The vine leaves in SW France look beautiful at this time of year. Most days when I walk beside the vineyards, I photograph the vines and marvel at the changing nuanced colours of the leaves; gold, scarlet, bronze, green, and by extension at the changing colours of the landscape.
I never tire of looking at the view; the winding road disappearing into the distance, the tall, ghostly coloured water tower on the hilltop and the sprinkling of farmhouses. The straight lines of vines marching up and down the undulating landscape which fascinate and remind me of David Hockney’s colourful paintings of the Yorkshire dales.
There is even a friendly cat of no fixed address that parades each day in front of the local cemetery. I call him the Cemetery Cat.
At the same time as we enjoy the autumn sunshine highlighting the local beauty and warming us as we walk about, the local newspaper, Sud Ouest, is raising the alarm bells about the effects of climate change in the area, in particular the reduced rainfall.
Each day on the back page of the paper, there is a table showing the minimum and maximum temperatures in southwest France on the same day over the long term: 15, 30 and 50 years. The figures indicate that it appears that it is the minimum temperatures that have been affected; in other words the weather does not get as cold now as it did 50 years ago in this area. The newspaper also provides local 2017 climate statistics showing sunshine days are up and rainfall levels are down. 2017 is described as a dry and sunny year. The weather forecast for the next 15 days also indicates less rain than “usual” for this time of year.
The Sud Ouest local newspaper for Bergerac and Sarlat areas has a headline on Monday, November 13, 2017 that reads: Va-t-il falloir faire la danse de la pluie? In other words, “Will we have to do the rain dance?”
Certainly, some vine growers, aware of climate warming, are becoming concerned about the reduced level of precipitation at key moments in the vine production of grapes. In July this year, for example, there was 50% of the usual rainfall for the month.
The newspaper references individuals in the winemaking community who are saying its necessary to start the discussion and debate about vine irrigation in France, where it is essentially prohibited due to the multiple authorizations necessary to irrigate vines and with few exceptions for specific reasons, e.g. newly planted vines.
Currently, when there is lack of water, the stressed vines search for water in the ground below by sending down deep roots.
Vine irrigation is a sensitive topic. Some wine makers are concerned that irrigation will negatively affect or reduce the bountiful impact of vineyard ‘terroir “and lower the quality of the wines. Many believe that marginally stressing the vines helps to produce superior fruit. Some consider that France should allow vine irrigation as elsewhere in the world, where vine irrigation is well established. Others are concerned that irrigation will lead to increased production and affect the wine market and prices. Additionally, irrigation in periods of reduced precipitation will place demands on water management in the area, another consideration.
There is no question that the topic of vine irrigation in France will be on the table for discussion and debate going forward. This is an important discussion to follow in the wine world.
In the bigger picture, the reduced level of precipitation and increased temperatures affect more than the vineyards and wine making.
So, what to do?
Back to the newspaper’s question about rain dancing. Getting out the rain dancing shoes may be a good idea. It’s certainly one approach. However, I interpret the suggestion of rain dancing as code for the fact there is no easy answer to these questions. What’s interesting is that the local paper has taken the initiative to present a two-page article about the reduced rainfall this year. It has specifically commented on the impact on the wine industry, which is a major economic driver for the area.
Beneath the beauty of the area and the elegance of the wines are challenging issues to be addressed. Fortunately, there are imaginative, informed and creative wine makers in the area considering these issues and over time undoubtedly driving change in winemaking practices to accommodate environmental impacts.
Rain dancing? Perhaps, but to a new or different melody.
Sud Ouest Newspaper, November 13, 2017 Bergerac and Sarlat edition.