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  12 Aug 2022, 17:00

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 
their growth.

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 
"normal."

- 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 
early September. 

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 
producers' association.

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 
and hailstorms.

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 
overall production. 

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." 

 


 

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