Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

Andrew Jefford: France's hottest day – the implications for winemakers and wine drinkers

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Andrew Jefford Andrew Jefford / 17 July 2019

The View From Here: Dog Days

It's been hot. So hot that computers slow to a crawl, grass crinkles, thoughts unspool. Until this summer, France's hottest day topped out at 44.1°C, recorded in August 2003. Nine days ago that record was beaten. Not pipped by a squeak, but eclipsed by almost 2°C – and it happened 36 km from where I write this. Gallargues-le-Montueux is a village of 3,700 people in muscat country near Lunel, and at four-twenty in the afternoon of June 28th the mercury reached 45.9°C. Our village recorded 44.4°C.

Dog Days – on the 28th June 2019 the mercury hit 45.9°C in the village of Gallargues-le-Montueux
Dog Days – on the 28th June 2019 the mercury hit 45.9°C in the village of Gallargues-le-Montueux

Lunel may not be muscat country this year. Christophe Puech of Domaine Puech in St Clément-la-Rivière, our closest wine estate, stopped by this morning. He has friends there who think they have lost most of their crop. Many Languedoc growers have lost 30 or 40 per cent to the heat spike. No vine, not even heat-loving muscat, is ever happy as the temperature approaches 40°C. Beyond 37°C or so the reproductive cycle stops, thus the maturation of the fruit is blocked; the vine switches to survival mode, fearing for its life. It has nowhere to hide from the excoriating sun. The vine has no darkened room to lie down in, no swimming pool, no cold beer.

Even sun-loving muscat vines will struggle in this kind of heat
Even sun-loving muscat vines will struggle in this kind of heat

I remember visiting vineyards in Champagne in August 2003, and seeing grapes which appeared to have turned to plastic, baked hard on the bunch. I remembered, too, the hot northerlies blowing out of the heart of Australia in early 2009 when we lived in Adelaide. You stepped out from a cool car into what felt like a fan oven; you could see the vines and their leaves turning to brown paper all about you.

It will happen again; it will happen more often. This is unsettling. Life on earth flourishes within very narrow temperature bands. It's -216°C on Uranus today, and 9,500°C on the surface of Sirius, the dog star (hence our 'dog days'; hence the fact that a heat wave is, in French, la canicule, derived from the Latin canicula or 'little dog'). There's no reason why this planet's mean surface temperature should remain at around 14°C. We've insouciantly loaded our atmosphere with carbon; now it's taking us on a journey of uncertain destination.

Wine is articulate enough to report back to us about the comfort or discomfort of its mother vines; it gives us a sensual read-out of the climatic conditions in which it comes into being. There isn't a wine region whose harvest dates haven't come forward by a month over the past fifty years. Rising alcohol levels and sometimes exaggeratedly ripe flavours tell the same story.

We cannot despair; humanity is ingenious; plants have an adaptive capacity. But wine drinkers also need to be ready for change – by opening their minds to new varieties from old places; by rewarding those who capture the CO2 produced in fermentation; by ending our relationship with heavy, energy-intense glass bottles; by paying fairly for wine miles. There is no alternative. We, too, have no darkened room to which we can retire. No swimming pool. No cold beer.

Read more from award-winning writer Andrew Jefford

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