If 2019 was one of the most devastating years for Languedoc wine, it was not the first manifestation of climate change in the region. “Some years, we sell from mid-August, when the harvest was done in September,” says the winemaker.
This observation is confirmed by Jean-Marc Touzard, researcher at the National Institute for Research on Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE).
Rising temperatures are responsible for an average three-week delay in harvesting since the 1980s, Touzard confirmed. The heat also changes the nature of the fruit, which contains more sugar and less acid. As a result, wines that once had an alcohol content of around 11 ° C are now 14 ° C or even 15 ° C.
Rising temperatures, but also severe drought and more frequent extreme events (heat waves, storms, etc.) are disrupting Mediterranean wine production.
For several years, Robin Williamson has been experimenting with different techniques to protect his vines from stress during the summer period.
“For example, I increase the organic matter in the soil to better retain moisture, by sowing legumes in the fall between the rows of vines and burying them in the soil in the spring,” explains the farmer. Others are turning to irrigation, even if according to Jean-Marc Touzard, this process should be used “as a last resort” to limit irrigation in times of drought.
New grape varieties
Many experiments are carried out on the plots and in barrels.
Some of them favor manual practices, such as goblet pruning which nuances the bunches, while others resort to more technical practices. They use temperature sensors in the vines, dealcoholize the wine with membranes or correct the acidity levels by electrolysis.
The choice of grape varieties is also part of the adaptation strategies.
Certain varieties, like Grenache or Carignan, are more resistant than others, like Syrah for example. The grape varieties planted in more southern regions in Italy, Greece or Spain for example, are also starting to interest French winegrowers.
Robin Williamson planted Sangiovese, which is “an Italian grape variety which naturally has higher acidity and produces a wine with less alcohol”. “Older and more recent varieties, such as Picpoul Noir, are also becoming interesting again. And according to Touzard, “the new hybrid varieties developed by INRAE” are also of interest.
The appellations of origin keep pace with change and authorize certain grape varieties despite their absence from traditional recipes.
The controlled label of origin “Languedoc” thus admitted since last year that the wine can contain “for purposes of adaptation” of new grape varieties as long as these do not represent more than 10% of the volume.
“These are all solutions that will allow adaptation in a scenario where the temperature will increase to more than 2 ° C by the end of the century,” Touzard stressed. “However, if the average temperature rise reaches 4 ° C, it is likely that the vines will disappear from the area,” he added.
But winegrowers are faced with another difficulty: to satisfy wine lovers.
“Languedoc wines are more alcoholic with a taste of ripe fruit, while demand is turning more towards lighter and fresher wines,” notes Jean-Marc Touzard.
It is also difficult to predict how consumers will react to new grape varieties.
“We have produced a top-of-the-range cuvée with Sangiovese for our customers to taste. The bottles are fine, but it’s still a niche market, ”said Robin Williamson. “To have a lighter wine, we can bring forward the harvest, which gives a sparkling wine, which is not yet usual”, he added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]