Drought forces early harvest in French wine region

Drought forces early harvest in French wine region

BORDEAUX, France (AP) – The landscape in Bordeaux’s prestigious vineyards looks the same as it always has, with healthy, ripe grapes hanging from rows of green vines.

But this year something is completely different in one of France’s most famous wine regions and elsewhere in Europe. The harvest that started in mid-September is now happening earlier than ever before – in mid-August – as a result of severe drought and the wine industry’s adaptation to the unpredictable effects of climate change.

Paradoxically, the season of heat waves and fires produced excellent grapes despite lower yields. But achieving such a harvest required creative changes in cultivation techniques, including pruning vines in a different way and sometimes watering them in places where irrigation is generally prohibited. And producers across Europe who have seen the effects of global warming firsthand are worried about what else is to come.

So far, “global warming is very positive. We have better maturation, better balance. … wine balance,” said Fabien Teitgen, technical director at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, a property that grows organic wine grapes in Martillac. , south of Bordeaux.

Winegrowers adjusted their practices amid a series of heat waves, combined with a lack of rain, that hit most of Europe. In the Bordeaux region of southwestern France, massive forest fires destroyed large areas of pine forests. It didn’t rain from late June to mid-August.

As the harvest unfolds, dozens of workers kneel in the vineyards to manually pick the grapes and place them in baskets. The fruit is immediately crushed to make juice, which is placed in tanks, then in barrels to start the winemaking process.

The harvest aims to produce the white wine of the famous Pessac-Léognan appellation. Red wine will follow soon.

Eric Perrin, one of the owners of the Château Carbonnieux estate, recalled that during his childhood, in the 1970s, the harvest began in mid-September. This year they started on August 16th.

But the 2022 vintage may be better than ever, Perrin said, because the grapes are healthy and well-balanced. The hot, dry climate also prevented the vines from contracting diseases such as mold.

Making wine is a centuries-old tradition at Château Carbonnieux, where Thomas Jefferson visited the vineyards in 1787, before becoming President of the United States, and planted a pecan tree that still stands in a park.

Nowadays, Château Carbonnieux wine is sometimes offered by President Emmanuel Macron to esteemed hosts.

The drought has changed the way winemakers work.

Before, winegrowers used to give the vines a shape that allowed the grapes to receive the maximum amount of sun to produce more sugar, which converts to alcohol. This year, growers tended to let the leaves protect the grapes so the shadows would preserve the fruit’s acidity and freshness, Teitgen explained.

Yields may be 15% to 20% lower in the wider region, mainly due to smaller grapes and the fact that some have been sunburned in specific areas, Teitgen said, but this will not affect the quality of the wine.

In front of the 14th century tower of the Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte vineyard, Manon Lecouffe this week carefully watered the newly planted vines, an indispensable job.

Multi-year-old vines have deep roots that allow them to extract water from the subsoil and withstand drought without suffering too much.

But this year, properties were allowed to water mature vines, a practice normally prohibited in Bordeaux.

“Some plots were suffering a lot from leaf fall,” said Lecouffe.

Another step winegrowers can take is to reduce the density of their plots to require less water or to work the soil to better conserve moisture at the bottom.

Experts are also considering whether planting new grape varieties might be helpful.

At Château Olivier, which also produces Pessac-Leognan wines, director Laurent Lebrun showed how he and his team roam the vineyards to taste the grapes plot by plot to decide where and when to harvest.

The consequences of global warming are now part of the daily lives of winegrowers, Lebrun said, noting the speed of change.

“We need to reprogram our own way of thinking,” he said. “There are many tools that are still within our reach, that are already being used in warmer regions.”

Further south in Europe, harvests also started weeks earlier than usual to avoid withered and burnt grapes. Production is expected to be 10% to 20% lower in some regions of Italy, Spain and Portugal, although growers are hopeful about the increase in quality.

Italy’s agricultural lobby Coldiretti emphasized that the higher cost of energy and raw materials should increase costs by 35%.

Scientists have long believed that human-caused climate change makes extreme weather more frequent. They say that warmer air, warmer oceans and melting sea ice alter the jet stream, which makes storms, floods, heat waves, droughts and wildfires more destructive.

As warmer winters cause vines to produce early buds, French winemakers fear that frost will interrupt the growing season more often. Violent hailstorms can destroy a year’s work in minutes.

At Château Carbonnieux, Perrin worries that some smaller producers will not be able to resist the changes.

“Weather events since 2017 have led to smaller harvests. Not everyone will be able to survive this for sure,” he said.

___

Associated Press journalists Alexander Turnbull and François Mori in Bordeaux, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal contributed to this report.

___

Follow all AP climate change stories at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.