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France

Winegrowers debate climate change effects at Bordeaux fair

media A visitor tastes wine at Vinexpo, the world's biggest wine fair, in Bordeaux, southwestern France. Nicolas Tucat/AFP

In an effort to save their livelihoods, winegrowers from France, Spain, Italy, have gathered at Vinexpo, the world's biggest wine fair in Bordeaux, south-western France. They discussed solutions to mitigate climate challenges.

Today's wine industry has to deal with serious climate changes: floods, hailstones, drought and sometimes even frost.

In this context, winemakers need to save the vines they manage to grow.

In the past few years rising temperatures have devastated crops in warmer climates worldwide.

Last year in Australia and Chile, for example, an unprecedented heatwave sparked forest fires and in France a hailstorm nearly wiped out entire harvests in April.

Wine production in 2016 slumped to its lowest level in two decades, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.

"The changes and the harm will get worse in the future no matter what action society takes, because of time lags in the climate system and the energy system," John Holdren, professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy at Harvard University, told the AFP news agency.

"The future harm will be much smaller if society takes strong remedial action than if it does not," Holdren added.

Low-tech approach

The planet's surface temperature has risen by about 1.1°C since the late 19th century, according to Nasa, intensifying the risk of bushfires and droughts, while altering rainfall patterns.

This has in turn affected wine's harvesting seasons.

"Vines are very sensitive plants," Gaia Gaja, co-owner of leading Gaja Winery in Italy, told AFP. "They're like a thermometer. They register every little variation that there is around them".

Winemakers have found that global warming can cause grapes to ripen earlier, which changes their sugar and acid levels, leading to lower-quality wines with higher alcohol content.

"We need big changes," Miguel Torres, president of Spanish wine company Bodegas Torres, said during a news conference on the issue. He suggested that wine-producing estates join together in a global grouping to try to counter the effects of climate change and encourage changes by other companies.

For some winemakers these changes mean using low-tech approaches to delay harvesting times and increase soil moisture.

They are experimenting with pruning later or using grape varieties that take longer to ripen, or thrive in warmer climes or are resistant to drought. But these grapes are not yet ready to be turned into great wines, according to winemakers.

They are also experimenting with growing drought-tolerant vines, Gaja said.

Her company's Italian vineyards eschew chemical products in favour of more organic compounds such as mulches and compost to keep the soil moist or allowing grass to grow freely underneath vines to provide shade in dry spells and suck up excess moisture when wet.

'Premium wines at risk'

Others are lobbying for public support.

"Everybody understands something about wine," Holdren said. "Practically everybody drinks wine and many influential people drink premium wine and I think to the extent we can persuade influential people that their premium wines are at risk, we will have a very powerful voice in this discussion."

For winemakers who have no choice but adapt to this new normal, solutions do not come cheap.

The Torres company has invested about 12 million euros in research, trying to alter the CO2 content of different matter -- such as algae and methane -- to recycle water and lower by 25 percent its energy consumption.

"Our job in the last 15 years has become not about taking care of vineyards but taking care of life," Gaja said.

Disappearing vineyards have become another consequence of climate change, prompting companies to look for planting harvests elsewhere.

Torres for example has bought land in the south of Chile, near lakes, while the French wine and champagne company Taittinger has gone to Britain in hopes of finding vineyards to make its sparkling wine.

- with AFP

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