France's vineyards suffer from low yield due to extreme heat
Sarah Coates in Bordeaux

Vineyards in the south of France have taken a brutal hit this year - a direct result of the scorching summer, brought on by climate change. 

The situation has left winemakers facing a number of tough choices, with many having to harvest their crop weeks earlier than they have done in previous years.


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"Farmers are being forced to adapt not just to climate change but to fungus, high temperatures, drought and frost," explained Julien Zuanet, who runs the Chateau de l'hospital vineyard in the prestige wine region of Bordeaux. 

Zuanet is adamant he will not change the product.

'Our biggest enemy is fungus'

Farmers right across the region are facing a time-sensitive challenge of sustaining these world famous vineyards in the face of climate change, as the roots of the vines struggle to find water, while the pounding sun scorches the fruit.

"In bio-agriculture, our biggest enemy is fungus, especially when humidity is high," said Zuanet.

"Usually, we cut the leaves around the grapes to let them breathe but when it's dry, like this year, we keep the leaves on to protect the grapes from the sun."

Further south in Fitou, near the border with Spain, Jean-Marie Fabre, President of France's Independent Winemakers' Association, agreed that growers need to make urgent changes to remain viable.

Like many others in the region, he has already seen a substantial drop in grape yields – down 10 percent this year and 25 percent last year.

"The future of prestige wines from this area remains unknown," said Fabre.

"I'm not sure whether this variety can survive 5,10 or 15 years longer under these conditions with our current practices. What I do know is that by adapting our cultivation processes and by improving how we use water, this vineyard can continue to produce quality grapes even if temperatures rise further."

Improved quality despite dip in quantity

Although the hot summer has caused a drop in the quantity of grapes harvested, their quality has actually been very good. But winegrowers remain concerned that if summer temperatures continue to rise, not only will the yield drop, but so will the quality.

"If the plant suffers, it will feed the grapes less, leading to lower quality, less tasty grapes," Fabre pointed out. 

"We can counter this by controlling how we plant grass, which can retain water ... by using different types of soil ... and by creating more shade on the grapes at certain times of the year, so they can give water back to the plant when it needs it," he added.

So, given the current challenges, could one solution to France's wine woes lie abroad? The varieties of grapes grown in countries such as Israel, Morocco, Algeria and Greece can survive in extreme weather conditions.

"We must research these to see how they can be planted in the south of France today," says Fabre.

It seems certain that changes will have to be made to give this rich element of French culture a fighting chance in our ever-changing world.

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