In Northern France, Warming Presses Fall Grape Harvest Into Summertime

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 2, 2007

ROUFFACH, France -- On a cobweb-encrusted rafter above his giant steel grape pressers, Ren? Mur? is charting one of the world's most tangible barometers of global warming.

The evidence, scrawled in black ink, is the first day of the annual grape harvest for the past three decades. In 1978, it was Oct. 16. In 1998, the date was Sept. 14. This year, harvesting started Aug. 24 -- the earliest ever recorded, not only in Mur?'s vineyards, but also in the entire Alsace wine district of northeastern France.

"I noticed the harvest was getting earlier before anybody had a name for it," said 59-year-old Mur?, the 11th generation of his family to produce wine from the clay and limestone slopes of the Vosges Mountains near the German border. "When I was young, we were harvesting in October with snow on the mountaintops. Today we're harvesting in August."

Throughout the wine-producing world, from France to South Africa to California, vintners are in the vanguard of confronting the impact of climate change. Rising temperatures are forcing unprecedented early harvests, changing the tastes of the best-known varieties of wine and threatening the survival of centuries-old wine-growing regions.

In the hot Mediterranean vineyards -- the first to feel the effects of longer, drier summers -- vintners are harvesting grapes at night to protect the fragile fruit at the critical picking stage. Growers in Spain, Italy and southern France are buying land at higher terrains for future vineyards.

Some champagne producers in northern France -- whose grapes were ready for harvest in August, earlier than in any year on record -- are eyeing properties in southern England, the current beneficiary of planet warming. The British wine industry is reemerging for the first time in the 500 years since a mini-ice age cooled Europe.

While Provence and other southern regions of France have suffered through debilitating droughts and high temperatures for several seasons, scientists and growers have been stunned by the dramatic evolutions in the northernmost regions of Alsace and Champagne, long considered less susceptible to global warming.

"Usually Alsace is one of the last regions to harvest in France, and this year we were the first ones," said G?rard Boesch, president of the Alsace Wine Association. "That's astonishing. Vintners wonder how all this will turn out in a few years."

In a chain reaction of nature, climate change is also sending new insects and diseases north. The leafhopper is migrating north with warmer weather, spreading yellow leaf disease in Alsace vineyards for the first time, according to a regional research institute.

Scientists and vintners say wine grapes are the best agricultural measure of climate change because of their extraordinary sensitivity to weather and the meticulous data that have been kept concerning the long-lived vines.

"The link of wine to global warming is unique because the quality of wine is very dependent on the climate," said Bernard Seguin, an authority on the impact of global warming and viniculture at the French National Agronomy Institute. "For me, it is the ultimate expression of the consequences of climate change."

Nowhere is the impact more acute or better documented than in France. Here, the $13 billion wine industry is not only crucial to the economy but also more inextricably entwined in the culture and heritage of the people than in any wine-producing country on earth.


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