For French wine, a race against time to adapt to climate change

“Hurry up!” Faced with climate change which is confirmed year after year, French wine growers want to take action to adapt their vines and their practices to the new situation.

“We are at a pivotal moment. Climate change is there, we can see it, we are undergoing it,” Jérôme Despey, secretary general of the FNSEA, the majority agricultural union, told AFP.

The advance of the harvest date is the first sign of this: “one month in 50 years”, according to Christophe Riou, deputy director of the French Institute of Vine and Wine (IFV). Added to this is the tendency for early budding of the vine making it more vulnerable to late frost as was the case in April. But also the intense summer heat which burns the leaves in the south, the episodes of drought …

After a reflection work carried out since 2017, the wine industry will submit at the end of August to the Minister of Agriculture Julien Denormandie a report proposing “7 orientations and 40 actions”, indicates Jérôme Despey, winegrower of the Hérault (south), without unveil them.

“It is now that we really need to bring new orientations in agricultural and wine-growing practices”, he insists while the UN climate experts (IPCC) predict a faster warming of the planet than foreseen.

The economic stakes are high. France is the second largest wine producer in the world (46.6 million hectoliters in 2020) just behind Italy. And the leading exporter by value with 8.7 billion euros in sales in 2020, according to the International Office of Vine and Wine.

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– Choice of innovation –

To evolve, the sector can rely on the work of the research institute Inrae, which has been piloting a program called “Laccave” for nearly ten years (2012-2021), on the adaptation of the vineyard to the climate of tomorrow.

Four possible scenarios were presented to the professionals: not doing much, innovating to stay in current territories, relocating the vines to cooler places, or even deregulating everything.

“We have positioned ourselves on the scenario where innovation would allow the value of the French wine industry to be preserved,” said Jérôme Despey, who chairs the specialized wine council of the France Agrimer organization.

For research, the challenge “is to play on suitable plant material and in particular later in order to return to more normal harvest dates and to have more balanced wines”, underlines Christophe Riou.

Because global warming gives heavier wines, richer in alcohol and less subtle.

In her Bordeaux laboratory, Nathalie Ollat, research engineer from INRAE ​​and co-pilot of the Laccave project, is studying around fifty unplanted grape varieties that could regain interest by allowing Bordeaux wines to maintain their profile. They come from the region but also from other French vineyards and countries in southern and south-eastern Europe, she explains.

Experiments are in progress. Inao (National Institute of Origin and Quality) has thus authorized Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOCs (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée) to test six new grape varieties, in limited proportions.

– Modify practices –

In Languedoc, it is Greek and Italian grape varieties that are experienced because they are later and more resistant to drought than the local grape varieties, underlines Jean-Marc Touzard, director of the Innovation and Development in Agriculture and Food Unit at INRAE.

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The creation of new grape varieties that are more resistant to drought is also underway but this requires time, around fifteen years, to obtain a result, insofar as it is necessary to proceed by successive crossings.

Another possible adaptation lever is the choice of rootstocks (plant on which the grape variety is grafted) which can allow deeper rooting and better water uptake, notes Nathalie Ollat.

Access to water is another major issue for the vineyard’s survival in the event of high temperatures. “Without water, nothing will be done tomorrow,” says Bernard Angelras, a viticulturist in the Costières de Nîmes and president of the IFV.

Without waiting, winegrowers can already begin to modify their practices: soil management, grass cover, pruning, replanting of trees. And finely analyze their terroir to find cooler areas.

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