Drinking Sunshine:
French Wine & Climate Change
If you open a Medoc, or Cote du Rhone from 2003, you’d be opening wine from what’s said to have been the best year in recent history. You’d be drinking the result of a heat wave in France, which created the optimal balance between sugar and acid in the grapes. Hot French summers tend to yield good French wines. That would seem to indicate that growers shouldn’t worry about global warming, right? In the short term- maybe not—but in the long run, it is something to worry about.

Bernard Seguin of the INRA- the French institute for agriculture research has been studying the effects of climate change for a while. Wine grapes, he says, are very good indicators of its effects- because the end result is scrutinized so closely:

Wine is uh- a product where the quality is very important, much more than corn and wheat and so on

No one notices if this year’s corn is slightly sweeter than last years’. But for wine, a small change in sugar content makes all the difference between a good year and an exceptional year.

Xavier Charvin is a wine grower who has vines in Alsace- in Eastern France- but also a small operation in Paris. Charvin says his job is all about adaptation—In recent years he’s noticed the weather becoming more unpredictable- This year, for example, March and April were very hot:

So the flower of the vine… The birth of the grape- was very early

But then there was a cold summer, which dragged out the harvest—This usually begins in the fall.

We begin in August and we finish in October, so we adapt the harvest. But perhaps the next year it will be different we don’t know.

And that’s the problem- no one knows for sure what each year will bring- So wine growers tend to work one year to the next. Bernard Seguin says that they don’t really think far ahead to a future when it might be too hot to raise their grapes in their region.But he has noticed they are paying a little more attention these days:

When we first discussed with professionals about climate change 5 years ago- ok, they did not feel concerned. It was very long term, and so on. They had to see and touch- and within 5 years the evolution is completely visible. They are concerned

Wine growers are already changing their methods—

For instance near Avignon, Cote du Rhone, a very good product was 12 degrees- now each year the harvest is about 14 degrees- so there are now concerns about technology to arrive to what you want… 20 years ago all the science of viticulture was to give more alcohol, lower the acidity, and we could say that now it will be the inverse.

You could say that French wine growers are in a kind of grace period- benefiting from good years. But if temperatures keep rising- they will have to revolutionize how they grow wine. There are ways to adapt: changing grape varieties- planting them higher, where it’s colder. But this means changing centuries-old traditions

In France- we make some wine of- des vins de terroire

Terroire- it means the earth- but the term encompasses more than just a piece of land— It’s the idea of wine produced in a certain region, using specific techniques. This is why wines carry names of regions, like in Burgundy:

Monte de Tonnere, Les Grenouilles- In Bordeaux it’s chateau.

This idea of “terroire” means that any change in production affects the tradition, and changes the wine

So here you are in the wine cellar-in the place where we make the transformation of the grape- to the wine.

Charvin shows a metal vat which holds the result of this year’s harvest- which may be ready to drink by next fall. He doesn’t expect to be giving up wine making anytime soon:

The vine is a very strong plant. It’s a plant who can adapt

Plus, he says-- if we get to a point where France is too hot for him to grow grapes- then we’ll have a much bigger problem to deal with than just wine:

I think the people will drink some wine for forget uh- the big catastrophe

For Network Europe, this is Sarah Elzas in Paris.

This piece aired December 8, 2007, on RFI and Network Europe and on December 12, 2007, on WAMC.

Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Paris, France