Forgotten grape varieties, new practices: the French vineyard is adapting to global warming

In the French vineyard, 2022 is a difficult year. After late frosts, hailstorms, we have to deal with frequent heat waves and historic droughts. Meteorological hazards which will be more and more frequent under the effect of global warming. Faced with this reality, the region is trying to adapt: ​​rehabilitation of forgotten vineyards, relocation of vineyards, modification of their structure… Many solutions are emerging.

In Languedoc-Roussillon, some winegrowers begin the harvest period at the end of July. A few days later, at the beginning of August, others gave their first high-stroke pruning strokes one to three weeks earlier than usual. As in recent years, the 2022 harvest promises to be early once again. In question: the scorching heat and the historic drought of the summer.

“The 2022 vintage promises to be complex for French wine”, laments Laurent Audegin of the French Institute of Wine and Wine (IFV). “With the heat, the grapes burn and ripen very quickly in most regions. The aroma does not have time to develop,” explains the expert. “The increase in temperature also decreases the acidity of the wine and increases the alcohol content. Simply put, the whole balance is upset.

Drought has made the situation worse. In general, the vine is resistant and able to draw water from its deep roots. But this year, in many wine regions, especially in the south of France, the water table has completely dried up. Without water, the vine loses its leaves and its grapes can no longer grow. “Not only does the quality change, but we can also worry about production,” sums up Laurent Audigin. “In areas where the harvest has not started, we are waiting for a few drops of rain to save the situation.”

The year 2022, a scenario that is destined to repeat itself

In the world of wine, we expect one year to become the norm. “Since 2010, climatic uncertainties have systematically affected wine production. This time, we had spring frosts, hail, then heat waves and drought,” explains Nathalie Olatt, vine specialist and researcher at InRai Huh. For him, the observation is clear: “We are facing an example of the consequences of global warming.”

The year 2021 had already taken its toll. A spring heat wave, followed by an episode of frost, destroyed a large part of the productions. Heavy rains then caused the spread of diseases such as mildew and powdery mildew. Previously, 2020 was historically marked by record-breaking speed, the result of a hot spring.

“We are faced with scenarios that will repeat themselves”, continues Nathalie Olat. “Today, I don’t know any climatoseptic brewer. They experience global warming on a daily basis,” says Laurent Audegin. The proof is: in thirty years, the date of the harvest has advanced by nearly three weeks.

The future of forgotten grape varieties?

Faced with this observation, the wine industry is trying to adapt. In August 2021, it implemented a national strategy to protect the vineyard and its attractions. Since then, small changes have been made in small steps. And the stakes are high: in 2021, exports of wines and spirits weighed 15.5 billion euros in the French trade balance.

“You have to bet everything on the variety of grape varieties,” says Nathalie Olat, who has been working for ten years on the effects of global warming on vineyards. “Today, France lists around 400 grape varieties, but it uses barely a third of them. The vast majority have been forgotten, at a time not considered sufficiently profitable,” she explains.

Of those grape varieties that fell in the middle of history, although some may be better suited to the climatic conditions of years to come. “Some, especially those in mountainous environments, mature later and seem particularly drought tolerant. They can be particularly interesting.

In Isère, Nicolas Gonin has specialized in these forgotten grape varieties. When he took over the small family business in 2005, he decided to uproot the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay plants planted by his grandparents in the 1970s to plant only local grape varieties with names unknown to the general public. Verdes, Viognier…

For winegrowers and oenologists, the benefit is twofold: “It allows us to reconnect with local heritage and produce wines with a real identity,” he explains. “And to fight against the dangers of the climate, you have to bet everything on variety. The ancients understood this very well and on their lands there were a multitude of grape varieties with different characteristics. In this way, we ensure that we can maintain production despite frost, drought, heat waves…”

When the winemaker is not with his grapes, he works with the Center d’Ampelographie Alpine Pierre Gallet (CAAPG), of which he is vice-president. Based in Savoie, this Association for the Study of the Vine has set itself the task of rehabilitating these ancient alpine grape varieties. So far, she has managed to get 17 back on the national list, a necessary step to be able to cultivate them again.

“The second solution would be to look for grape varieties abroad, particularly in the Mediterranean”, continues Nathalie Olat. “In Bordeaux, in 2009, an experimental vineyard was set up to assess their potential, with 52 French and foreign grape varieties, particularly Spanish and Portuguese. It’s very promising.

Option 3: Hybrid grape varieties, genetically modified in the laboratory to better resist drought or frost. “If these crosses are studied in the context of the fight against diseases, this option is very little studied”, notes the expert, in particular because of the cost.

“The wine-growing landscape will be profoundly modified”

Elsewhere, brewers have decided to modify their practices at their level. The list of uses is long: some modify the density of their plots to consume less water, others plan to purify wastewater to supply irrigation systems. Many winegrowers, on the other hand, try to plant trees to protect the vines… “We also have an example of a farm where we have installed photovoltaic panels above the vines, so that by generating electricity they keep them in the shade”, notes Nathalie Olt.

And if the solution was to be found in the reorganization of the wine-growing space? “Winegrowers can consider relocating their gardens for respite, for example,” suggests Nathalie Olat. “With global warming, some areas will become more suitable for growing vines,” says Laurent Audeguin. “Today, we are already seeing the emergence, for example, of small-scale individual initiatives in Brittany or in Hauts-de-France. If the funding takes place, it could be promising in the years to come. And to clarify: “This does not mean that we are going to make Bordeaux in Brest, but that new wines may be born.”

“The wine-growing landscape will change profoundly between now and 2050. And that will depend on the results of the experiments that are now being tested throughout the country,” concludes Nathalie Olat. “In the south, we may have irrigated vineyards, others that have disappeared, or a return to ancestral grape varieties. Perhaps the wines of Burgundy, which today use only one grape variety, will then be in several. And maybe we will have new vineyards in new regions.

Teresa H. Sadler