Photo Gallery: Cultural Heritage Under Threat
The Grapes of Wrath France's Great Wines Are Feeling the Heat
In the soft light of the chandeliers at Château Ausone, Alain Vauthier veers away from the issue at hand, taking flight into distant centuries, reaching for safe anecdotes, digressing into tales of the Wars of the Roses and racehorses, broken tractors and the bold adventures of his ancestors in Algeria. Against a backdrop of gold-colored silk tapestries, he mentions the '47 Cheval Blanc he once drank, finds excuses to talk about lobsters and the early days of television, and to complain about French highway tolls that make it cheaper to fly with budget airlines -- anything to avoid talking about the real issue, the issue one no one wants to talk about.
Twice, he says: "I'm not one of those who deny climate change," and yet, in his elegant way, that's exactly what he is doing. It's all very complex, he says, an older man in a short-sleeved shirt who, as a winemaker, has managed to be ranked 273rd on the list of the wealthiest Frenchmen. Vauthier says there is certainly no "bon problème," the term used in the region to refer to climate change until recently. But he does recognize that there is a "faux problème," one that has been invented. Global warming hasn't actually been all that disadvantageous, he says, at least not here in Bordeaux, or Bordelais, as the French call it, and certainly not in the vineyards of his Château Ausone, which is permitted to use the classification Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé "A" for its wines.
Seven hectares, only seven (17 acres), are the source of its fame. The vineyard produces 12,000 bottles a year, and in good vintages, every one of those bottles is worth at least €1,500 ($1,910) in Tokyo, Hamburg and New York, even before the wine has aged. The business, if that's what you can call the castle, has been in the hands of only four families in the last 400 years. The Vauthiers have been there for the last two centuries. Their cheerful château is perched on a rocky plateau above a world that looks like an oil painting, with its soft tiers of hillside vineyards extending into the wide Dordogne Valley, sprinkled with the silhouettes of church towers. It's a location that Hugh Johnson, once anointed the pope of wines, characterized as "clearly the most promising in all of Bordeaux." If it's true, then Vauthier runs the best vineyard in France.
It's highly likely that his history stretches back 2,000 years. In a conversation with Vauthier, it becomes very clear that someone with that much time on his side isn't about to be deterred by a little hiccup of the present age. Why should someone whose wine has made him a millionaire complain about something as vexing as the weather and the climate? Should he be worried about the possibility of an impending wine crisis? "You'll have to excuse me," he says, as he gets up from a delicate-looking chair, "I have to get to work." He walks away, across snow-white gravel, past the gate of his rock-cut cellar where oak barrels are stored in eternal darkness. Ten minutes later he returns, looking as refreshed as if he had taken a midday nap, and invites us to a tasting.
He pours a 2006 Ausone into the glasses, a wine as dark and dense as blood with a retail price of €600 per bottle, an edgy, promising and still untamed wine with sharp notes of Cabernet Franc.
As he takes a sip and spits it out again, Vauthier says, as if he had suddenly changed his mind: "The storms, well, perhaps they are getting worse." He won't forget the bad weather they had in the June before last, when a hailstorm came up from the southwest and descended upon a 12,000-hectare (30,000-acre) stretch of land. "Twelve-thousand hectares," says Vauthier, "that's never happened before." Within minutes, 5,000 hectares of top-quality Bordeaux grapes were destroyed, "literally hacked to pieces," says Vauthier. "Perhaps, monsieur, this is your climate change."
Extreme weather is becoming more common in all of France's wine-growing regions. Heavy rains and hailstorms frequently come on the heels of summer heat waves and dry periods. Winters and nighttime temperatures are so mild that the plants are never able to rest. Few winegrowers continue to deny these tangible phenomena.
On the other hand, it isn't easy to perceive that the last three decades have been the warmest in the last 1,400 years. It's hard to comprehend that the average annual temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), that the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are warming almost imperceptibly, and that days are getting just slightly warmer. Human beings lack the natural sensors to detect such changes, but grapevines have them. The vines are suffering from ongoing stress, say some vintners. Vineyards are in turmoil, not just in France but also in Italy, Spain and all of Southern Europe -- in all the places where it has always been warm and where it is now getting too hot.
