French vines ready early amid Covid and climate challenges

Vines in France are ready a month earlier than normal, with the harvesting date breaking the 2003 record for the year, due to a particularly warm spring - but climate change and Covid are still presenting some issues.

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The ministry for agriculture statistics service - Agreste - published a report on the current state of vines across France.

It said: “All the vines are showing a remarkable advance compared to 2019, and up to one month in the Val de Loire. This is explained by one of the warmest spring seasons in 100 years.

“Many vines have flourished in these favourable climate conditions.”

Yet, it said that the season had not been without some weather problems: “Since the spring, mildew has been a threat in the South-West, the Languedoc and Roussillon, with some significant damage in some areas. Frost affected Provence, causing some high losses in the Var.”

Estimates from early August suggest that the harvest for French wine in 2020 “appears to be between 44.7 million and 45.7 million hectolitres - up 6-8% compared to that of 2019”.

The rise is up 1-3% on the average for the years 2015-2019.

Faced with super-high temperatures in the latest heatwave, some vineyards decided to harvest early to avoid their grapes from drying out completely.

Olivier Fichet, owner of the Domaine Fichet in Igé (Saône-et-Loire) - a 35-hectare domaine in the Mâconnais, which produces the Mâcon and Bourgogne appellations - told specialist wine website La Revue du Vin de France: “During the heatwave of 2003, we started [harvesting] on August 20.

“This year is historically early. The drought of the past few days of heatwave dried the grapes, and brought a high level of concentration. We therefore started with the machine harvest on the 2.5 hectares we have that are most exposed and most mature.”

In Alsace, job centres (Pôle Emploi) are set to open their seasonal workers department for harvesting from Monday, and there are already more than 100 seasonal harvesting jobs available in the region - and almost 700 across the country.

The jobs are not without extra challenges this year. Workers will need to stick to strict Covid-19 health recommendations imposed by the ministry of health - such as maintaining physical distancing during harvesting, and keeping good hygiene rules in worker dormitories and accommodation.

In Bourgogne, vineyard association la Confédération des Appellations et des Vignerons de Bourgogne (CAVB) has created a series of guidelines for vineyard owners and workers for each stage of the harvest - from picking to fermenting to living arrangements.

Currently, only workers from European countries are permitted to enter France to work without restrictions - which may change depending on the development of the health situation.

Climate and Covid

Climate-wise, Agreste said that while high temperatures had accelerated this year’s harvest, drought on the surface of the soil could still affect the yield, and warned that climate changes and the effects of Covid-19 were causing uncertainty in the industry.

It said: “Climate [change] events have caused health problems that could affect the vines. At this stage, there are still uncertainties on volumes produced in AOP in certain areas, due to a weak economic market made worse by the Covid-19 crisis.”

Mr Fichet of Domaine Fichet said that harvests for sparkling wine would start this weekend, but said that he expected the yield to be 20-25% lower than normal, but that it would still be a “fine vintage”.

The Champagne region has also faced challenges on how to ensure that this year’s harvest remains in demand, as sales have dropped significantly due to Covid-19 - with far fewer high-end events being held - meaning that Champagne houses are calling for far fewer grapes than in 2019.

To this end, many vineyards have carried out “grape thinning” procedures to maintain the economic potential of the land, which has been promising, said Agreste. In Bordeaux, vineyards were ready for harvest a full three weeks ahead of a usual year, it said.

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