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Food & Drink

Wine, etc.: Changing climate rattles French wine producers | COMMENTARY

If in your journeys to France you have nurtured a rosé at an outdoor cafe on the Med or sipped a glass of Champagne with foie gras, you understand firsthand what lures people to this epicurean mecca. There are few places that have such a grip on us no matter how many times we go. So, when there is talk about how climate change is going to impact our favorite wines, we take note. Wildfires in Bordeaux, hail in Burgundy, frost in Champagne and heat in Provence are rattling the nerves of French wine producers.

In a recent visit to France, we heard from a number of producers who are reveling after a terrific 2022 harvest but who are looking to future years with concern over what rising temperatures and climatic events will mean.

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France’s annual temperature has increased 30% more than any European country over the last century. While warmer temperatures are welcomed by northern wine growers in Champagne, they are a challenge for those in southern regions such as Provence and Languedoc.

Wine isn’t the only industry affected by climate change. A poor mustard seed crop in Canada has led to a shortage of Dijon mustard. We saw empty store shelves as Burgundians hoarded their favorite condiment. And a locally favorite cheese called savers was in short supply because of a decimated crop of local grass that cows depend on.

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But it’s the wine that is causing the most stir. Ripe grapes have initiated earlier harvest times in almost every region — a full month earlier in parts of the Rhone Valley. Researchers are introducing new grape varieties and rootstocks that are drought resistant. Growers are looking for areas that aren’t so exposed to the sun while introducing shading measures to protect current vineyards from blazing heat. Growers are pruning later in the spring to delay bud break. Every countermeasure is on the table.

But, for the moment, French winemakers are basking in the sun. Warm temperatures are producing bumper crops across the country and most winemakers are pleased with the quality of the grapes. The 2022 wines will be superior. But we have to wonder what quality to expect if this heat continues to spike.

Champagne, for instance, is unique because the underripe grapes in this northern region are ideal for this kind of wine. The region is prospering from riper grapes for now after a calamitous 2021 crop that suffered a 60% crop loss from frost and rain. This year the Comite Champagne set yields at the highest level in a decade and that will help restock reserves. However, the region’s hold on Champagne may loosen if temperatures continue to ripen early. Already, the ideal conditions for Champagne are shifting north to England, which is making sparkling wine as good as Champagne. Will warmer temperatures eventually make Champagne a better region for still wine?

Burgundy also suffered from frost and early summer rain in 2021. At Maison Joseph Drouhin, yields were down 70%.

Cyril Ponelle at Drouhin.

“We used to pick the chardonnay first, then the pinot noir,” he said. “But it’s mixed now,” said brand ambassador Cyril Ponelle.

Temperatures this season spiked to 102 degrees for several days — higher than any other year including the torrid 2003 vintage. Generally, Burgundy, a region that once had to add sugar to attain reasonable alcohol levels, is benefiting from warmer temperatures — for now.

Acidity, normally a problem here, is much higher. We tasted fresh and balanced 2019 and 2020 chardonnays from northern regions, such as Auxey-Duresses and Marsannay, that in the past have been low in acidity. Pinot noirs from Pommard are rounder and less tannic.

Ponelle said Drouhin is experimenting with syrah, a grape Domaine Ott is concerned about farther south in Provence. Jean-Francois Ott said he didn’t think he would be growing syrah in another 20 years. He has abandoned his ugni blanc and cabernet sauvignon and is experimenting with drought-resistant sangiovese and the Greek variety assyrtiko.

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Jean Francois Ott

Like others across France, Ott picked his grapes early to reduce alcohol levels and he is pruning more to delay bud break so that the grapes can retain acidity — important steps to retain freshness and character.

Of the 2022 harvest, Ott said, “This is a tough one. It was dry until mid-August. Then we got big hail.”

“It was the craziest vintage in the south of France,” he said.

Nonetheless, 2022 looks like a decent crop to keep rosé fans well stocked next summer.

Wines from the Rhone Valley are known for their high alcohol but warming temperatures may be giving them even more alcohol than producers want. This year, however, looks to be good.

Grape growers are adjusting to the heat. At Chateau Beaucastel, they planted trees in the middle of vineyards after learning the best crop was coming from a shady spot protected by mature trees. They also are spraying some vines with a film made of clay that protects grapes from sunburn and insects.

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Tree planted in Beaucastel Vinyard.

While Beaucastel normally sees 24 inches of rain a year, it got only 8 inches in 2022. Vines here struggle through 5 feet of river rock called galets roules to find water, a challenge that benefits the wine’s flavors. Still, the vines need water above ground too.

Growers are managing canopy differently to spare the grapes from harmful rays in the most crucial periods of the harvest. Grapes in some places are picked at night or early in the morning to preserve the acidity that plays a crucial role in a wine’s balance.

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What does all this mean to the wine? A lot, but not all of it is bad.

For starters, American palates have bonded with high-alcohol, extracted and jammier red wines that come from riper, sugar-packed grapes. This style of wine is more pronounced in southern France. However, the best wines depend on balance between sugar and acidity. Acidity breaks down as grapes ripen and the red wines can take on a more raisin-like flavor. This could be a future problem in Burgundy and Languedoc.

Producers are mitigating these problems by picking the grapes earlier. But that brings on new problems. Grapes picked too early often lose secondary compounds, such as the tannins, which are important to the aging process.

Wine producers across France are embracing organic and biodynamic farming. Said Ott, “If we don’t farm organically in the south of France, we are lazy.” However, some producers told us they had to spray for mildew in recent years because of the impact of late rains. Abandoning pesticides and herbicides in this climate is risky.

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In a future column, we’ll give you some snapshots of the great wines we tasted during our visit to France.

Wine picks

Suadela Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 2015 ($32). Not every group of international friends can create a wine company that revolves around their common denominator: Italy. The wines in this collection are from all over Italy, ranging from Tuscany to Piedmont, and are put together by different winemakers. We enjoyed this cannonau — a relative of grenache — for its simple yet delicious red berry flavors. For depth, turn to Suadela’s montecucco sangiovese.

Avalon California Red Blanc 2020 ($11). All of Avalon’s wines are inexpensive. This red blend includes cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and petite sirah. Jammy blackberry and cherry flavors and smooth mouthfeel.


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