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Conference – Threat to wine. The challenges of climatic change.


During the 12th Prix Régional du Livre Environnement, I listened a few weeks ago to a presentation in Lyon about the book "Menace sur le vin : les défis du changement climatique" (Threat to wine. The Challenges of climatic change), given by the authors Valéry Laramée de Tannenberg and Yves Leers. At this very moment in time, the wine growing regions of France are feeling the impact of climatic change, and its shaking the whole wine industry. The book attempts to shed some light on the socio-economic issues, and here is some of what I took away from their presentation.
Threat to wine.  The challenges of climatic change.

Never has the wine been so good and the situation so dire. The tone is set. For the two authors, both specialists in the fields of climate and the environment, the question is not whether climate change will happen, but how the French and global wine industry will deal with it.

The change is already happening, and the statistics and proof of climatic change abound. Since the temperatures in the vineyards have been recorded, the five years with the highest average temperature in the vineyards are 2000, 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2015. Worryingly recent. That supports the view that the climatic phenomena are accelerating, and the exceptional frosts a few weeks ago in the Loire and Burgundy will not stop the trend. The rainfall levels are completely disrupted and the temperature changes even more violent.

As Valéry Laramée de Tannenberg explained, the wine growing regions have encountered numerous climatic change events over the centuries, and that is notably why the culture of winemaking, born in Persia, has climbed further and further north to escape the mounting temperatures in the south. This was also enabled by the advancing Roman legions, known to be great wine lovers, as they expanded northwards. What is different today is the speed of the climatic change. During the COP 21, we talked about trying to stay below 2°C of temperature rise between now and 2100. If we continue as we are at the moment, we are already approaching a rise of 1.5°C.

And the impact for winemaking is already being felt. In the south of France, we're seeing wines touching 16°C in terms of alcoholic volume because of over ripeness. The heat is such that the grapes contain a sugar level that is too high. That is also posing problems for managing the harvest, which is starting earlier and earlier, and which sometimes calls for harvesting during the night to pick cooler grapes. It also has an impact on the vines themselves. In the Bordeaux region, researchers have shown that the merlot grape varietal has reached its optimum. Within the current conditions, it does very well, but a further increase in temperature will see yields decrease. The vines are also seeing new attacks from parasites and fungi which the heat encourages. The wine regions are continuing their advance north, and we are seeing a growth in the number of vineyards in England for example.

The wine growing regions are suffering and it's all of the industry that needs to adapt. Even if some of the changes haven't always been anticipated, there are currently a few paths to explore. The first attempts have been made to try and reduce the alcoholic volume in wine. Tests have been carried out to prune the vines differently and to leave more leaves on the vines to protect the grapes from the sun. Other tests have seen the orientation in which the vines are planted rotate or by planting vines at a higher altitude. In some of the wine growing regions outside of France, where it's authorised, the wine can be diluted with water or filtered when pressed to remove some of the sugar.

But the most impactful research for the long term will be that which is undertaken on the selection and diversity of the grape varietals. In the Bordeaux region for example, they are testing 50 or so new grape varietals which are not currently authorised in the Bordeaux AOC range of wines. Another promising avenue is the regeneration of the soil to develop the micro-bacterial activity as is already the practice with biodynamic winemaking. And another area of research is looking at genetics to create hybrid plants that mature later and are more resistant so as not to need phytosanitary treatments.

To conclude, not is all yet lost if we accelerate the change in cultural practices by using the advances in agro-ecology, organic and biodynamic farming techniques. To learn more about these proposed solutions, you can read more in the book « Menace sur le vin : les défis du changement climatique » (French language only for the moment).

The question that lingers as I leave the conference is the following. The winemakers will encounter some big challenges in the years ahead, but what can we, as consumers and lovers of wine, do? One solution that quickly comes to mind is to be more interested to better understand and better choose our bottles, favouring wines that are produced in an environmentally responsible way. And to talk with those close to us about our choices, so they talk to those close to them, and so that a tiny ripple becomes a wave big enough to force change upon the rest of the wine industry!

Marie Koch

 

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