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Drought forces earliest harvest ever in French wine country

Paradoxically, the heat waves and wildfires produced excellent grapes, despite lower yields. But the lower yields could force some winemakers out of business.
Credit: AP
Workers collect white grapes of sauvignon in the Grand Cru Classe de Graves of the Château Carbonnieux, in Pessac Leognan, south of Bordeaux, southwestern France, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. The harvest that once started in mid-September is now happening earlier than ever in one of France’s most celebrated wine regions and other parts of Europe due to drought and climate change. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

BORDEAUX, France — The landscape in the prestigious vineyards of Bordeaux looks the same as ever, with healthy, ripe grapes hanging heavy off rows of green vines.

But this year something is starkly different in one of France’s most celebrated wine regions and other parts of Europe. The harvest that once started in mid-September is now happening earlier than ever — in mid-August — as a result of severe drought and the wine industry's adaptation to the unpredictable effects of climate change.

Paradoxically, the season of heat waves and wildfires produced excellent grapes, despite lower yields. But achieving such a harvest required creative changes in growing techniques, including pruning vines in a different way and sometimes watering them in places where irrigation is usually banned. And producers across Europe who have seen first-hand the effects of global warming are worried about what more is to come.

So far, "global warming is very positive. We have better ripeness, better balance. ... But if you turn to the future, and if you increase the temperature by one degree more, plus, you will lose the freshness part in the balance of the wine,” said Fabien Teitgen, technical director of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, an estate that grows organic wine grapes in Martillac, south of Bordeaux.

Grape growers adjusted their practices amid a series of heat waves, combined with lack of rain, that hit most of Europe. In the Bordeaux region, in southwestern France, giant wildfires destroyed large areas of pine forests. It did not rain from the end of June until mid-August.

As the harvest unfolds, dozens of workers kneel in the vineyards to hand-pick grapes and put them into baskets. The fruit is immediately crushed to make juice, which is put into tanks, then barrels to start the wine production process.

The harvest aims to produce the white wine from the famous Pessac-Léognan appellation. Red wine will soon follow.

Eric Perrin, one of the owners of the Château Carbonnieux estate, recalled that during his childhood, in the 1970s, harvests started around mid-September. This year, they began on Aug. 16.

But the 2022 vintage may be better than ever, Perrin said, because the grapes are healthy and well balanced. The hot, dry weather also prevented vines from getting diseases such as mildew.

Producing wine is a centuries-old tradition at Château Carbonnieux, where Thomas Jefferson visited the vineyards in 1787, before becoming president of the United States, and planted a pecan tree that still stands in a park.

Nowadays, Château Carbonnieux wine is sometimes offered by President Emmanuel Macron to esteemed hosts.

The drought changed the way wine producers work.

Before, vintners used to give vines a shape that allowed grapes to get the maximum amount of sun so they produced more sugar, which converts into alcohol. This year, growers tended to let leaves protect the grapes so the shadows would preserve the fruit's acidity and freshness, Teitgen explained.

Yields may be 15% to 20% lower in the broader region, mostly due to smaller grapes and the fact that some were burned by the sun in specific areas, Teitgen said, but it won’t affect the wine’s quality.

In front of the 14th-century tower of the Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte vineyard, Manon Lecouffe this week carefully watered newly planted vines, an indispensable job.

Vines that are several years old have deep roots that allow them to draw water from far underground and endure drought without suffering too much.

But this year, estates had authorization to water adult vines, a practice usually banned in Bordeaux.

“Some plots were heavily suffering with leaves falling,” Lecouffe said.

Another step vintners may take is to reduce the density of their plots to require less water or to work the soil to better conserve moisture deep down.

Experts are also considering whether planting new grape varieties could be helpful.

At Château Olivier, which also produces Pessac-Leognan wines, Director Laurent Lebrun showed how he and his team go through the vineyards to taste grapes plot by plot to decide where and when to harvest.

The consequences of global warming are now part of daily life for vintners, Lebrun said, noting the speed of the changes.

“We need to reprogram our own way of thinking,” he said. “There are many tools that are still within our reach, which are already used in warmer regions.”

Further south in Europe, harvests also started weeks earlier than normal to save shriveling and scorched grapes. Production is expected to be 10% to 20% lower in some regions of Italy, Spain and Portugal, though producers are hopeful of increased quality.

Italy's Coldiretti agricultural lobby stressed that the higher cost of energy and raw materials is expected to increase costs by 35%.

Scientists have long believed that human-caused climate change makes extreme weather more frequent. They say hotter air, warmer oceans and melting sea ice alter the jet stream, which makes storms, floods, heat waves, droughts and wildfires more destructive.

As warmer winters cause grape vines to produce early buds, French vintners worry that frost will disrupt the growing season more often. Violent hailstorms can destroy a year of work in a few minutes.

At Château Carbonnieux, Perrin fears some smaller producers may not withstand the changes.

“Climatic events since 2017 have led to smaller harvests. Not everyone will be able to survive it, for sure,” he said.

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Associated Press journalists Alexander Turnbull and Francois Mori in Bordeaux, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.

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