Winegrowers in the south of France felt the full effect of climate change this June when record 46°C temperatures scorched their vines, cutting their crop by half. Growers in the Languedoc region are working with the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) to find ways to adapt to a hotter, drier, more unpredictable climate in order to survive.
“This year started off really nicely, a nice lot of flowering, we thought the tank would be very full,” says winegrower Robin Williamson, sloshing about in juice in his wine cellars at the Domaine de Saumarez.
He and his wife Liz have been growing wine in Murviel-lès-Montpellier for 16 years. They farm 14 hectares and make between 30,000 and 40,000 bottles of organic wine each year.
They expected this year would be the same. But on 28 June everything changed.
“We hit 46°C, it was pretty eye-melting stuff.”
Driving past the vines the next day he noticed they’d shrivelled and that "the bunches had gone as well”.
In just two days they lost at least 50 percent of their yield.
The vines worst hit were those they’d treated with sulphur, a natural way of protecting against a fungus known as oidium. It was "a classic thing to do," says Williamson. But "the combination of sulphur and heat accentuated the damage".
The Williamsons export to several European countries, and to the US, so losing that business would have had dire consequences. Regional authorities have taken the exceptional measure of allowing winegrowers affected by the heat to buy grapes from other producers.
“We’ve bought in about 4,000 litres of organic juice or grapes so that will help us get up to 80 percent of what we produce on an average year. Of course it’s a bit of a hit on our cash flow but in the long term we have to do it.”
'Not sure I still have faith in what I'm doing'
Joel Anthérieu, another well-established winegrower in Murviel, estimates he's also lost half of his crop this year due to the heat. As an organic winegrower he would normally grape-pick by hand but this year he is using a machine to harvest the grapes more quickly and above all cut costs.
“The machine will do you a hectare in two hours,” he says, gesturing to a bright blue grape-picking machine. “By hand you'd need 15 people at 10 euros an hour, for eight hours. That's a bit more than 800 euros. The machine costs you 350. You do the maths!"
Anthérieu comes from a winegrowing family. 16 years ago he inherited two hectares of vines from his great-grandfather and built up the business with his wife. He now has 21 hectares.
His wines have won prizes at organic wine fairs, but he’s not confident about the future.
“In 2003 [the last major heatwave] this kind of weather was the exception, but since 2017 climate change is going faster,” he says, grabbing a few wizened blackberries from a nearby hedge by way of illustration.
“We've got five times as much land as my great-grandfather had and yet we're producing the same amount he did. I'm not sure I still have faith in what I'm doing. It's not easy working for nothing.”
Less acidic, more alcoholic wines
Walking through the hillside vineyards in Murviel-lès-Montpellier the ground is hard, the grass has turned to straw.
"I can't remember the last time it rained, perhaps a few drops in April," says Jean-Marc Touzard, an economist with INRA's wine and climate change programme (Laccave) and who's lived in the village for 20 years.
Climate change hasn't just affected yield, he says, it's impacting the wine itself.
“The alcohol content is increasing, now wines on average contain more than 14° of alcohol. Also the acidity is beginning to decrease and you know acidity in wine is very important, it gives you freshness. So the winemakers are having to work hard in order to maintain this equilibrium between acidity, alcohol and aroma.”
Wild boars, forest fires: the indirect impacts of climate change
We walk through part of Williamson's vineyard, near the ruins of the Roman stone walls that gave Murviel ("old wall") its name.
Touzard points to some dry excrement on the ground, peppered with what look like red grape pips. "A wild boar!" he concludes.
“With the heat and drought, wild boars are looking for water, for fruit, that they no longer find in nature,” he explains. "Winegrowers can lose more than 10 percent of their crop."
He shows me wire fences that Williamson has put up to try and keep the wild boars out. “That’s an additional cost.”
Climate change also means more wildfires which can end up giving the grape juice a smokey aroma.
"If you have a fire in nearby vineyards, the grape can absorb the smell of the smoke, so it really affects your wine and its quality.
“It's a well known problem in California and South Africa," Touzard continues, "and some of my colleagues are working on the question of how to avoid this risk, how to protect the grape and how to correct the smokey aroma after the harvest.”
The way ahead
Unlike the low-lying plains which can be irrigated to counter severe drought, bringing water from the Rhone river up to the hillside vineyards of Murviel would be costly.