'We've Been Fighting Here Since 2008'
Vintners along the Rhône River, 500 kilometers (310 miles) east of Bordeaux, know what this means. The region is home to the large Guigal winery at Château d'Ampuis, a complex of old and new buildings less than half an hour south of Lyon. The château sits directly at the base of the small mountains that produce the Côte-Rôtie, the best location in the northern Rhône Valley. Signs bearing the names of vintners, who proudly mark their parcels, are posted like standards up and down the steep hillsides. This is one of the world's oldest wine-growing regions, where the first vines were reportedly planted 2,400 years ago.
Philippe Guigal, born in 1975 and one of the biggest winemakers in the valley, is an enlightened man with a degree in enology. After a brief email exchange, he immediately invites us to meet with him. His grandfather, the founder of the company, personally picked and pressed 67 vintages along the Rhône, his father has 54 under his belt, and Philippe has already produced 17. Guigal begins the conversation by saying: "Climate change is a fact. Apparently there are still people who disagree."
Guigal is a giant in the world of wine, a vintner, bottler and dealer in many large appellations along the Rhône. Every Frenchman and many wine drinkers in Europe are familiar with the brownish labels with a copper engraving, and the red, circular logo, symbols of decent quality in large quantities. An annual output of 5 million bottles isn't unusual, of which 3.5 million bottles are filled with ordinary Côtes-du-Rhône red wines that sell for six or seven euros apiece. Guigal produces large amounts of Crozes-Hermitage, as well as Saint-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, Gigondas and Tavel in the southern Rhône Valley, everything on a grand scale, and some high-quality wines, including the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But temperatures are even getting too warm for that heavy wine, which has always thrived in the hot climate around Avignon.
The young Guigal tells us that he is about to go on an important business trip to Châteauneuf, necessary because "the problems are getting really serious there." Seventy-five percent of the wine procuded by Châteauneuf-du-Pape is pressed from Grenache but the variety is no longer tolerating the heat. It's become "stubborn" lately, as he puts it. The maturation processes in the grapes are impaired, he explains. The sugar content peaks too early, before the berries are completely ripe. Color, tannins and aromas are so far behind, says Guigal, that proper harvests become difficult. The quality of entire vintages is at risk. "We've been fighting here since 2008," says Guigal. "The years since then have all been extremely dry. Nothing is getting easier."
Adapting to Nature
Throughout southern France, vintners' calendars are in turmoil. The ripening periods are constantly getting shorter and the harvest season is arriving ever earlier. Grapes were picked in October in the 1960s, says Guigal, but now the harvest is moving closer to early September. The tried-and-true experiences of old vintners have become meaningless, and traditional rules of thumb, based on decades of weather observations, are now invalid, he says. "You can regret everything," says Guigal, "or you can roll up your sleeves and get to work." His plan is to reinvent French wine.
The winegrowing profession has always meant adapting to changes in nature. Today's French wine has almost nothing in common with the wine that was produced and consumed a century ago. Taste preferences have changed, scientific discoveries have repeatedly revolutionized winegrowing and technical innovations have improved pressing methods.
The strategies of working in a vineyard have changed radically, and vintners know more than ever about ripening processes. In fact, the vintner's toolbox is well equipped to react to changes in the climate. The biggest challenge is certainly replacing grape varieties, an issue Guigal and his staff are thinking about a lot these days.
But is it getting too warm for Grenache in Châteauneuf? Why not plant Syrah, the variety popularized around the world as Shiraz? What's wrong with growing late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon farther to the north in the Rhône Valley? Or perhaps even in Burgundy? Why not move the vines farther uphill to cooler altitudes? Or plant them on the north faces of hills to avoid the sun?
Fear of Change
"I'll give you an example," says Guigal. "The Viognier grape was not allowed along the Rhône for a long time. But my grandfather propagated the grape because he believed it was a good fit for the region and produced a wine that was worthy of it. It took a while to convince other winegrowers, and until the people from the appellation changed the rules. Today, 65 percent of white wine from the Rhône is made from Viognier grapes."
French vintners' fear of change stems from a fear of losing the character that typifies their wines. The term for it is "terroir," a colorful and ultimately untranslatable word that sometimes denotes a sense of place. "Perhaps terroir means more than soil," says Guigal, "more than climate, microclimate, soil, subsoil, savoir-faire, history." All of these factors are in flux these days and will remain that way, because temperatures will undoubtedly increase by another degree by the end of the century, and that's under only the most optimistic of scenarios.
