Story at a glance

  • Climate change is forcing winemakers to harvest grapes weeks earlier than usual.
  • France regulates traditional practices for growing grapes, making it difficult for winemakers to adapt to new extremes.

There’s a flowery weed growing between the vines of Bordeaux.

"This plant is from the south of Europe, and I never saw it here in my life before four years ago," Gregoire Couppé, a fourth-generation winemaker, told NPR.

The plant, which can get pulled into mechanical grape harvesters and alter the taste of wine, is just one sign of a changing climate. Couppé and other winemakers have seen a shift toward hotter, drier weather that’s forcing them to change the ways in which they care for their crops. But regulations in France that define authentic French wine put limits on how quickly the traditional industry can adapt.

According to National Geographic, in September, scientists and historians constructed a 700-year timeline of grape harvests. The records show that in unusually hot years, grapes had to be harvested weeks earlier than usual in order to maintain the proper balance of sugar and acid that leads to great wine. Too much sugar, and the wine will have too high an alcohol content. And not having enough acid will affect the feel of the drink in your mouth.

Now those weeks-early harvests are happening every year, and winemakers are adapting in other ways, too. They used to remove the leaves of grapevines just before a harvest, but now they leave the leaves on to provide shade for the fruit. Unshaded grapes shrivel in the direct sunlight. But they can’t always make the adjustments that would save their vines.

Winemaker Alain Maufras had to leave some 300-year-old vines to die in Europe’s heatwaves this summer because his application to irrigate his fields was denied, NPR reports. France also regulates which grape varieties are allowed in certain regions’ wines, which may cause problems as some of those varieties can’t stand the heat.

For now, scientists in France are studying other European grape varieties that may be more resilient to climate change.

"Evidence shows they behave differently," says Mark Gowdy, who works at the Institute of Science for Vine and Wines studying the impact of drought. "Some varieties will slow down and use water more efficiently in response to increasing temperature. So, in the future, as the climate changes, this could help growers select vines that can better adapt to their circumstances."

Published on Nov 08, 2019