’s hot can impact the quality of the grapes, causing premature oxidation in the white grapes in particular. That is why some domains will only harvest in the morning during periods of hot weather.
- Heat and humidity increase the chances of illnesses
When it’s a hot and humid year, diseases such as mildew and pests can be prevalent.
- Increase in weather events
Dry years increase the risk of fires which are a menace to vineyards. Due to climate change, weather events are also becoming more frequent with periods of heatwaves and frost intensifying in recent years as well as appearances of hail.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND VITICULTURE: SEEING THE GLASS HALF FULL
Let’s take a step back and look at the consequences of the warming climate from another angle. Are all the influences of global warming negative? Luckily, no, but we are not downplaying the seriousness of climate change for wine and everyone else on the planet.
Riper and balanced grapes
Take, for example, that wines reach ripeness quicker and contain more sugar and less acid… This has led to wines from several regions improving, especially in northern areas where it isn’t as warm. Up to now, Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, Burgundian Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc from the Loire have often presented more green and vegetal aromas than jammy or cooked fruits. But that is changing. Hot years like 2005, 2009 and 2010 tend to create the better vintages that are appreciated and known by everyone.
The more northerly French regions could be less threatened than those the south. The consequences of climate change are already strongly felt in Banyuls, for example, where the alcohol percentage of the wine has risen by 1% every 10 years. Here, several experiments have taken place.
And even if adding sugar to help increase the alcohol percentage becomes scarcer, nobody is going to complain. Generally speaking, a winemaker has more possible options during a vintage that’s too hot than one that’s too cold.
It is true that the alcohol percentage of wines is rising in most French regions due to the use of producing wines from riper grapes and that is largely down to the effects of global warming, but a small amount of it is down to the influence of some international wine critics.
And while extremely hot vintages are multiplying, there still have been a few in recent years where the grapes have been just ripe enough or underripe like in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2017 and 2021.
A SOLUTION: CHANGE THE VARIETIES IN THE REGIONS
The threat of climate change is real and serious, and the world of wine needs to adapt quickly to the changes it causes. One example is adjusting the grape varieties allowed, which has already happened in several French regions. Those in charge of the Southern Rhône Valley AOC, where Syrah is widely planted, have allowed the region’s more traditional varieties like Carignan, Counoise and Vaccarèse, which are better suited to a very hot climate, back into the appellation. The Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages AOCs permitted four new varieties to be trialled in 2022.
Another option is to progressively move the vines up higher up the slopes and leave the plains behind. This decrease in the average temperate of the vineyards by one or two degrees would be crucial. A third possibility is moving all the varieties a bit further north with Syrah in Burgundy – some producers are already doing that such as Domaine Bernard Millot in Meursault – or Pinot Noir in Norway.
In Champagne, winegrowers have been studying the possibility of creating four or five new grape varieties since 2016 as they are anticipating that they will need them in the future because current varieties will no longer be resilient in the new climate.
While in Bordeaux, the risk is already a reality with vines already suffering from the effects of climate change. Merlot, the region’s most widely planted variety, is ripening earlier and earlier, lowering the quality of the wine as it loses freshness and increases the final alcohol content. To adapt to these changes, the general assembly of the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOC authorised winegrowers to plant and vinify seven new varieties in 2019. The four red and three white varieties develop later or are better adapted to the heat (Arinarnoa, Alvarinho, Touriga Nacional and Liliorila), are less susceptible to fungal diseases (Marselan and Petit Manseng) or are native to the area (Castets).
Changing the varieties in every region might seem like a radical solution and so the INRAE (the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment) is working to find solutions for tending to vines and making wine to try to lower the alcohol level. This would have been unthinkable even 30 years ago.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT HUMANS
To conclude this topic – for now – we must not forget about an essential element: humans. Vines have been cultivated for more than five million years and have essentially been in perpetual adaptation all this time. Through cultural or technical choices, our wine-making ancestors have always adapted themselves to what they couldn’t control – the climate. Certainly, climate change is greater and graver than seen before but it gives us hope knowing that the winemakers will adapt like they have done before.
Dear readers, wine lovers, winemakers, we know that this is a debated topic that concerns us all. Please feel free to reach out or leave a comment at the bottom of this article to share your thoughts.