Vines are sensitive organisms. So are the people who work with them. It’s in vineyards that climate change is often most visible and its effects most keenly felt.
The vignerons of Chablis, whose incomes have long been at the mercy of violent frosts, were attuned to variations in weather patterns long before global heating reached the top of the international agenda.
“Over the last 10 years, it’s easier to talk about good years in Chablis, because we only had two,” admits Paul Espitalié, president of the Chablis Commission.
“In all the other years, we had problems. Frost was very bad in 2021, very bad in 2016 and 2017 too; we had drought, and too much heat, in 2019 and 2020. And hail in 2016. So yes, we do have more problems than we used to have.”
Warmer winters are a worry: buds appear earlier in the season and are vulnerable to April and May frosts.
It may seem ironic to be fretting about environmental Armageddon in a region where it’s traditional to light candles, and to burn straw and paraffin, to keep vines warm, and where thick smoke is seen as a helpful way to keep ice at bay.
But just as the climate is changing, so is the way in which Chablis growers are responding.
Vignerons are fitting electric heating cables to the trellising, which activates automatically when temperatures drop. For a medium sized producer, installation expenses are around €30,000. Running costs are, obviously, extra.
“But when you burn candles, it can be very expensive too,” Espitalié points out. “In 2021 we had eight days of frost, so we need to light candles for eight nights. You use 300, 400 candles per hectare, and the candle is €10.”
Espitalié is pragmatic about the challenges. “I think we are now prepared in Chablis to have good years and bad years,” he says. “The time where we had only good years is really in the past. We know that the climate is changing.
“The problem we have in Chablis is that we will have two or three bad crops and then a very important crop; now we must think of average production, and don’t assume that we will be able to produce maximum production each year.
“I think people are getting used to this problem. And perhaps they will think of keeping more wine in the cellar, because usually they sold everything before harvest. Now people are thinking a bit differently. Keeping a bit more wine, and ageing more wine perhaps, too.”
It might even be that, decades from now, Chardonnay is not the only grape in town. Experiments are ongoing with newly-created PIWI varieties that may stand up better to frost, but Espitalié says that part of the solution may be in the history books.
“It’s a little bit complicated because people want to keep Chardonnay, of course,” he says. “But in the past in Burgundy, there were other grapes. Chardonnay is now the main grape, but for not that far back, 100 years ago, you will find Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and many more.”