In French vineyards, 2022 is a difficult year. After late frosts, hail, we have to deal with repeated heat waves and a historic drought. Meteorological hazards that will become more and more frequent under the effect of global warming. Faced with this reality, the sector is trying to adapt: rehabilitating forgotten grape varieties, relocating the vineyards, modifying their structure… several solutions are emerging.
In Languedoc-Roussillon, some winegrowers launched the harvest period at the end of July. A few days later, at the beginning of August, others put the first blows of secateurs in Haute-Corse, one to three weeks earlier than usual. As in recent years, the 2022 harvest promises to be early once again. In question: the scorching temperatures and the historic drought of the summer.
“The 2022 vintage promises to be complicated for French wine”, laments Laurent Audeguin, of the French Institute of Vine and Wine (IFV). “With the heat, the grapes burn and ripen too early in most regions. The aromas do not have time to develop”, explains the specialist. “The rise in temperature also lowers the acidity of the wine and increases the alcohol level. Concretely, the whole balance is disturbed.”
The drought is further aggravating the situation. Normally, the vine is resistant and able to draw water with its deep roots. But this year, in several wine-growing regions, particularly in the south of France, the water tables have completely dried up. Without water, the vine loses its leaves and its grapes can no longer grow. “Not only is the quality altered, but we can also worry about production”, sums up Laurent Audeguin. “In the areas where the harvest has not started, we are therefore hoping for a few drops of rain to save the situation.”
The year 2022, a scenario destined to repeat itself
In the wine world, we expect a year like this to become the norm. “Since 2010, climatic hazards have systematically affected wine production. This time, we had spring frost, hail, then these heat waves and drought”, explains Nathalie Ollat, researcher at Inrae, specialist in vine. For her, the observation is clear: “We are faced with an illustration of the consequences of global warming.”
The year 2021 had already been catastrophic. A spring heat wave, followed by an episode of frost, had destroyed a large part of the productions. Heavy rains then caused the proliferation of diseases such as mildew and powdery mildew. Before, 2020 had been marked by records for earliness, the result of a historically warm spring.
“We are faced with scenarios called to repeat themselves”, continues Nathalie Ollat. “Today, I do not know a winegrower who is climatosceptic. They experience global warming on a daily basis”, abounds Laurent Audeguin. The proof is: in thirty years, the date of the harvest has advanced by nearly three weeks.
The future in forgotten grape varieties?
Faced with this observation, the wine industry is trying to adapt. In August 2021, it implemented a national strategy to safeguard vineyards and their appellations. Since then, 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 diversity of grape varieties,” says Nathalie Ollat, who has been working on the impact of global warming on vineyards for ten years. “Today, France lists around 400 grape varieties, but it uses barely a third of them. The vast majority have been forgotten, deemed at one time not profitable enough”, she explains.
Among these grape varieties that have fallen into the meanders of history, some could however be better adapted to the weather conditions of the years to come. “Some, in particular from mountain environments, mature later and seem particularly tolerant to drought. They may prove to be particularly interesting.”
In Isère, Nicolas Gonnin 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 installed by his grandparents in the 1970s to plant only local grape varieties with names unknown to the general public. : jacquère, black mondeuse, persan, verdesse, viognier…
For the winegrower and oenologist, the advantage is twofold: “It allows you to reconnect with a local heritage and produce wines with a real identity”, he explains. “And to fight against climatic hazards, you have to bet everything on diversity. The ancients understood this well and had a multitude of grape varieties, with different characteristics, on their land. 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 alongside the Pierre Galet Alpine Ampelography Center (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 re-register 17 of them in the national catalog, a necessary step to be able to cultivate them again.
“The other solution would be to seek grape varieties abroad, particularly in the Mediterranean”, continues Nathalie Ollat. “In Bordeaux, in 2009, an experimental vineyard was set up, with 52 grape varieties from France and abroad, particularly Spain and Portugal, to assess their potential. It’s very promising.”
Third option: 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 remains little studied”, in particular because of the costs incurred, notes the specialist.
“The wine landscape will change profoundly”
Elsewhere, winegrowers have decided to modify their practices at their level. The list of experiments is long: some are modifying the density of their plots to require less water, others are considering purifying wastewater to supply irrigation systems. Several winegrowers are trying, for their part, to plant trees to protect the vines… “We also have an example of a farm where we installed photovoltaic panels above the vines, so as to keep them in the shade while producing electricity”, notes Nathalie Ollat.
And if the solution was to be found in a reorganization of the wine-growing space? “Winegrowers can consider relocating their plantations, in relief, for example”, suggests Nathalie Ollat. “With global warming, certain territories will become more favorable to the cultivation of vines”, says Laurent Audeguin. “Today, we are already seeing personal initiatives, on a small scale, emerging in Brittany or in Hauts-de-France, for example. If funding follows, this could be promising in the years to come.” And to clarify: “This does not mean that we will make Bordeaux in Brest, but that new wines could be born.”
“The wine-growing landscape will change profoundly between now and 2050. And that will depend on the results of the experiments which are now being tested throughout the territory”, concludes Nathalie Ollat. “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 only use one grape variety, will then be composed of several. And maybe we will have brand new vineyards in new territories.”