France commune

Premature harvest last test for French winegrowers

Vine plants in Beaujolais, in the commune of Saint Germain-Nuelles north of Lyon, France.

Photo by Nicolas Liponne/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • Winegrowers across France are concerned that grape quality is suffering from climate-induced stress.
  • The strong heat of this summer accelerated the ripening of the grapes.
  • French winegrowers have been grappling for years with increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions.
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Forced to start picking grapes much earlier than normal due to scorching temperatures, winemakers across France fear the quality of the grapes will suffer from climate-induced stress.

The exceptionally dry conditions have spread from the steep Hérault hills along the Mediterranean, where picking is already underway, to the normally verdant Alsace to the northeast.

Extreme heat waves this summer accelerated the ripening of the grapes, forcing the harvest to start one to three weeks earlier or more – in Languedoc-Roussillon, some winemakers even started in late July.

“We were all a little surprised, they started to ripen very quickly in recent days,” said François Capdellayre, president of the Dom Brial cooperative in Baixas, near Perpignan.

He said the shears came out on August 3 for the region’s typical muscat grapes, followed by chardonnay and grenache blanc.

“In more than 30 years, I have never started my harvest on August 9,” said Jérôme Despey, owner of a vineyard in Hérault.

Stress

Like other farmers, French winegrowers have struggled for years with increasingly common extreme weather conditions, including spring frosts, devastating hailstorms and unusually heavy rains.

But this summer’s combination of historic drought – July was the driest month on record since 1961 – and high temperatures are weighing particularly heavily on the vineyards.

Only 10% of French vineyard plots use artificial irrigation systems, the installation of which can be difficult or prohibitively expensive.

And although vines are tougher than many other crops, with roots that go deep into the ground over years of growth, even they can only withstand so much.

When water is scarce, the vine undergoes “water stress” and protects itself by losing its leaves and no longer supplying the grapes with nutrients, which slows down their growth.

In Alsace, “we haven’t had a drop of rain for two months,” said Gilles Ehrhart, president of the AVA winegrowers’ association.

“We’re going to have a very, very small harvest” after picking begins around August 26, he said.

And when temperatures exceed 38 degrees Celsius, “the grapes burn – they dry out, lose volume and the quality suffers” because the resulting alcohol content “is too high for consumers”, said Pierre Champetier, president of the Protected Geographical Indication (IGP) for the Ardèche region south of Lyon.

Champetier began the harvest on Monday, while “40 years ago, we started around September 20”, he says.

Now he fears that global warming could make these premature harvests “normal”.

Quality at risk

Some winegrowers still hold out hope of rain in the coming weeks, such as the producers of red grapes in Hérault, where the harvest should start as usual at the beginning of September.

In Burgundy, which experienced its first harvest two years ago – on August 16 – in more than four centuries of monitoring, the harvest will begin in the cellars of Saône-et-Loire around August 25.

But just to the south in the Rhone Valley, “the heat wave has accelerated ripening by more than 20 days compared to last year”, according to the association of producers Inter-Rhône.

Still, they hope the quality of the grapes will hold up, as will Champagne growers in the northeast, where harvesting will begin in late August – although yields are expected to drop 9% year-on-year due to brutal spring cold snap and hailstorms.

Bordeaux plans to kick off August 17 with the grapes for the region’s sparkling wines – popular with connoisseurs but only one percent of overall production.

Then will come “the dry whites, the sweet whites and then the reds”, specifies Christophe Chateau of the CIVB producers’ group, whose precise dates will not be fixed until next week.

But he warned that even the rainstorms expected across France from this weekend “will not be enough” to ensure a “beautiful vintage”.

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