Winemaking In France Is Being Disrupted By Climate Change : The Salt Drier, hotter weather — as well as drastic episodes of rain, hail and cold — has affected alcohol levels, weeds and harvest. The government is trying to help, but can France adapt quickly enough?

Climate Change Is Disrupting Centuries-Old Methods Of Winemaking In France

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A Dean Martin song features a man in a bar pondering the link between the glass in his hand and the climate.


DEAN MARTIN: (Singing) I'm praying for rain in California, so their grapes can grow, and they can make more wine.

INSKEEP: Turns out that as the climate changes, there is not enough rain in the country that makes the world's most famous wine. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited the Bordeaux region of France.



BEARDSLEY: Brothers Remi and Gregoire Couppe are fourth-generation winemakers who craft a top vintage, grand cru St. Emilion. Forty-four-year-old Remi Couppe says there's no denying the weather is getting hotter and drier.

COUPPE: Because of the grapes - they show us the change, especially on the - because alcohol is getting higher since five years. So it's caused me some problems. We're now going to stop the vinification because I have to avoid too much alcohol. It's really new for me.

BEARDSLEY: The higher alcohol levels come from increased sugar in the grapes due to more sun and heat. The brothers say in the last three years, they've stopped a process called stripping where most of the vine leaves are removed just before the harvest. The leaves are now needed to shade the grapes and keep them from burning up on the vine.

Harvest time is coming earlier across all French winemaking regions. But vinemaster Nicolas Poumeyrau says it's not just the heat and drought that are causing problems.

NICOLAS POUMEYRAU: It's more drastic episodes of weather. So when it rains, it rains a lot. When it's cold, it's colder maybe a little bit longer, especially the beginning of the spring - so more severe conditions than before.

BEARDSLEY: The French government is now looking for ways to help winemakers adapt to the new conditions.

NATHALIE OLLAT: Here we are in the vineyard in the middle of the city (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Nathalie Ollat heads the Institute of Science for Vine and Wines in the city of Bordeaux. Ollat says they're experimented with dozens of varieties of heat-tolerant grapes from Southern and Eastern Europe - places like Spain, Portugal and Georgia.

OLLAT: We have to study them in details and see how they perform in term of yield but also in terms of food quality, food composition and what can be their potential to be introduce in Bordeaux and to be blend with the other varieties from Bordeaux area to keep the style.

BEARDSLEY: The problem is an authentic Bordeaux, red or white, can only be made using a blend of six authorized grape varieties, the most famous being merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Yet experts predict some varieties won't survive as the climate heats up.

ALAIN MAUFRAS: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Standing amongst his oak barrels, winemaker Alain Maufras is griping about what he calls the rigid, antiquated system governing French wine. He had 300-year-old vines die this summer. Maufras says that wouldn't have happened if he'd been able to irrigate like they do in California. But winemakers in France and most of Europe are not allowed to water their vines.

MAUFRAS: (Through interpreter) In today's context, with all the competition, the lack of pragmatism makes no sense. People are making wine everywhere now, and they're evolving a lot faster than we are. We're living in a bubble.

BEARDSLEY: Bordeaux winemakers say if they're going to adapt and survive either with the grapes they have or by planting new varieties, the centuries-old rules will have to evolve. That may be happening. This past July, the French wine governing body approved the use of seven new grapes for certain categories of Bordeaux wine.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Bordeaux.


MARTIN: (Singing) A little, ole wine drinker...

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