Why France’s Burgundy vineyards are more vulnerable to extreme weather

Growers across France are reporting catastrophic grape harvests this year thanks to unseasonally late frosts followed by heavy rain, hail and disease. But the highly-prized vineyards of Burgundy are more vulnerable than most.

Why France's Burgundy vineyards are more vulnerable to extreme weather
The vineyards of Burgundy are vulnerable to extreme weather. Photo: Eric Pfefferberg/AFP

Growers are warning of the poorest harvests in memory.

“In a normal year it would be full by 9.30am,” said Julien Cheveau as he watched workers dump grapes into a cart at the muddy edge of his field in Solutre-Pouilly, part of the famed Pouilly-Fuisse appellation.

But as the lunch break approaches, the mound of golden yellow grapes has yet to reach the top of the bin.

The very factors that make Burgundy whites and reds a favourite of wine fans – small but prestigious houses, the predominance of chardonnay grapes, relatively high altitudes – make the region particularly vulnerable to extreme weather.

And while 2021 has been an exceptionally bad year for growers across France including the famed Champagne region, climatologists are warning that extreme and unpredictable weather patterns are here to stay.

READ ALSO Climate change: What can we expect future French summers to look like?

An April cold snap struck from Bordeaux in the southwest to Champagne in the northeast, but in Burgundy night-time lows plunged to -8C.

And Chardonnay grapes, which make up two-thirds of Burgundy, suffered more than others from the freezing temperatures, destroying buds just as they were emerging after a mild winter.

“Eventually the vines started growing again but then we had a huge hailstorm on June 21st, and all our hopes were obliterated in 15 minutes,” said Aurelie Cheveau, Julien’s sister-in-law and co-manager of their namesake vineyard.

Then came September downpours that fostered rapid mildew growth just as ripening was at hand – she pointed with her shears to bunches of shrivelled grapes, and others shot through with purple veins and covered with fine white fuzz, the hallmark of rot.

READ ALSO ‘Burgundy is about more than just wine’

“There’s really not much left. In certain areas we’ll have losses of up to 95 percent,” she said, with estimates of 70 to 90 percent for Pouilly-Fuisse as a whole.

The rest of Burgundy was also hit with losses far exceeding the 30 percent forecast for French vineyards overall.

“I’ve lost 75 to 80 percent here,” said Ludivine Griveau, director of the storied Hospices de Beaune, amid half-filled crates of pinot noir from the renowned slopes of Corton.

She said she’ll be lucky if losses are kept to 50 percent at the rest of the 60 hectares that abut the historic hospital, whose wines include Pommard and Echezeaux appellations.

“This year I only ordered 35 barrels, usually it’s 120 to 150,” Griveau said.

Even if the quality of the surviving vintages remains stellar, price hikes spurred by rarity are unlikely to make up for the lower output.

That could put the squeeze on Burgundy houses in particular, since most are  smaller operations – the average vineyard is just six and a half hectares.

That means they don’t have the extensive domains and financial stamina of bigger producers found elsewhere in France.

“These yields are historically low,” said Francois Labet, president of the Burgundy Wine Bureau, estimating overall losses at 30 to 50 percent.

“I don’t know a single area that was spared the cold snap,” he said.

This year has also heightened fears that climate change could make extreme weather – cold and rain but also devastating droughts as in 2003 – more common in the region.

“Since 2010, we’ve only had two years without major problems: 2017 and 2018,” Labet said.

For Aurelie Cheveau, the risks are clear.

“In 2019, we only got half our harvest, it was already due to the frost,” she said.

“If every other year is like that, it makes you wonder where our profession is headed.”

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Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

The world is heating up, and France is no exception. Here is how the country plans to change the landscape of its cities in order to cope with ever-increasing heatwaves.

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

While the whole of France is suffering from increasing temperatures, those in cities must prepare to take on an extra dose of heat, due to “heat island effect” which makes urban environments up to 8C hotter than the countryside.

READ MORE: Scientists explain the ‘heat sink’ effect that makes Paris feel like an oven

Météo France reports that the country has suffered at least 43 heat waves have been detected since 1947, but they are becoming more alarming.

“Heat waves are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change,” said Robert Vautard, meteorologist and climatologist to Reporterre

They are also becoming more dangerous – Vautard explained that while the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.5C in the last hundred years, average temperatures during heat waves have spiked even higher, becoming increasingly erratic. 

Coping with warmer temperatures is becoming a necessity, but it is in the big cities where people are sweating the most – Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris, for instance, it can be up to 8C warmer in the city centre than in the suburbs due to the urban “heat sink” effect.

French government spokesperson Olivia Grégoire last week announced that the country has devoted €500 million to encourage urban vegetation projects in order to turn ‘îlots de chaleur‘ (urban heat islands) into ‘îlots de fraicheur‘ (islands of coolness). 

South of France 

In the south of France, cities have always been designed with heat in mind – centuries-old techniques like white-painted buildings, shutters on the windows and narrow, shady streets help residents to stay cool.