That 1 degree, distributed across the remaining 86 years until the turn of the century, would perhaps give winemakers enough time to make the necessary adjustments, to experiment with varieties, and produce adapted wines that could still be good and possibly even great. The only problem is that there is currently little indication that the industrialized nations will reach their climate goals.
Instead, there is every indication that the average temperature could increase by 4 degrees by the 22nd century, or even 6 degrees, as some plausible models have forecasted. In that case, Paris would have a climate like the one that prevails in Cordoba, Spain today. And Châteauneuf-du-Pape would have to contend with weather like North Africa's today. Winegrowing could become impossible for the simple reason that there would no longer be enough water, or because the grapes would wither on the vine before the harvest.
The Coming Disaster
France's deep south offers a taste of what's to come. Water was always scarce in the country's biggest winegrowing region, Languedoc-Roussillon, but now it rains less than ever between May and September, and the weather as a whole is more erratic than in the past. There are vineyards that don't exactly look abandoned, but where the grapes on the vines are withered. Many of the region's vintners complain and say that they're finished. They say that the problems that are beginning to crop up in Châteauneuf-du-Pape have already taken on disastrous proportions in their region.
Many give up entirely, but the climate isn't the primary reason. In a world that drinks less and less wine but more high-quality wine, lower-quality winegrowers in poor locations cannot survive. The region along the Mediterranean coast, with its hot hinterlands, has long endured this agonizing structural shift. In the last 20 years alone, output has declined from 29 to 14 million hectoliters. That is still an enormous amount, filling two billion bottles every year. There are 25,000 active winegrowers, and 270 cooperatives -- far too many.
Only those who exploit niches, producing top-quality or otherwise special wines, stand a chance of making ends meet in a region like Languedoc-Roussillon. One of them is Isabelle Frère, an alternative vintner who does almost everything differently. She talks to her grapes while working, sings during the harvest and ultimately sees winegrowing as a lifestyle and not a business. To her, it represents an attempt to live in harmony with nature, to pursue meaningful work and perhaps have a little luck in the process. She took over her uncle's vineyard only eight years ago, six hectares of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah, southern varieties that thrive in granite, sand and gravel, in dry, porous soil.
She took a brief detour before returning to the family business of winemaking, teaching French to immigrants in Paris and spending some time at university there. Ultimately, though, she felt the call of home and began yearning for the hills above the village of Sorède on the far eastern edge of the Pyrenees. The region, so close to the Spanish border, is a world of its own. And on the climate model maps, the region is always colored a dangerous-looking dark red.
'Of Course This Is Climate Change. It's Here'
It can get very hot in the summer. But it was always hot, and that was never the problem. "It doesn't get cold in the winter anymore," says Frère, 43, a petite but tough woman. Nature and the vines are no longer able to recover, she says. Nights are a similar story. Temperatures no longer drop sufficiently after sundown, which is bad for the plants, which are unable to rest. But, she says, they have to "sleep, just like anything that's alive."
And the rain, she says -- in the rough voice of someone who smokes a lot of hand-rolled cigarettes, of someone who likes to laugh and have a good time -- the rain is a problem. First it doesn't come for weeks, and then it rains in torrents. This isn't unusual for the region, she says, "but not like this. Really not like this. Of course this is climate change. It's here."
It's here. On Isabelle Frère's small estate, called Moulin Cassanyes, it's no longer a stream of data, not some scientific paper or scenario. It's no longer a photo of a polar bear on a drifting ice floe, no longer a report in the news about faraway islanders in trouble. Climate change is becoming a tiresomely concrete part of everyday life. It is changing Frère's life, even threatening her lifestyle, and sometimes it makes her furious to realize that it's a fate that she can no longer change on her own.
The family estate -- actually the servants' quarters of an estate, with the real manor tucked far behind a grove of trees -- has the charm of a Villa Villekulla, the home of fictional character Pippi Longstocking. Frère's father Sebastian is a working artist, a man with the charisma of a Biblical patriarch. The other residents include a chain-smoking aunt, a domestic partner, three dogs and many cats. There is an enchanted pond surrounded by ancient trees. And then there is the old barn where the wine is made. It contains enormous Inox vats, fermenting vats, hoses, bowls and various other pieces of equipment. Frère switches off the noisy air-conditioner and says: "Press your ear against the vat back there and you'll hear nature at work." A delicate rumbling can be heard inside the vat, a sound as dark as distant thunder.
