Negev Terroir? Climate Change Pushes French Winemakers Into Desert Cultivation
More and more French wine growers are interested in the mechanics of growing grapes and producing wine in the world’s most arid regions—like Israel. Climate change is pushing the wine world to imagining all possibilities, including the most extreme.
On his family vineyard in the heart of the Negev desert — a vast expanse of sand and rocks that stretches from Israel’s border with Egypt to its border with Jordan — David Pinto and his team are getting ready to bottle the first white wine of the season.
The last harvest took place two weeks earlier, in September. “We closed out the harvest with two varietals that need more maturation time— Syrah and Muscat Canelli —which we use to make a really special dessert wine,” he explains.
Two years ago Pinto, the CEO of Pinto Winery, launched this adventure into Israeli wine. This year he produced 60,000 bottles, compared to 30,000 in 2021. His rows of vines spread out over ten hectares in this improbable terroir, a triangle amidst the Negev desert’s 13,000 km2 of dry and dusty earth.
“When the first producers set up in this desert 15 years ago, everyone thought they were crazy. Making wine in the desert? Back then people called it a hippie dream, but nobody's saying that anymore,” Pinto says. “There are 300 hectares of vines and 30 producers in the Negev, and the numbers grow every year.”
It’s a success that’s largely due to the will of the Israeli state. Seven years ago, the Minister of Agriculture launched an experimental program to test the conditions for ripening grapes in the desert. 36 different varietals were planted and observed over a number of successive years.
Malbec, Syrah, Grenache
In a region where temperatures hit 40 °C nearly every day, where the sun shines 325 days a year and the annual precipitation rate doesn’t exceed 80 millimeters, the need to carefully select what grape varietals will be cultivated is obvious.
“On our winery, we chose malbec, syrah, grenache, and petit-verdot for reds,” Pinto says. “For whites, we went with chenin blanc, chardonnay, roussanne, and viognier. Here in the Negev, merlot and cabernet sauvignon don’t grow very well.”
Pointing to France, Pinto underlines the ways that “climate events in June, July, and August” have made “what [they] are doing in the Negev pertinent for certain French viticulture.” In fact, several French wine growers have gone to visit him following the heat waves that swept across France this past summer. They were looking for lessons on what varietals had been able to adapt to the desert soil, how to balance between sugar and acidity and 40 °C temperatures, how to control alcohol levels, and when to harvest.
Pinto winery's vineyards in the Negev desert
Missing out on 200 million Euros a year
Desertification is no longer just a problem for scientists. “The wine world, specifically the French wine world, is starting to think about it as well,” observe Matthieu Dubernet, president of a lab bearing his name, specialized in oenology and environmental analysis. “In France we’re in a beginning phase of desertification, but that doesn’t mean that in the short term we’ll be planting vines in the middle of dunes and sand and cactuses. In agronomy, desertification means that we’re in the process of seeing soils degrade, which leads to a loss in fertility,” he explains. “Desertification of soils is in progress all around the Mediterranean region.”
This phenomenon is showing up in the figures. “In the Languedoc region, we are no longer seeing sufficient harvests,” he says. “Instead of producing 14 million hecto-liters of wine per year like we did 20 years ago, we’re producing 11 or 12 million, which comes out to a loss of 200 million euros per year.”
This is due to a loss in wine producing land — 350,000 planted hectares today compared with 450,000 hectares 20 years ago — but also in an “extremely brutal” loss in soil quality.
“In 20 years, the resiliency of the wineries has diminished—the production capacity has gone down, quantitatively and qualitatively. The more that desertification advances in France, the more the problem of soil quality is going to confront us, and wine growers need to prepare,” says Dubernet.
It's a water thing
Yves d’Amécourt is one of the wine growers who has decided to invest in research. “Right now we’re developing a program to increaser the quantity of organic matter in the soil,” he says. The soil he’s talking about is the soil beneath his vines, in Sauveterre-de-Guyenne, where his winery, l’Entre-deux-Mers, is located.
Desertification poses the same challenge to winemakers around the world
The organic matter in soil is essentially composed of mushrooms and bacteria, and is of primary importance for fertility and quality. “If soil loses 1% of its organic material, which has happened these past 20 years, it loses about 20% of its water-absorption ability, which means roughly 80 tons of water per hectare ends up evaporating into the atmosphere,” Amécourt explains. And even if there’s no single answer to desertification, the phenomenon poses the same basic challenge to winemakers around the world: water resources.
According to a study from France’s National Institute for Agronomic Research, 56% of the world’s wine growing regions could disappear with global temperature rise of 2 °C, and 85% with a 4 °C increase.
Agro-climatologist Serge Zaka notes that in the south of France in 2050, we can expect 80 millimeters less precipitation in between early May and late October. “The problem is that’s the exact time when grapevines need water," Zaka says. "And even if it rains more during the winter that won’t increase the amount of water found in the soil, because more intense precipitation means that soil has less time to absorb all the water—it will just runoff the surface instead of soaking down into the earth.”
Since the heatwaves of this past summer, the debate around irrigation has become more intense.
Pickup driving through vineyards in the Negev desert
Pickup driving through Pinto winery's vineyards in the Negev desert
To irrigate, or not to irrigate?
In the Negev desert, like in Mendoza (capital of Argentinian wineries at the foot of the Andes), in California, in China, in Spain, and more broadly around the rest of the world, irrigation has always been a feature of agriculture.
In France however, when it comes to AOC wines (those regionally certified and adhering to specific winemaking practices), which is the vast majority of French output, regulations largely forbid irrigation as a way of avoiding modifying the terroir in which grapes are grown.
Making wine in the desert is expensive
“In France, we irrigate between 5-8% of vineyards, compared with 20% in Spain, or 90% in Australia or the United States,” specifies Pascal Laville, a national inspector at the National Institute for Origin and Quality, a governmental food and agriculture regulator. Due to the 2022 summer drought, certain Bordeaux winemakers received special permission to irrigate their vines for the first time ever.
“The French don’t know how to irrigate the way that many other winemakers around the world know how to do, and they've asked me a lot of questions about the techniques we use here,” says Pinto.
For example, the scraggly soil beneath his vines had to be deeply cleaned. “With such a high salinity level here, we had to wash the earth, irrigate before planting, then add fertilizer. We use a drip-irrigation system in summer and winter, evening, night, and morning, before it gets too hot,” he explains.
Making wine in the desert is expensive—200,000 shekels (60,000 euros) once all the necessary preparation work has been taken into account. That’s six times the cost of wine from Yves d’Amécourt’s fields in Gironde, around Bordeaux. “But if the coming years look like the one that just happened, we’ll be forced to irrigate our vines,” says Amécourt. “At least, if we don’t want them to die.”
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