For people who care about their food

Climate change and French vintners – just another whine?

We all know that global warming has a lot of people worried. But a news story about it recently focused on one particular group of people that you might not necessarily think of as being in the front line of the campaign against climate change – French vintners.

It’s already been widely observed that as the world warms, various species’ habitats have been shifting progressively away from the Equator and towards the Poles. As you’d expect, some plant species are particularly sensitive to temperature and need a certain temperature range if they’re going to flourish. And the animal species that depend directly on them for food, shift with them, and so on up the food chain.

(A prime example of this, and one of the areas of greatest concern, is the Cape of Good Hope, a noted biodiversity hot spot because of the huge variety of species living in a small area. These species, of course, have nowhere further to go – they’re already at the end of their continent and thus stand to die out if the habitat gets too warm for them.)

The vintners of Burgundy are particularly worried. Terroirs depend upon climate and soil for their distinctive character, and the combinations around the Burgundy area simply aren’t found elsewhere. And of course if average temperatures rise in northern France, they can’t simply dig up their vineyards and transport the soil northwards.

It’s not bad news for everybody, of course. 20 years ago vineyards in southern England were producing wines that people were buying as a novelty rather than as something to be drunk for sheer enjoyment. These days, they’re winning prizes. And in another 20 years or so, one vineyard consultant is predicting, Sauvignon Blanc – already grown in some German vineyards – might make it to England and even Denmark.

But it would still spell tremendous changes for winemaking in parts of France that have been considered some of the greatest wine regions in the world for centuries. Greenpeace have been predicting that increased flooding, higher risk of grapes rotting on the vine and possibly even new vine diseases may strike.

It’s got to the point where 50 winemakers, sommeliers and chefs wrote a public letter to President Sarkozy, published in Le Monde, alerting him to their concerns in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit on climate change this December. Perhaps more drastically, photographer Spencer Tunick collaborated with Greenpeace to produce one of his installations with naked people, in a French vineyard, to create a meaningful message pointing out the vulnerability of viticulture and agriculture in France.

Some people have pooh-poohed the idea that there’s any kind of problem, suggesting that (a) terroirs can be flexible, (b) mild winters and early harvests can be helpful.

Franck Thomas, European Sommelier of the Year in 2000 and the prime mover behind the letter to President Sarkozy, disagrees on both counts. He commented about the hot summer of 2003 that “the wines lost their identity. It was very bizarre. Wine from the Loire valley tasted like wine from the Rhône. If we don’t do something now, in 30 years we will have that problem every year.” He also points out that “If you harvest earlier . . . the alcohol content is higher [and] it unbalances the wine.”

So enjoy it while it lasts. A couple of decades down the line, there may no longer be any such thing as a beautiful crisp Chablis…

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