Frère doesn't add yeast to her wine, preferring to rely on the natural fermenting agents the grapes absorb from the soil. She dispenses with chemistry as much as possible. She uses no herbicides or pesticides, allowing "nature to do its thing," as she puts it. Fungi, beetles, flies, everything is allowed to live in her vineyard, "because every intervention would only result in a more serious attack. That's a law."
Walking through her vineyard, it's sometimes difficult to recognize that this is a vineyard at all. The vines are overgrown, and they look as if they had been abandoned. But they reflect the philosophy of this biodynamic vintner who believes in the principles of anthroposophy. She prefers to let everything grow, to allow everything to exist. A man like Alain Vauthier from the Bordelais would drop dead at the sight of it.
A Minor Miracle of Globalization
In fact, the chaos isn't necessarily good for her wine. Frère's Cuvée "Scarabée" is a dry, unsettled wine, but she doesn't aim to win any awards. She wants to tell a story, a story that plays well at a time when organic and biodynamic wines are also in demand in France.
Frère has joined forces with a few other vintners in the region who use similar methods on their parcels. They help each other out with workers and equipment and they also jointly market their product worldwide. Isabelle Frère, who only wanted to live a sustainable life, has completed a minor, ironic miracle of globalization, because she now sells most of her wine to Japan. "Bizarre, isn't it?" she says, laughs and pours herself some more cold, white wine.
Winegrowers in the region who use conventional methods have not gained access to such markets. During the last few weeks of the big picking season, they could be seen driving small tractors, on their way to the cooperatives, which try to upgrade their very mediocre wines with clever slogans or add pineapple, orange and other fruit flavors and sell them to French supermarket chains as trendy summer beverages.
Otherwise, many winegrowers in the region depend heavily on customers passing through during the summer vacation period, when tourists at nearby camping sites buy 10-liter boxes of rosé to wash down their barbequed food. Many aspects of the Perpignan region feel like the dregs of French wine culture. Winegrowers are now producing Cuvées with a 15-percent alcohol content, wines that in a blind taste test could be mistaken for a chilled version of German mulled wine. But even the best vintners are at a loss over how to produce decent wine in the harsher climate in the south of France.
The New Climate
It's the last day of harvest for Isabelle Frère. She and five helpers are working in a patch of Mourvèdre. The pickers are dashing, carefree characters with dreadlocks, tattoos and a lot of metal in their ears and noses. The day is hot to begin with, with a white sun and milky clouds streaked across the sky. Dark clouds gather at around 4 p.m., and it starts raining half an hour later. It starts to hail at 4:50, as chickpea-sized balls of ice hammer down on the fields, the grapes and the pickers.
Frère, wearing a turban around her head, gathers up the last of her grapes, round, bluish-black berries, and flees. She and her pickers squeeze into a white van, between stacks of crates. The weather forces them to stop working, and they drive back to the house in a thunderstorm. When they arrive, they remain in the van for a while, where they start eating, smoking and drinking, wondering whether today's weather was another coincidence or a taste of things to come. And whether what they see outside is just bad weather or a new climate. But they know the answer already. It's no longer just the weather. In southern France, it's the new climate.
The most unsettling thing of all is that climate change is no longer abstract, but something palpable -- not just in the deep south, but in the Rhône Valley, in the Alsace region, and eventually in Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley and in the Champagne.
The new climate will have a smell and a taste, when festivals are held and bottles are uncorked. When white Burgundy wines begin losing their distinctiveness. When the aromatic Sancerre from the Loire Valley becomes broad and crude. When it gets too warm for Riesling, Pinot Noir and Grenache, and France's wines gradually lose their freshness. When they no longer taste of "terroir" but of the New World, of California, Tasmania and Chile. When they just get you drunk quickly without much pleasure. That's when a different, more impoverished time will begin.
A great, rich period will come to an end then, perhaps as soon as 2050, which isn't far away, or perhaps later, in 2100. Perhaps people will no longer get to know the great names, because it will no longer be necessary. Because Château Pétrus, Cheval Blanc and Yquem will no longer be part of the world's cultural heritage -- nor will Hospices de Beaune, Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leroy.
They will be names that once represented individual worlds, worlds almost painted in oils: the Loire and the Rhône, Burgundy, Bordelais and Champagne. Appellations like the lines of a poem: Médoc, Pomerol, Pauillac, Meursault, Chablis, Hermitage, Pommard. Forgotten. Consumed. Finished.