Global warming, and age-old enemy Britain, challenge France's winegrowers

As French wine producers start to struggle, at the same time the British wine-making industry starts to boom.

British vineyard: Right foreground: Denbies 100 hectare vineyard and winery, planted in the last century on south-facing chalk slopes of the North Downs. This is the vineyard which produces the English wine that was recently voted the best wine in the world.

Left background: the Surrey Hills, on whose Greensand scarps vineyards were abandoned in the Little Ice Age.

PARIS (AFP) - After New World producers Australia and Chile, French winegrowers could soon face new competition from Britain, as global warming helps grapes take root in milder cross-Channel climes, scientists say.

Commonly found on the British Isles from the Roman occupation until the 13th century, vineyards all but disappeared during the so-called Little Ice Age, a cooler period that lasted from the mid-14th to mid-19th centuries.

Now the climate clock seems set to reverse.

According to the French observatory on climate change, ONERC, even a minor increase in average global temperatures would cause "zones suited to the culture of grapes to move significantly further north."

A rise of one-degree Celsius by 2035 -- as predicted by one United Nations model -- would see winegrowing regions shift, on average, 180 kilometres (110 miles) northwards.

Even small changes, experts say, could have a serious impact on grape growing regions in which delicate grape varietals thrive within a narrow range of temperatures and climatic conditions.

By the year 2100, UN experts expect global temperatures to rise by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees on average.

"It is quite possible for there to be vineyards all over Normandy, Britain or the Netherlands by the end of the century," said Bernard Seguin, an expert at the French National Agronomy Institute (INRA) in southeastern Avignon.

Britain's modern-day wine business, which revived in the 1960s, now produces an average of 1.9 million bottles a year -- still a drop in the ocean compared to France's annual production of around seven billion bottles.

But its winegrowers hope that 2006, the latest of a string of especially hot summers, will yield a bumper crop, especially for sparkling white.

Over several years, a marginal rise in global temperatures -- bringing hotter, drier summers to southern England -- could help the fledgling industry spread its wings and challenge some of its French rivals.

Though for the past 20 years, a general rise in temperatures has spelled good news for the French wine trade, a confirmed trend towards global warming could bring other unwelcome challenges.

"A rise in temperatures brings sweeter wines from the harvest, with more alcohol and less acidity," said Seguin. "Cold years gave us wines with a low alcohol content, meaning we had to add sugar to boost it."

"But this applies to rises of one or two degrees Celsius. Any more than that and you no longer know what could happen."

Global warming could shake up the traditional geography of French wine with potentially devastating effects on local economies, as grape varieties confined to certain areas start moving north.

In particular, it could threaten France's system of Appellation d'Origine Controlee, which tightly regulates the sale of certain products -- from wines to cheeses -- tied to specific locations.

Each wine's particular flavour is intimately connected to the grape, the soil and the local climate.

"Will winegrowers be able to make the same product? With one or two extra degrees -- maybe. Beyond that, it is not certain," said Seguin.

Drought, if it occurs before the grapes have ripened, slows the plant's development. If it comes during the ripening period, it reduces the sugar content in the fruit.

The summer of 2003 -- when a heat wave gripped much of Europe -- was an early warning sign: the grape harvest was down 17 percent on average, almost entirely because of the climate, according to the ONERC.

Paradoxically, by encouraging plants to flower sooner, a warmer climate also increases their vulnerability to spring frost -- a "bete noire" of winegrowers.

Warming climate conditions between 1945 and 1999 have already brought the grape harvest forwards by three weeks to a month in many parts of France -- to its earliest point for the past 500 years, according to the ONERC. . . . (external - login to view)
Soon we will have no more Ice Wines.....

If by soon, you mean, 90 years from now...

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