Year after year, we hear of crops being compromised and farmers suffering from extreme weather events. Droughts, late frosts, hail, fires, floods – and all the diseases that come with them. Climatic events have become the norm for a lot of winegrowers. As a result of these recurring events, some estates are starting to adapt their production methods to this environmental reality, while others are not yet taking the climate adaptation route.
What does the future hold for the wine industry in the face of climate change?
To shed light on the different strategies emerging among winegrowers, we take a look at the situation with the Fabre family, winegrowers in the Languedoc region, and Esther Crauser- Delbourg, former Director of Strategic Projects at AXA Millésime.
1- Preserving production methods: what if we don’t change anything?
The case of AOCs
A cage of quality and differentiation against a backdrop of international competition, the AOC label embodies the French cultural exception. Its strength lies in its rigorous specifications, which standardise and fix local wine production methods.
The problem? This strict framework, which is the strength of the AOC, also makes it incompatible with the notion of experimentation, which is so necessary if we are to adapt our practices to the urgency of climate change.
Protecting yourself against the vagaries of the weather: an effective but costly solution
Fortunately, winegrowers are not totally helpless when it comes to the vagaries of the weather. Protective solutions do exist, and they are quite effective (heaters to warm the air, water sprays to prevent frost, etc.).
On the other hand, as Esther Crauser- Delbourg explains, the impossibility of predicting the occurrence of extreme weather events considerably complicates their large-scale deployment; moreover, some are very expensive and are borne by the winegrower, accentuating inequalities between estates in terms of prevention and protection. The estates with the necessary resources manage to limit the damage. The others lose all or part of their harvest.
«Water shortages will widen the gap between large vineyards and smaller ones, which are less well covered by insurance and have less cash flow.» Esther Crauser-Delbourg
Finally, between crisis management and crop losses, failure to adapt always comes at a cost.
Wine is not what it used to be
You’d think that maintaining current viti- viniculture techniques would preserve wine as we know it. But this is not entirely true.
The wine we drink is already changing under the influence of climate change. And this is taking different forms depending on the region.
The recurrence of climatic disasters affects not only yields but also wine properties: it’s now not uncommon to drink red wines that are 14% alcohol or more when vintages have been been through a very hot period. Their structure is changing and some whites, too vulnerable, seem destined to disappear from our tables.
Will the vineyards of Bordeaux then disappear in favor of new northern estates? No, there will always be Bordeaux on our table,» say the Fabre family and Esther Crauser- Delbourg in unison, «but it will have a different production method and different characteristics. What’s more, in these southern areas which are more prone to the vchanging of the climate, if we don’t adapt, only the great estates will survive.
2- Adaptation of practices: and if we transformed the practices?
Others, like the Fabre family, have opted for transition and are trying to bring other sectors on board. This involves reviewing practices to adapt and resist, but also acting on the cause of the problem by reducing their impact on the climate.
Patience and adaptation
By adapting, we mean devising new practices to better withstand climate extremes. In the short term, this means protecting ourselves with the solutions mentioned above. But it also means adapting the harvest calendar to avoid late frosts, opting for milder extractions after a heatwave to avoid wines with too much alcohol, etc.
In the long term, the aim is to find ways of making vineyards more resilient. For example, by creating more resistant grape varieties through cuttings, by improving water retention in the soil through agroforestry, and so on. Clémence Fabre testifies that these practices were well known to our forebears,but had been abandoned in favor of yield.
Will wine soon be a climate refugee?
Many experiments are promising, but they only work on a case-by-case basis, depending on the specific features of the region. Despite exchanges of best practice, it remains difficult to find solutions on a large scale.
These difficulties have prompted some winegrowers to «expatriate», in other words, to plant their grape varieties in more favourable latitudes. Once again, patience is required to enjoy the fruits, warns Esther Crauser- Delbourg, since it takes more than four years to recreate a vineyard, and it can take 20 to 50 years for soil that has never been used for vines to become great.
Reduce your impact by reducing your carbon footprint
Mitigation involves reducing the carbon footprint by changing production and marketing methods.
In the wine industry, bottles, cardboard and transport account for the majority of emissions.
To reduce their impact, some wineries, large and small, are joining the ranks of the organic or natural wine labels and testing solutions to improve their balance sheet. It’s a long and complex process, but one that is proving popular with consumers who are sensitive to eco- responsible products.
So, will the estates we know today still exist tomorrow? Those with the means to limit the damage, yes. Those who have already begun to adapt too will continue. Smaller winegrowers who have not yet begun their transition will have no choice but to come along if they want to remain.
In 2050, consumers will still have a choice. We just have to hope that the small estates and independents that make our rich culture won’t have been swept away by the storm. «A great wine is not just about a great winemaker. It is first and foremost a great terroir.» Esther Crauser-Delbourg