Rouge Alert:: Climate change threatens French wine

Feature story - September 7, 2009
Climate change would drive anyone to drink, but it seems that the drink won't be a nice French Pinot Noir. France, famous for its unique wine varieties, stands to lose an important part of its cultural heritage as rising temperatures impact vineyards. And unless world leaders can ensure an ambitious deal on climate change at the upcoming UN summit in Denmark - French wines face a grim future.

If temperatures increase beyond 2°C, France will be faced with a runaway geographical displacement of both its natural and cultivated ecosystems, and the effects on the sustainability of wine production will be catastrophic.p

The Greenpeace International report "The impacts of climate change on wine in France" details how French wine production is a climatically sensitive endeavour - and shows that it is at great risk from environmental change. For optimum quality each variety (like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir) is grown in specific regions within narrow climatic variability. But the climate is changing now. The average annual temperature has significantly increased, leading to major shifts in the wine production calendar. The harvesting season is occurring much earlier than normal and higher temperatures are proving detrimental to the vines. Wines end up having higher sugar levels and alcohol content while retaining less acids - which means they are unbalanced with an overripe flavour and heavier texture.

Burgundy vine leaves after a severe drought

In 2003, many French vineyards experienced these changes, producing grapes with these undesirable characteristics. Scientists predict that at the end of this century half of all summers could be like the summer of 2003. Other expected impacts are the increased risk of frost in spring, disease, and rotting.

Gone forever

These changes put France's 'wine producing pedigree' at risk. Given current emission levels, we are on the path to an increase in temperatures of 4 to 6°C between now and 2100. Such a climate scenario would lead to a displacement of vines 1,000 km beyond their traditional limit.

Great French wines derive their finesse and elegance from their terroir. Terroir alludes to a very specific combination of climate and a well defined territory, sometimes no bigger than a single plot of land. It is the combination of these characteristics, together with age-old practices and know-how, which produces exceptional wines. Relocating vineyards simply will not result in the same wine. A culture that has taken centuries to build is now in peril and might even disappear completely.

"Wine, of course, is the result of a climate, a soil, a human tradition. And it is very sensitive. The most minor change will affect its aromatic expression: its colour, its complexity." ... "Burgundy is famous for its well-balanced fine wines: their maturity, acidity and mineral composition. This is what we will lose."

-- Arnaud Immele (Oenologist)

Leading figures from the French wine and food industries have joined us to urge the French government to push for a strong global agreement at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in December, warning that failure to cut greenhouse gases will devastate their sector. To survive, French wines needed an ambitious deal by developed nations to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2020, said the group, which includes chefs Marc Veyrat and Jean-Luc Rabanel and sommeliers Franck Thomas and Antoine Petrus.

The group published an opinion piece in the newspaper Le Monde - addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy - saying "We urge the president and environment minister of the world's top wine-making nation to act with exemplarity at the Copenhagen talks" in December [...] The jewels of our cultural heritage, French wines, elegant and refined, are today in danger," [...] "Changes in the climate are leaving our vineyards increasingly vulnerable. Summer heat waves, recent hail storms in the Bordeaux region, new diseases coming from the south - these disturbances will soon be much more serious, [...] Our wines could lose their soul," they warned.

Bare necessities for wine

World-renowned American artist Spencer Tunick will soon team up with our French office - inviting hundreds of people to pose nude in a human installation that is committed to raising awareness about climate change. The installation will take place in early October, in a vineyard in the south of Burgundy.

Volunteers can already register online at

According to artist Spencer Tunick, "Whether it be vines, corn, wheat or rice, agriculture's sustainability around the globe is being threatened by climate change. Mother Nature is losing to man's aggressive grip on the Earth. Sometimes we forget how connected the body is to the earth, as the world is turning into a concrete jungle. With my work, I hope to bring attention to the vulnerability of our existence and to our connections to the foods we consume, for pleasure and survival."

Spencer Tunick's artwork has challenged humankind's relationship with its environment for more than 15 years. All around the world, he has staged more than 75 large body landscapes in the heart of urban or natural settings, each time gathering hundreds or thousands of volunteer nude models. In 2007, he achieved an intense illustration of humankind's tragic relationship with the climate, rallying 600 volunteers to pose naked on the Aletsch glacier in Switzerland, the biggest in Europe.

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