Business

In Provence, Winemakers Confront Climate Change


“You can taste the climate change.”

Frédéric Chaudière, a third-generation winemaker in the French village of Mormoiron, took a sip of white wine and set down his glass.

The tastes of centuries-old varieties are being altered by spiking temperatures, scant rainfall, snap frosts and unpredictable bouts of extreme weather. The hellish summer was the latest reminder of how urgently the $333 billion global wine industry is being forced to adapt. Temperature records were set in Europe, the United States, China, North Africa and the Middle East as hail, drought, wildfires and floods on a biblical scale inflicted damage.

Grape vines are some of the most weather-sensitive crops, and growers from Australia to Argentina have been struggling to cope. The imperative is particularly great in Europe, which is home to five of the world’s top 10 wine-producing countries and includes 45 percent of the planet’s wine-growing areas.

For other vineyards, the challenges are more profound: Dwindling water supplies threaten their existence.

How to respond to these shifts, though, is not necessarily clear.

“We’re all going to get whacked by similar weather challenges,” said Nicole Rolet, who inaugurated the winery in 2006 with her husband, Xavier.

In her view, there are two responses to climate change: You can fight it with chemicals and artificial additives that battle nature, she said, or “you can create a balanced functioning of the ecology through biodiversity.”

The natural approach was on display one morning as harvesters slowly inched down the rows of vines, clipping plump purple clusters of Grenache grapes by hand.

Surrounding Chêne Bleu’s emerald fields are wildflowers, a wide range of plant species and a private forest. There is a bee colony to increase cross-pollination and a grove of bamboo to naturally filter water used in the winery.

Sheep provide the manure for fertilizer. The vineyard also dug a muddy pool — nicknamed the “spa” — for roaming wild boar, to lure them away from the juicy grapes with their own water supply.

The Rolets have teamed up with university researchers to experiment with cultivation practices. And they are compiling a census of animal and plant species, including installing infrared equipment to capture rare creatures like a genet, a catlike animal with a long, ringed tail.

“People are formally and informally doing experimental work, promoting best practices,” Ms. Rolet said, as she sat in a grand dining hall topped by stone archways at the restored priory. “It’s surprisingly hard to do.”

“No one has time or money to take nose off the grindstone to look at what someone is doing on the other side of the world,” she explained.

Chêne Bleu has other resources. Mr. Rolet, a successful businessman and former chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, has been able to finance the vineyard’s cutting edge equipment and experiments. A larger marketing budget enables the vineyard to take chances others might not want to risk.

The Rolets, for example, chose to sometimes bypass traditional appellations — legally defined and protected wine-growing areas — to experiment with more varieties for their high-end offerings.

Although the wine map has changed, France’s strict classification system has not. Appellations were instituted decades ago to ensure that buyers knew what they were purchasing. But now, those definitions can limit the type of varieties that farmers can use as they search for vines that can better withstand climate change.



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