At the end of the 19th century, more than 50% of French vineyards disappeared. This tragedy was caused by an insect called phylloxera that ate the roots of grapevines, leaving grapes incapable of reaching maturity, and eventually, causing death.
The insect was believed to be from North America, as American grapevines were more resilient to the pest. These vines were then grafted onto the European ones. All of the vineyards in the country had to be replanted using these hybrids. Most of the French wines we drink today come from this new plant variety. The epidemic forced winemakers to adapt massively throughout the country. It was the first time in modern history that a major natural incident had affected the wine world.
More than a hundred years later, nature and human activity are challenging winemaking once again. But this time, producers want to be ready for it.
Nowadays, what winemakers fear most isn’t an insect but a new form of disruptive weather conditions. Rainfall has become irregular. Periods of flooding are followed by periods of drought. The climate crisis is affecting agriculture across the globe, and French vineyards are no exception. With grapevines unable to mature normally, the plants tend to be more vulnerable to illness. With the increasing usage of phytosanitary products—chemical agents created to protect and increase yield—a perhaps misguided commitment to monoculture has dangerously impoverished the soil. This leads to an inability to control water and nutrient levels at the roots.
These climate-induced changes also mean that many vineyards require more work, and that means a larger labor force. As more people move to urban areas, farmers are struggling to find enough workers throughout the year.
As the impacts of climate change increase, winemakers in France and elsewhere are trying to understand how these changes will affect winemaking in the future and are learning how to adapt. Unlike what happened in the 19th century, producers do not want to be taken by surprise. They want to be ready. They want to keep making excellent wine despite the less-than-favorable climatic conditions.
Thankfully, though the problems we face today may be greater than pesky insects, we are equipped with better technologies that may help winemakers reshape the industry.
New Aquitaine is the largest region in France and is home to the famous vineyards of Bordeaux as well as those of Garonne, Cahors and the Cognac spirit. It is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. Apart from wine, it is also the leading agricultural area in Europe. Rethinking winemaking is essential for the region where 120,000 of its inhabitants depend on the industry.
In 2019, the region supported the Vitirev project, which is dedicated to understanding and creating tomorrow’s viticulture. A total of 14 labs have been installed around the region, aiming to help farmers in researching and assessing new agricultural techniques. Farmers are put into contact with experts, scientists and tech professionals to find solutions, combining their knowledge and experience.
The Vitirev project is focused on the principle of sustainable development. Not only does this program aim to help wine producers economically to preserve their livelihoods, it also works to improve the social aspects of viticulture while increasing accessibility and promoting education. The objective is to build increased resilience quickly through coordinated actions.
The Buzet winemakers host one of the 14 Labs from the Vitirev project. They are a cooperative from the geographically protected winemaking area of Buzet and have been working since 2005 on preventing the impacts of climate change on their industry.
The group is attempting to reproduce the dynamics seen in natural ecosystems through their project, “The Living Vineyard.” Their techniques revolve around the selection of resilient varieties and the usage of agroforestry and agrotechnology to achieve both quality and quantity in their vineyards while simultaneously respecting the environment. Hopefully, this will protect producers’ incomes and maintain the retail potential of their vineyards.
Agroforestry is increasingly seen as key to solving many of agriculture’s greatest problems. Often cut off and removed from landscapes, trees have myriad positive impacts on crops. They are one of the most powerful tools to control carbon and humidity levels, and they contribute to biodiversity.
In their experimental vineyard, the Buzet winemakers have chosen to include hedges in between rows and have surrounded the plot with trees. This regulates temperatures and the micro-climate of the parcel thanks to the trees’ capacity to store water, provide shade and regulate air conditions.
Trees also create mycorrhizal environments—environments in which the connection of fungi and tree roots increase the overall wellbeing of the vines and improve their resilience. Unfortunately, as of the time of writing, biodiversity isn’t a facet of organic guidelines, but the Buzet cooperative is attempting to push the industry in that direction.
Winemakers are also searching for cépages—grape varieties—that will resist climate change and adapt to certain environments. Individual growers have to undertake this task for themselves, as the ideal grape for one micro-climate will be different from others even in the same region.
The Buzet winemakers are currently planting different varieties in the experimental vineyard to uncover which ones can survive in their microclimate. Some particularly resilient varieties developed by the INRAE (the French’s National Institute of Agricultural Research), like Artaban and Vidocq, are being studied, while other more common varieties in meridional regions like Syrah and Tempranillo are also being used. These crops, if grown successfully, will be submitted to enter the specifications of Buzet’s PDO.
Throughout France and outside its borders, numbers of farmers, experts, politicians and business owners are working together to understand the impacts of climate change on winemaking.
The EU is currently developing a new CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), which was voted for in 2018 and will be implemented by January 2023. The new policy will allow grape varieties that are not 100% Vitis vinifera to be incorporated into PDO specifications. Some winemakers, like those of Bordeaux’s vineyards, are already starting to register and create more resilient hybrids.
In the fall of 2022, the Buzet cooperative will harvest its first grapes from its experimental vineyard. These vineyards won’t be commercially viable just yet, but the grapes will be analyzed by a group of researchers and wine experts to determine the impacts these techniques have on grape quality.
With all of these initiatives taking shape, French winemakers are looking for new tools and techniques that will allow them to continue to produce wine even as the climate and the industry evolves. Hopefully, we’ll soon get the opportunity to taste the new flavors of a more resilient and sustainable French wine industry.