Drought forces the earliest harvest ever in French wine country

BORDEAUX, France (AP) — The landscape in Bordeaux’s famed vineyards looks as good as ever, with healthy, ripe grapes hanging from heavy rows of green vines.

But this year something is completely different in one of France’s most famous wine regions and elsewhere in Europe. The harvest that once started in mid-September is now earlier than ever before – in mid-August – as a result of severe drought and the adaptation of the wine industry to the unpredictable effects of climate change.

Surprisingly, the season of heat waves and fires produced excellent grapes, despite lower yields. But achieving such a harvest required creative changes in cultivation techniques, including pruning the vines differently and sometimes watering them in places where irrigation is normally prohibited. And producers across Europe who have seen first-hand the effects of global warming are worried about what’s next.

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

Winegrowers adapted their practices amid a series of heat waves, combined with a lack of rain, that hit most of Europe. In the Bordeaux region of southwestern France, giant fires have destroyed large areas of pine forests. It didn’t rain from the end of June until the middle of August.

As the harvest unfolds, dozens of workers kneel on the vines to hand-pick grapes and place them in baskets. The fruit is immediately crushed to make juice, which goes into tanks and then into barrels to begin the winemaking process.

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

Eric Perrin, one of the owners of the Château Carbonnieux estate, remembers that during his childhood in the 1970s, the harvest started around mid-September. This year, they started on August 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 the vines from diseases such as powdery mildew.

Winemaking 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.

Today, Château Carbonnieux wine is sometimes offered by President Emmanuel Macron to distinguished hosts.

The drought has changed the way winemakers work.

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

Yields may be 15% to 20% lower in the wider region, mainly due to smaller grapes and the fact that some were sunburned in certain areas, Teitgen said, but it won’t affect the quality of the wine.

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

Perennial vines have deep roots that allow them to draw water from far underground and withstand drought without suffering much.

But this year, estates were allowed to irrigate mature vines, a practice normally prohibited in Bordeaux.

“Some plots suffered greatly with falling leaves,” Lecouffe said.

Another step growers can take is to reduce the density of their plots to require less water or till the soil to better retain moisture deep.

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

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

The effects of global warming are now part of daily life for winegrowers, Lebrun said, noting the speed of change.

“We have to reprogram our own way of thinking,” he said. “There are many tools that are still available to us that are already being used in warmer regions.”

Further south in Europe, harvests also started weeks earlier than normal to save shriveled and burnt grapes. Production is expected to be 10% to 20% lower in some areas of Italy, Spain and Portugal, although producers are hoping for increased quality.

Italian agricultural lobby Coldiretti highlighted that higher energy and raw material costs are expected to increase costs by 35%.

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

As warmer winters cause vines to produce earlier buds, French winegrowers worry that frost will disrupt the growing season more often. Violent hailstorms can destroy a year’s worth of work in minutes.

At Château Carbonnieux, Perrin fears some smaller producers may not be able to handle the changes.

“Climate phenomena 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 reporters 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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Follow all AP stories on climate change at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment.

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