Storms threaten French wine harvest

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Wine makers Languedoc-roussillon

Freak storms have ravaged France's Languedoc-Roussillon region,
threatening to damage the new wine crop by leaving some vineyards
under water at the crucial harvesting stage.

Much of Montpellier turned into a ghost town late Tuesday as police told shops and cafés to shut after France's meteorological office put the whole region on a 'red alert' for extreme weather.

The deluge that came was, in the end, less violent than expected, but still flung down enough water to flood villages and vineyards in the region - just as wine makers had begun their annual grape harvest.

Jean Clavel, president of the 'Couteaux du Languedoc' Appelation Contrôlée (AOC) region north of Montpellier, told​ that the weather had interrupted harvesting but the situation was manageable.

"It depends what happens in the next few days because they have predicted more rain. But at the moment we are coping and do not expect a drop in quality.

"If the Mistral [a famous strong wind current that passes through the region] comes next week as predicted, then that should also help to dry out the vines."

The situation was worse further down the Languedoc in the region's prestigious Minervois and St. Chinian wine areas. These regions saw more than 300mm of rain within 24 hours, with more still forecast in the next few days.

Jean-Jacques Moreau, the head of a distillery in the Minervois region, said there was lots of water everywhere and much of the harvesting had stopped. "If you want to go into the vines it is impossible,"​ he said.

Moreau said it was difficult to predict the effects at this stage. He said the machines that many vintners now use to harvest could help them to save the situation, yet those wine makers still picking grapes by hand could have more problems making up time.

The flooding continues a particularly difficult period for French wine makers, hit by falling domestic consumption, shrinking export markets and over-production.

Moreau added that he was still confident that this year's production would be very good quality. A long dry spell preceding the recent storms had helped to produce smaller grapes of higher quality, while a low level of disease this summer has also aided wine makers.

Spanish wine makers have also said they expect a good quality year, despite lower yields, thanks to droughts across the country.

This year has shown perhaps more than ever that Europe's wine makers will have to get used to dealing with increasingly extreme weather conditions.

Ironically, the prolonged dry spells forced many AOC wine makers in southern France to ask industry regulators for special dispensation to carry on watering their vines after the early August deadline.

A study published in 2003 by Gregory Jones, of the US Southern Oregan University, said survival of today's wine regions would depend on how well vintners adapt to the effects of climate change.

He said that the historical and cultural identity associated with some wine regions may have to change. For example, a region known for superb Merlots may have to switch to more suitable grape varieties due to evolving weather conditions.

Even so, Jones said wine quality did not appear to have been hurt by a temperature rise of two degrees Celsius since the 1950s. "There were no negative impacts."

The study predicted temperatures would rise by two degrees Celsius across the world's 27 top wine regions over the next 50 years.

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