French vineyards begin early grape harvest, with extra health measures

The wine harvest has begun in parts of France, with vineyard owners hit with a double whammy of organising an unusually early harvest, complete with extra health protocols.

French vineyards begin early grape harvest, with extra health measures
Traditionally French vineyards harvest their grapes are harvested in September, but increasing temperatures have changed that. All photos: AFP

Picking began over the weekend in the Beaujolais vineyards and thousands of pickers will be travelling to the area this week as the harvest – known as the vendange – gets underway, while wine producers in southern France began picking earlier in the month.

Traditionally the grapes are harvested in September, but climate change and steadily increasing temperatures has made August harvests more and more common.

READ ALSO What you really sign up for when you agree to help with the French vendange

This year's is the earliest for the Beaujolais region since the heatwave of 2003, according to vineyard owner Jean-Marc Burgaud.

Although it is an important part of traditional French life, these days a lot of the picking is done by migrant workers, so the border closures during lockdown were a major headache for vineyard owners.

Fortunately France's borders have now reopened for travel from within Europe, but the owners must still bring in a strict health protocol for all their workers to abide by workplace Covid-19 regulations.

Burgaud told FranceInfo: “At the beginning of the epidemic I had a nightmare three nights in a row where I was in my vineyards with a superb harvest but nobody to pick and I couldn't pick my grapes.

“Everything else is ready. We have instructions for transport where everyone will have to be masked.

“In the vineyards there is only one of us per row, so there is naturally a distance between pickers.”

Many vineyard owners also provide housing for their temporary workforce, which this year also has to fit with the health protocols.

Fellow vineyard owner Emmanuel Fellot added that masks would be distributed to all his pickers.

But he is more concerned about the weather, saying: “All winemakers know that these excessive days of heat make us lose a lot.

“We are going to lose thousands of euros, whereas Covid is more of a worry – the worry of not getting sick.”

In southern France, scorching temperatures have forced some vineyard owners to begin picking at night.

Many in the south have reported a poor crop with small, shrivelled grapes that they fear will produce mediocre wine, but in Beaujolais they are more hopeful, saying that although the grapes are early, they are fully ripened.

READ ALSO How climate change is souring France's 2020 wine harvest

Many French winemakers have been forced to turn unsold wines into hand sanitiser as sales collapsed during the lockdown.

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France destroys seaside flats threatened by coastal erosion

French authorities on Friday started demolishing a seaside block of flats that has come to symbolise the country's battle against climate change-linked coastal erosion.

France destroys seaside flats threatened by coastal erosion

When the four-storey building was built behind the beach in the southwestern Gironde region in 1967, it stood 200 metres away from the shoreline.

But its 75 or so flats in the town of Soulac-sur-Mer had to be evacuated in 2014 after the sea crept up to within 20 metres of the structure.

Local authorities scrambled to rid the building of asbestos in the following years, before a huge mechanical digger took a swing at its facade on Friday, as several former residents looked on.

“It’s the memories of four generations” that are being destroyed, said 76-year-old Vincent Duprat, one of the home owners.

The sea “has taken back what is rightfully hers”.

MAP The French towns at urgent risk from coastal erosion

Environment Minister Christophe Bechu said the demolition was a sign of “what the rising waters and coastal erosion have is store for lots of other areas along the French coastline”.

By 2100, 20 percent of the coastline and up to 50,000 homes would be affected, he said.

Erosion is a natural phenomenon that has helped shape our continents over millennia.

But scientists say it is being accelerated by the warming of the planet, exacerbated by rising sea levels brought about by melting ice caps and glaciers, and by the more powerful waves that warmer oceans hold.

The sandy beaches of the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain are expected to recede by 50 metres by 2050, the Observatory of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Coastline says.

But climate change and rising sea levels could increase this by an extra 20 metres in some areas, the Observatory’s Nicolas Bernon said.

In 2020, after a seven-year legal battle, a court ruled that French authorities should compensate families who had been forced to evacuate the building in Soulac-sur-Mer to the tune of 70 percent of the original value of their homes.