Cities like Nice have even employed natural, traditional air conditioning systems – if you walk through the old town, you might notice “openings fitted with iron grills just over the doors” – they allow for fresh, cool air from the street level to come into the inside of the building.

Rural southern French ‘mas’ farmhouses were also built to keep cool, always facing south with very small windows to keep out summer heat.

But on the Côte d’Azur, temperatures are rising faster than the global average. For the rest of the world, warming occurs at 0.2C a decade, but in Côte d’Azur temperatures are increasing around 0.3C every ten years.

During the 2019 heatwave, southern France’s Gallargues-le-Montueux village, located in the Gard département broke heat records when it recorded 45.9C. Warming temperatures will impact the region so much so that it may even warrant a new climate classification in the next 50 years.

All this means that the traditional cooling techniques may not be enough to allow locals to cope with soaring temperatures.

For densely populated Marseille, the city will try to add breathing space between its closely aligned buildings: the objective is that for each urban block, there will be gaps between streets and a changing of the height between these spaces (like hollowing out the base) in order to better allow natural ventilation and airflow.

For wider streets, the city is looking at adding shade coverings over the blocks to keep them cool, and as the city is prone to flooding, grassy areas to plant trees will also be used for water retention, which also has a cooling effect.

In the north

Meanwhile, in northern parts of the country, cities were generally built with the intention to keep heat in, rather than out, meaning that they cope poorly with heatwaves.

Larger windows – a feature that is common in cities like Paris – wide boulevards covered in dark asphalt and roofs made of zinc are all well suited to cooler months, but means cities turn into ovens during a heatwave.

The more green space a city has, the more the temperature falls, so cities like Lille and Paris which are particularly densely populated and lack green space, are engaging in major ‘re-greening’ programmes.

On top of this, all French cities have some challenges in common: monuments historiques, or buildings registered as national heritage sites, where there is a lengthy process to make any changes or alterations that might impact the building or the character of the area.

Then, there is the challenge of the places that people simply do not want to see altered – like the area around the Eiffel Tower, for instance. 

READ MORE: Plan to fell trees near Eiffel Tower causes backlash from residents in French capital

But some cities do have ambitious plans to counter rising temperatures.

Americans might be wondering if this will involve more air conditioning in French buildings – unfortunately, the answer is no: air-con actually makes the heat island effect worse by pumping hot air back out onto the streets (as well as obviously guzzling energy to operate the systems, contributing to the climate change that is at the root of the problem).

Instead, it’s about finding ways to redesign city spaces to mitigate the extreme heat that is here to stay:

Paris plans

Paris’ climate action plan, released in 2018, defines how the densely populated city plans to cope with climate change, particularly its status as a heat island, between 2020 and 2030.

Along with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, Paris hopes to prepare itself for “long periods of extreme heat,” warning that “the scorching summer of 2003 may well become a “normal” summer in 2050. 

Solar power plants and solar shading – to aid in its carbon neutral goals, the city of Paris hopes to invest in urban solar power plants, and one will be installed in the Bois de Vincennes flower park.

The city wants this ‘solar power plant’ to also incorporate solar shade structures in public places, in order to “combine the benefits of energy production with protection against extreme heat”

Training “energy facilitators” and “eco-managers” – these people would work with stakeholders in individual neighbourhoods to oversee greening projects.

The action plan says they would “keep an eye on vulnerable people during heat waves, facilitate the lending or hiring of property and equipment such as bicycles between residents, manage a mini-urban logistics hub, carry out the pre-collection of certain types of waste or transfer bulky waste items to waste sorting and recovery centres.” 

Cool islands and routes in Paris – The city plans to keep and maintain its interactive map that will show you where to keep and stay cool during periods of extreme heat.

As of 2018, the city had already identified around 700 ‘cool islands,’ like museums, libraries, swimming spots, and green spaces. But, the goal is that by 2030, the City will create or open at least an extra 300.

READ MORE: Climate change: What can we expect future French summers to look like?

Schoolyard oases – Removing asphalt from school yards and increasing green space is also part of the plan.

The city’s plan to build more ‘oases’ will help to create more cool islands. As schoolyards take up over half a million square metres in Paris, this offers a large amount of space that can be radically cooled down. In 2020, the city started with just three schools, and will continue expanding throughout the decade.

New roofs for Paris – Paris’ rooftops are a huge part of the city’s architectural history and identity, but they are also heat conductors. The city of Paris has proposed to that rooftops that are either too steep or facing the wrong direction ought to be  “covered in vegetation or reflective paint” in order to reduce urban heat island effect. 

More trees – Having already added almost 50 hectares of trees during the last climate action plan, Paris has a new goal of increasing its tree canopy by 2 percent – this would mean adding more than 20,000 trees. 

Greening the tramways – Finally, Paris’ tramways will get a facelift by adding grass and getting rid of the heat-soaking concrete beneath the rails

Finally, during heat waves the city will continue using its emergency plan, intended to inform and protect vulnerable people (and the general population) of where and how to stay cool. 

READ MORE: How France plans to ‘heatwave proof’ its cities