Premature harvests latest test for French winemakers
PARIS, Aug 12, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - Forced to start picking grapes much earlier
than normal because of torrid temperatures, winemakers across France are
worrying that grape quality will suffer from the climate-induced stress.
The exceptionally dry conditions spread from the rugged hills of Herault
along the Mediterranean, where picking is already underway, to the normally
verdant Alsace in the northeast.
Waves of extreme heat this summer accelerated grape maturation, meaning
harvests had to begin one to three weeks early or more -- in Languedoc-
Roussillon, some growers even started in late July.
"We were all a bit surprised, they began maturing very rapidly these past few
days," said Francois Capdellayre, president of the Dom Brial cooperative in
Baixas, outside Perpignan.
He said the shears came out on August 3 for the region's typical muscat
grapes, followed by chardonnay and grenache blanc.
"In more than 30 years I've never started my harvests on August 9," said
Jerome Despey, a vineyard owner in the Herault department.
- Stressed out -
Like other farmers, French winegrowers have been grappling for years with
increasingly common extreme weather including spring freezes, devastating
hailstorms and unseasonably heavy rains.
But this summer's combination of a historic drought -- July was the driest
month on record since 1961 -- and high temperatures are taking a particular
toll on vineyards.
Only 10 percent of France's winegrowing parcels use artificial irrigation
systems, which can be difficult or prohibitively expensive to install.
And while grape vines are more hardy than many other crops, with roots that
descend deep into the ground over years of growth, even they can withstand
only so much.
When water is scarce, the vines suffer "hydric stress" and protect themselves
by shedding leaves and no longer providing nutrients to grapes, stunting
In Alsace, "we haven't had a drop of rain in two months," said Gilles
Ehrhart, president of the AVA growers' association.
"We're going to have a very, very small harvest" after picking begins around
August 26, he said.
And when temperatures surpass 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), "the grape
burns -- it dries up, loses volume and quality suffers" because the resulting
alcohol content "is too high for consumers," said Pierre Champetier,
president of the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for the Ardeche
region south of Lyon.
Champetier began harvesting Monday, when "40 years ago, we started around
September 20," he said.
Now he worries that global warming will make such premature harvests
- Quality at risk -
Some winemakers are still holding off in hopes of rain in coming weeks, such
as red grape producers in Herault, where harvests should begin as usual in
In Burgundy, which two years ago saw its earliest harvest debut -- August 16
-- in more than four centuries of keeping track, picking will start at
cellars in Saone-et-Loire around August 25.
But just south in the Rhone Valley, "the heatwave has accelerated maturation
by more than 20 days compared to last year," according to the Inter-Rhone
They nevertheless hope grape quality will hold up, as do Champagne growers in
the northeast, where harvesting will begin late August -- though yields are
set to fall nine percent year-on-year because of a brutal spring cold snap
Bordeaux plans to kick off on August 17 with the grapes for the region's
sparkling wines -- appreciated by connoisseurs but just one percent of
Next will come "dry whites, sweet whites and then the reds," said Christophe
Chateau of the CIVB producers' group, though the precise dates will be set
only next week.
But he warned that even rainfall from storms forecast across France starting
this weekend will "not be enough" to ensure a "beautiful vintage."