On the banks of the Cuisance in eastern France, scattered among the ancient stone houses of the commune of Arbois, small groups of wine lovers sat in the autumn sun, sipping chardonnay and du trousseau grown in the foothills of the Jura, one of the smallest but most popular wine regions in France.
For many American tourists visiting the area on a recent October afternoon, it was their first excursion to Europe since the coronavirus pandemic closed borders last year. Snuggled up to guidebooks and maps, they marked potential destinations for their next tasting with palpable excitement. But in the neighboring vineyards, where the annual harvest had just ended, a dark atmosphere reigned.
As government and business leaders gather in Scotland for a United Nations climate conference, given global action to tackle climate change, winegrowers in Jura are now feeling the impact on their livelihoods. subsistence. They are grappling with record crop losses caused by frost, hail and higher temperatures, all spurred on by climate change. These extreme weather conditions, which have worsened over the past five years, have led to despair and suicides in the region, as locals worry about how they will retain the unique properties of their wines when their harvests fail. persistently.
“We have lost 85 percent of our harvest compared to last year,” said Dodane Fabrice, 49, owner of Domain of Saint Pierre, a small wine producer specializing in organic viticulture. “It really is a disaster, and people are angry that there is so much demand but not enough wine to sell.”
Although it is one of the smallest wine regions in France, spanning just over 80 km and accounting for only 0.2% of the country’s wine production, the Jura has a strong economy. dependent on winemaking, and its vintages of the past 15 years have been increasingly acclaimed internationally. The region’s diversity of soils and grape varieties has produced limitless nuances and styles, but its organic, natural and sparkling wines have become particularly popular in New York City, Tokyo, Copenhagen and London.
The semi-continental climate of the Jura, traditionally defined by cold winters and dry, hot summers, has created the distinctive properties of the wines. But since 2015, the weather has become more and more unpredictable. One of the most dramatic changes has been the warmer winter temperatures, causing the buds to burst – or open – early on the vine, leaving them exposed to frost, which can destroy vines overnight. “When the winters were cold the vines slept through the frost, but now with the warmer winters they wake up too early and become vulnerable,” said Gabriel Dietrich, director of Fruitière Vinicole Arbois, the largest cooperative, of 100 wineries in the Jura region.
But in 2021, the Jura experienced almost relentless devastating weather conditions.
“This year we had terrible frosts in April, then hail in June, followed by a horribly cold summer with a lot of rain which caused disease in the vines and rotted the grapes,” Mr. Dietrich.
Fruitière Vinicole Arbois has experienced a steady decline in production since 2017. While the cooperative typically produces around 475,000 gallons, or 18,000 hectoliters, of wine after a normal harvest, in 2017 its yield fell by more than half. , to 185,000 gallons. It continued to decline, 2021 bringing in just 119,000 gallons.
“We are experiencing a real crisis in the Jura; we’ve never seen anything like it, ”said Dietrich. “Some winegrowers couldn’t even harvest this year because they had nothing.
Traveling the narrow, winding roads of Arbois and its neighboring villages, the low morale of the winemakers could be seen through the rows of glistening vines in shades of orange and red. One winemaker slumped down on a log, gazing aimlessly across the field as he drew a puff of a cigarette, while another sat sullenly in a tractor and shook his head at a group of tourists approaching to indicate that there was no ripe wine.
“Coming here we were hoping to meet some of the wineries and taste their wines, but it seems most of them are not in the mood for visitors,” said Matthew Myers, 67, a security analyst. retired from Maine, who was visiting Arbois with his wife after a two-week wine tour of the nearby greater Burgundy region.
“We knew the French were grappling with climate change, but we didn’t realize how bad it was until we got to the Jura,” he said. “You can taste the impact by comparing different vintages. Yesterday I tried a chardonnay from 2019 and then from 2020 and there was a big difference.
The last year the region experienced favorable weather conditions was 2018, which wine experts say produced exceptional wines. However, with high demand and a limited harvest, prices have increased, and some labels, like the Pierre Overnoy Arbois-Pupillin Poulsard 2018, are hard to find. This has put enormous pressure on the wine growers to maintain production, and many are struggling to stay afloat.
Four revered French winemakers have ended their days this year. One of them, Pascal Clairet of Domaine de la Tournelle, was an iconic figure in organic viticulture in Arbois, producing some of the most cutting-edge award-winning natural wines of the past 20 years. His death shocked the region.
“The Jura is an extreme example because it is this very small region that offers a palette and a particularity, and the second a certain vintage gets good media coverage, there is suddenly this enormous interest and not enough for everything. the world, which puts a huge burden on the winegrowers, ”said Wink Lorch, author of“Jura wine»And an oenologist who has studied the region for more than 20 years.
“In the early 2000s, Jura winegrowers made a real effort to attract export sales and, in connection with this, wine-loving tourists from overseas,” she said. “Now that has almost backfired on us, with all the weather issues and the success of their wines.”
High cost, low returns and bureaucracy: the obstacles to experimentation
However, the impact of climate change has not been entirely detrimental to winemaking, especially for red grape varieties like Pinot Noir, which benefit from warmer summers. When a bud breaks early and is exposed to the heat of the sun, the ripening of the grape accelerates, giving it a beautiful color and a good amount of tannins, said Jacques Hauller, facilities manager at Domaine Maire & Fils, l one of the greatest domain wines of the Jura.
“In this way, the global warming challenge helped us a lot as we were able to make pinot noir which won awards in the UK and France,” he said. “Usually this region is not known for top level Pinot Noir.”
Domaine Maire & Fils spans over 490 acres and has managed to consistently produce a steady stream of wine from the Jura region, even this year, having lost around 40 to 50 percent of its harvest compared to 2020. In one room in the company’s cellar, around 300,000 bottles of wine were stacked high, matured for three to 20 months before being shipped to global markets.
“This year we had a lot of problems with our organic production because there was a lot of downy mildew and disease,” Hauller explained, pointing to rows of Chardonnay vines on one of the estate’s low plains. . “Of course, it’s much more difficult for individual or smaller producers who have a few plots. Some of them have lost everything.
Winemakers like Mr. Fabrice have experimented with techniques to protect their crops from winter frosts, like burning candles and using straw bales and hot blast machines, but many complain that the costs are too high and the results limited.
Some winegrowers are eager to experiment with different grape varieties that are more resistant to climate change, but France is extremely strict on which grape varieties it allows to be grown in wine-growing regions. The country’s regulatory body, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, has changed the rules in recent years to allow research and development of new varieties for climate adaptation, but the process is arduous and slow and it could take years before new variations are approved, according to winemakers. .
“It’s quite complicated and it will take time,” Hauller said. “I share the opinion with many other winegrowers that the impact of global warming is faster than our process.”
By exploring long-term solutions, the Jura winegrowers are opening more and more trading companies and buying other grape varieties in order to produce “Vins de France”, French wines that are not labeled by region or appellation.
“We have to make Vin de France to pay our expenses,” said Mr. Fabrice. “I’m optimistic and have high hopes for 2022, but if it continues like this, how are we going to continue doing Jura?” I really do not know.