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Climate Change Threatens Wine and a Way of Life in Jura

Climate Change Threatens Wine and a Way of Life in Jura

Small groups of wine lovers sat on the banks of the Cuisance River, eastern France, between the Arbois commune’s ancient stone houses, sipping chardonnay or Trousseau, both from the Jura Mountains, one of France’s most loved wine regions.

It was the first time that many Americans had been to Europe since last year’s coronavirus pandemic closed the borders. With palpable excitement, they surveyed maps and guides as they marked potential destinations for their next tasting. The mood was more serious in the nearby vineyards where the annual grape harvest was just completed.

Scotland’s business and government leaders meet a consequential United Nations climate conferenceJura winegrowers are feeling the effects of climate change on their livelihoods, despite global efforts to combat it. Climate change has caused record crop losses, including hail, frost, and higher temperatures. These extreme weather conditions have exacerbated over the past five year, leading to despair and suicides. Locals worry about how they will preserve the unique characteristics of their wines if their grape harvests fail repeatedly.

“We lost 85 percent of our crop compared to last year,” said Dodane Fabrice, 49, the owner of Domaine de Saint-Pierre, a small wine producer specializing in organic viticulture. “It is truly a disaster, and people are angry because there is so much demand but not enough wine to sell.”

Despite being one of France’s smallest wine regions, spanning just over 50 miles and representing only 0.2 percent of the country’s wine production, Jura has an economy heavily reliant on winemaking, and its vintages in the past 15 years have increasingly drawn international acclaim. The area’s diverse soil and grape varieties have produced boundless shades and styles, but its organic, naturalSparkling wines are particularly popular in New York City, Tokyo, Copenhagen, and London.

Jura’s semi-continental climate, traditionally defined by cold winters and dry, warm summers, has created the wines’ distinctive properties. However, the weather has become more unpredictable since 2015. One of the most dramatic changes has been the warmer winter temperatures, causing vine buds to break — or open — early, leaving them exposed to frost, which can destroy the vines in one night. “When the winters were cold, the vines would sleep through the frost, but now with the warmer winters, they wake too early and become vulnerable,” said Gabriel Dietrich, director of Fruitiere Vinicole Arbois, the largest cooperative, of 100 wineries, in the Jura region.

However, Jura was subject to severe weather conditions almost daily in 2021.

“This year we had terrible frost in April, then hail in June, followed by a horrible cold summer with lots of rain that caused disease in the vineyards and rotted the grapes,” Mr. Dietrich said.

Since 2017, the Fruitiere Vinicole Arbois’ output has been steadily declining. Although the cooperative usually produces around 475,000gallons (18,000 hectoliters) of wine after a normal season, its 2017 yield fell to 185,000gallons. It has continued to fall, with 2021 producing only 119,000 gallons.

“We are living a true crisis in the Jura; we’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Dietrich said. “Some winegrowers weren’t even able to harvest this year, because they had nothing.”

You could see the low morale of the winemakers as you drove through Arbois and its surrounding villages. The rows of red and orange-colored vines were clearly visible. One winemaker was seen laying down on a log and looking out into the field, puffing on a cigarette. The other sat in a tractor, looking at tourists approaching him, and shaking his head to indicate that there wasn’t any ripe wine.

“Coming out here, we had hoped to meet some of the winemakers and taste their wines, but it seems that most of them aren’t in the mood for visitors,” said Matthew Myers, 67, a retired security analyst from Maine, who was visiting Arbois with his wife after a two-week wine tour of the larger Burgundy region nearby.

“We knew the French were struggling with changing climates, but we didn’t realize how bad it was until we got to Jura,” he said. “You can taste the impact by comparing different vintages. Yesterday I tried a chardonnay from 2019 and then from 2020 and there was a big difference.”

2018 was the last year that the region enjoyed favorable weather conditions, and wine experts claim that this year produced exceptional wines. However, with high demand and limited crops, prices have risen and some labels, such as the 2018 Pierre Overnoy Arbois–Pupillin Poulsard are difficult to find. This has placed tremendous pressure on winegrowers to maintain production, and many are struggling just to survive.

This year, four revered French winemakers died. One of them, Pascal Clairet from Domaine de la Tournelle was an icon of organic viticulture, Arbois. He produced some of France’s most prized natural wines over the past two decades. His death shocked the region.

“The Jura is an extreme example because it is this tiny region that offers a breadth of range and particularity, and the second a certain cuvée gets good press coverage, there is suddenly this huge interest and not enough to go around, which puts an immense burden on the winegrowers,” said Wink Lorch, author of “Jura Wine” and a wine expert who has been studying the region for more than 20 years.

“In the early 2000s there was a real effort by Jura winemakers to attract export sales and, related to this, the wine-aficionado tourists from overseas,” she said. “Now that has almost backfired, with all the weather problems and the success of their wines.”

However, climate change has not had a detrimental impact on winemaking, especially for red grape varieties such as pinot noir that are more tolerant to hotter summers. When a bud breaks early and is exposed to heat from the sun, the ripening of the grape accelerates, giving it a nice color and a good amount of tannins, said Jacques Hauller, facility manager of Domaine Maire & Fils, one of the largest wine estates in the Jura area.

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“In this way, the challenge of global heating helped us a lot because we were able to make some pinot noir that won awards in the U.K. and France,” he said. “Usually this region is not known for high-level pinot noir.”

Domaine Maire & Fils spans more than 490 acres and has managed to consistently produce a steady stream of wine from the Jura region, even this year, after losing around 40 to 50 percent of its crop compared to 2020. In one room of the company’s winery, around 300,000 bottles of wine were stacked high, maturing for three to 20 months before being shipped to global markets.

“This year we had lots of problems with our organic production because there was a lot of mildew and disease,” Mr. Hauller explained, pointing at rows of chardonnay vines on one of the low-lying flat plains of the estate. “Of course, it’s much harder for individual or smaller producers who have a few parcels. Some of them lost everything.”

Mr. Fabrice and other Vignerons have tried a variety of techniques to protect their crops from winter frosts. These include using warm wind machines and straw bales and burning candles. However, many complain that these methods are too expensive and limited in their effectiveness.

Winemakers are open to trying new grape varieties that are more resistant to changing weather patterns. However, France is very strict about what grape varieties can be grown in its wine regions. The country’s regulatory body, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, has tweaked rules in recent years to allow for research and development of new varieties for climate adaptation, but the process is arduous and slow and it could take years before new variations are approved, winemakers say.

“It’s quite complicated and will take time,” Mr. Hauller said. “I share the opinion with many other winemakers that the impact of global heating is faster than our process.”

As they explore long-term solutions, winemakers in Jura are increasingly opening trade companies and purchasing other grape varieties so that they can make “Vin de France,” French wines that are not labeled by region or appellation.

“We have to make Vin de France to pay for our expenses,” said Mr. Fabrice. “I’m an optimist and I’m hopeful for 2022, but if it continues like this, how will we continue to make Jura wine? I really don’t know.”


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