In early April, vineyards across France were struck by freezing temperatures. With thermometers reading minus 7 degrees Celsius (just over 19 degrees Fahrenheit) in some areas — making it the coldest April night in 75 years — winemakers were forced to light up hundreds of flaming candles and use the downdraft from helicopters to save the precious young buds on the vines. These unseasonal frosts as well as soaring temperatures in summer are becoming increasingly frequent hazards for French winemakers as a result of climate change. In a country with a time-honored tradition in viticulture, winemakers are undertaking seismic shifts to save their famed products.
As warming winters encourage buds to open earlier, spring frosts like those earlier this month are now particularly damaging and responsible for drastic reductions in yield. “At least 25 percent of the buds are burnt in our vineyard,” says Nathalie Oudin, who took over her parents’ winery, Domaine Oudin in Chablis, in 2007. “The leaves will start to grow later, but the buds won’t have any grapes.” Running just a small vineyard, Oudin is unable to afford expensive preventive systems like candles. “Probably in Chablis, only seven or eight people can pay for these protection methods,” she says.
This is the second year running that vintners in France have experienced a hot winter followed by unseasonably cold spring weather. Last year, too, vineyards suffered significant losses during an unusual April cold snap. “Actually, it was worse, as the winter was warmer than this year so the buds were more developed,” says Oudin. “We lost three-quarters of our buds in two nights.” Across France, production was down 19 percent in 2021, and the industry was hit with some 2 billion euros in losses.
Freak weather events on the rise also include more frequent storms, hail, and heavy rain that can damage fruit on the vines. “In 2016, we had frost, hail, too much water, everything,” says Oudin. “For 10 years now, we are having a lot of problems.”
In the small but famed Jura region, last year’s harvest of Chardonnay and Trousseau was a solemn event. Some producers lost as much as 85 percent of their crop compared to the previous year due to spring frosts and violent weather events. Storms in late spring and summer caused diseases to break out in the vineyards and grapes to rot. “Everything was in a bad way,” says Jacques Hauller, site director of Domaine Maire et Fils in Jura. “We saw firsthand the challenges of climate change.”
Come summer, the trials continue. Winemakers now watch in trepidation as elevated heat encourages greater sugar production in grapes, resulting in a higher-alcohol product. In northern Chablis, one of the cooler French wine regions, wines should normally have a relatively low alcohol percentage. “We are used to 12 or 12.5 percent,” says Oudin, “but in recent years, some of the juice was over 14 percent.”
With yields already reduced after spring frosts, many wine producers have been forced to expedite their harvests to nearly a month earlier to give more freshness and acidity to the remaining fruit. Oudin, however, cannot use this method, as she already frequently picks the grapes in August. “If we pick even earlier, we don’t have all the aromas of the variety,” she says. “And that makes different wine that isn’t right.”
Instead, she will sometimes blend wines from different areas of the vineyard so that the juice from the cooler, north-exposed vines brings down the overall percentage. In 2019 and 2020, the summers were so hot that even with the technique of blending, her wines were still pushing 13.5 percent. “It wasn’t a good year,” she says, “but we are just a small vineyard, so we kept the product anyway.”
Oudin also focuses on protecting the grapes while they are still on the vines. “We cover the soil to keep it cooler,” she says, “and we keep more of the leaves on the vines near the grapes so they are not burnt by the sun.”
For some regions, climate change means previously ungrowable varieties are beginning to thrive while traditional varieties suffer. If the buds of some high-acid red grape varieties are exposed to the sun earlier, the grapes ripen faster, ensuring a good level of tannins. Faced with decimated yields of traditional varieties, winemakers in Jura, a relatively cool region, have been producing higher-quality Pinot Noir wines. “I suppose we should think of it as an unexpected opportunity,” says Hauller. “Some have begun to think that in the coming years, Jura can find new fame with Pinot Noir.”
However, in a region that prides itself on world-renowned Chardonnay-, Trousseau-, and Savagnin-based wines, switching production to a different variety isn’t viewed by everyone as an advantage. Hauller, who is also part of a winegrowers’ association in Jura, says he is “not very excited” about the prospect of growing completely different varieties like Syrah, which normally grow in areas like the Rhône Valley. Instead, he would prefer local vintners to delve back in time to the historic varieties of the area that were abandoned in the ‘50s, when the cooler climate produced a wine with too much acidity. “Maybe we can try to replant these kinds of varieties, which are more resistant to global warming,” he says.
But even if winemakers are willing to experiment, they still need the approval of the formidable national regulatory body, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). France has a hardline policy on what grape varieties can be grown in particular wine regions. The AOC has grudgingly accepted some slight changes to permit the development of alternative varieties that might survive climate change, but these are baby steps. “To persuade them to change rules is quite a challenge, and you have to request them to open an investigation into the new varieties you want to grow,” says Hauller. “That can take up to 10 years.”
At least, Hauller notes, climate change is now being taken more seriously among French vintners and regulators following the catastrophic harvests of 2021. “People are accepting that it is real and are beginning to act,” he says. “I just hope we can change as fast as the climate.”