The village's eight winegrowers are having to find other ways of adapting to the drought and heat.
“There’s no magic solution,” says Touzard but he cites increasing the quality of the wines and raising prices accordingly, improving the fertility of the soil and finding new, more robust, varieties of grape.
Another local winegrower, Régis Sudre, has opted for the soil-improvement option.
He is inspired by farming methods he saw first-hand in central and south America where farmers work the land as little as possible, allowing nature to run its course.
He plans "to bring in huge quantities of organic matter to nourish the soil, increase the life in the soil and make it more robust. That way you buffer the effects of climate change," he explains.
"Carpetting the soil with a mixture of wood and leaves can be really helpful in keeping humidity in the soil [...] then nature does the rest: the fungus, bacteria, and worms return. You create a virtuous circle that brings carbon back to the soil.”
Looking abroad for better adapted grape varieties
Robin Williamson is also looking to improve the fertility of the soil "so that early on our vines have a lot of foliage which can protect the grapes." And yet, had there been more canopy on the vines last year, they'd have been penalised.
"As there was a huge amount of water in the growing season last year, if you did have lots of foliage you got lots more disease. There’s no regularity now to the growing season. That's one of those things that as a farmer you have to adapt to."
There’s clearly no “one size fits all” solution, but Williamson is keen to experiment with different, more robust, varieties of grape other than Languedoc’s traditional varieties such as syrah, carignan, grenache, mourvèdre.
The fact he moved to France from the UK 16 years ago gives him a certain freedom.
“We’re from outside the area so we don’t think ‘hang on a minute we have to stick with the traditional varieties’. I don’t have a problem bringing things from outside."
He’d already planted the sanjiovese grape from Italy as an experiment and found that it fared well during the scorching temperatures in late June.
Now he's looking to introduce liatiko and assyrtiko from Greece.
“The advantage of those varieties is that they don’t need much water, so that’s really what we’re looking at: varieties which will keep their acidity which is certainly what assyrtiko does, and also liatiko. I think the only issue could be with the French public, trying to get them to pronounce the names right.”
Lessons from INRA
Maintaining acidity levels is vital to the future of the wines of Languedoc.
Research carried out by INRA and the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences in Bordeaux suggested consumers were not keen on increasingly full-bodied wines.
“When they first tasted, the panel of consumers accepted more alcoholic and more complex, full-bodied wines quite well,” says Nathalie Ollat, head of the INRA wine and climate change programme in Bordeaux. "But when they tasted a second time a few days later they got bored, there was too much alcohol. So it means people probably won’t buy it again.”
INRA researchers have developed a electromembrane process to acidify wine. It's available on an industrial scale so may not be appropriate for Murviel's winegrowers and is less palatable to organic farmers.
The research institute has also developed more disease-resistant varieties of its own such as vidoc, artaban, floréal and voltis, using cross-fertilisation techniques. And the recent identification of the genome sequence of a grapevine rootstock looks set to speed up the development of new drought-friendly varieties.
Data collected by INRA also shows that while yield may be down in southern France, in northern areas grapes will ripen better and new regions such as Brittany or south-eastern counties in the UK could start producing some, or more, wine.
Does this mean France's future as a top wine-producing country is under threat?
"No," says Jean-Marc Touzard, "I’m sure the French wine industry will have a bright future because there's so much diversity in the wine in France and wine producers are being very creative, working with researchers on solutions."
If it was too easy, everybody would do it
For Robin Williamson innovation is the key to the future and there are lessons to be learned from every setback.
“We’re sticking it out, we’re here for the long term definitely. I think if it was too easy everyone would do it. Everybody knows that making wine is a tough job. And it’s made us think, which is a good thing."
He brushes aside the prospect of the south of England becoming the new Burgundy.
“I’ve left England behind me, and I think Languedoc is a place which has also shown itself to be extremely adaptable. There used to be a lake of wine coming from the Languedoc, and there’s still a lot of wine coming from Languedoc but the quality is very good. I think Languedoc will probably be one of the places where the adaptation to climate change is gonna happen the first. We’re actually at the forefront of it down here."
The future, however, will depend on keeping climate change under control. "We have to stabilise the climate after 2050," Jean-Marc Touzard warns, "to respect the Cop21 goals of keeping global warming to 2°C. If it's business as usual, the Trump scenario, I can't imagine how the future of wine could be."
This report was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast.