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CLIMATE CRISIS

Fears for 2022 French wine vintages because of ‘stressed grapes’

Forced to start picking grapes much earlier than normal because of torrid temperatures, winemakers across France are worrying that grape quality will suffer from the climate-induced stress.

Fears for 2022 French wine vintages because of 'stressed grapes'
A picker holds a bucket full of grapes during the wine harvest in southern France. Many harvests are premature due to drought and heatwave. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

The exceptionally dry conditions spread from the rugged hills of Herault along the Mediterranean, where picking is already underway, to the normally verdant Alsace in the northeast.

Waves of extreme heat this summer accelerated grape maturation, meaning harvests had to begin one to three weeks early or more — in Languedoc-Roussillon, some growers even started in late July.

“We were all a bit surprised, they began maturing very rapidly these past few days,” said Francois Capdellayre, president of the Dom Brial cooperative in Baixas, outside 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’ve never started my harvests on August 9,” said Jerome Despey, a vineyard owner in the Herault department.

Stressed out

Like other farmers, French winegrowers have been grappling for years with increasingly common extreme weather including spring freezes, devastating hailstorms and unseasonably heavy rains.

But this summer’s combination of a historic drought — July was the driest month on record since 1961 — and high temperatures are taking a particular toll on vineyards.

READ MORE: French AOP cheese the latest victim of France’s drought

Only 10 percent of France’s winegrowing parcels use artificial irrigation systems, which can be difficult or prohibitively expensive to install.

And while grape vines are more hardy than many other crops, with roots that descend deep into the ground over years of growth, even they can withstand only so much.

When water is scarce, the vines suffer “hydric stress” and protect themselves by shedding leaves and no longer providing nutrients to grapes, stunting their growth.

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

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

And when temperatures surpass 38C, “the grape burns — it dries up, loses volume and quality suffers” because the resulting alcohol content “is too high for consumers,” said Pierre Champetier, president of the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for the Ardeche region south of Lyon.

Champetier began harvesting Monday, when “40 years ago, we started around September 20,” he said.

Now he worries that global warming will make such premature harvests “normal.”

Quality at risk

Some winemakers are still holding off in hopes of rain in coming weeks, such as red grape producers in Herault, where harvests should begin as usual in early September.

In Burgundy, which two years ago saw its earliest harvest debut — August 16 — in more than four centuries of keeping track, picking will start at cellars in Saone-et-Loire around August 25.

READ MORE: Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

But just south in the Rhone Valley, “the heatwave has accelerated maturation by more than 20 days compared to last year,” according to the Inter-Rhone producers’ association.

They nevertheless hope grape quality will hold up, as do Champagne growers in the northeast, where harvesting will begin late August — though yields are set to fall nine percent year-on-year because of a brutal spring cold snap and hailstorms.

Bordeaux plans to kick off on August 17 with the grapes for the region’s sparkling wines — appreciated by connoisseurs but just one percent of overall production.

Next will come “dry whites, sweet whites and then the reds,” said Christophe Chateau of the CIVB producers’ group, though the precise dates will be set only next week.

But he warned that even rainfall from storms forecast across France starting this weekend will “not be enough” to ensure a “beautiful vintage.”

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Paris officials to run emergency exercise simulating a 50C day in the city

As the climate crisis pushes temperatures ever higher, officials in Paris are preparing a simulation of the day when the mercury tops 50C, in order to prepare the city's emergency response.

Paris officials to run emergency exercise simulating a 50C day in the city

This simulation, which was announced on Wednesday, is set to take place in October 2023, and it would plunge two parts of one arrondissement (which has not yet been decided) into the fictitious scenario to test the city’s capacity to respond to such a crisis. 

The current temperature record in Paris is 42.6C, which was set during the heatwave of 2019, but experts predict that the record is unlikely to remain unbroken for much longer.  

According to Deputy Mayor of Paris, Penelope Komitès, the city wants to be able to anticipate the next disaster.

“[Paris] has withstood various crises in recent years,” she said to French daily Le Parisien. The public official referenced past disasters, such as the flood of the Seine in 2018, Notre-Dame catching on fire, along with widespread protests and social movements.

“What will be the next crisis?” she said.

Public authorities hope to expand upon and move beyond the city’s first “action plan,” which was adopted in 2017.

The heatwave simulation would allow the city to test its emergency response capacity, namely deployment of cool rooms, shaded areas and other measures. It would also allow public officials to gauge and predict the reactions of Parisians amid a disastrous heatwave of 50C. 

READ MORE: ‘Over 40C’: What will summers in Paris be like in future?

“We have survived crises, but they can happen again,” Komitès said to Le Parisien. Her goal is not for the simulation to provoke anxiety, but instead to prepare the city to mobilise in such an event. 

According to RTL, on Wednesday, the greater Paris region also presented its plan to adapt the community “to the effects of climate change”.

Valérie Pécresse, the regional representative, referenced plans for “1,000 fountains” and the creation of “a network of climate shelters.”

Additionally, the region has set a target of increasing its green space by 5,000 hectares by 2030. The targets of this plan would include priority urban spaces: schoolyards, parking lots, squares, as well as cemeteries.

In 2003, the country suffered a historic heatwave that resulted in at least 14,000 heat-related deaths. Since then, France and its cities have begun adapting to rising temperatures by working to increase green space, provide ‘heat

An analysis from the BBC in 2021 found that “the number of extremely hot days every year when the temperature reaches 50C has doubled since the 1980s.”

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

This will not be the first simulation activity to anticipate or help the public become aware of rising temperatures. 

In 2014, meteorologist Evelyne Dhéliat gave a ‘fake forecast’ pretending that the year was 2050. The temperatures on her map however, ended up being eerily close to those France has seen regularly since 2019.

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