Trapped in the relentless tentacles of a historic global heatwave, farmers across the world are being forced to adjust.
Wine grapes are ripening faster than ever under ever-changing conditions.
In France’s Southern Rhone, Domaine de Mourchon has experienced heat that started in late May and hasn’t abated. Located 1,000 feet above sea level on the same limestone outcroppings as Gigondas in the foothills on Mont Ventoux, it is accustomed to a wide diurnal shift that thus far has yet to emerge as the heat takes only a minimal break at night.
Rainfall is down 50% since October. Unlike California or Washington where an arid growing season is a near certainty, the Southern Rhone is no stranger to April, May or June rains.
Grape growing can occur because the cold, northwesterly “mistral” winds blow with such vigor that they dry out any moisture and prevent moldy conditions from forming on the fruit.
This year, the mistral, whose winds reach up to 60 mph, has come, but the rain hasn’t.
“We have had a lot of mistral,” said Domaine de Mourchon estate manager Kate McKinlay. “It usually happens right after the rainfall, which would frustrate tourists to the area, because the wind is so strong it’ll blow [a] book right out of [their] hand at the swimming pool or they can’t eat outside.
“But for winemakers, it’s our best friend because it keeps disease away,” she said. “This year, it’s coming in without rain, and that’s accelerating the maturation of the grapes. Things are going quite rapidly right now, especially for the syrah, which is almost at veraison, and that usually happens the second week of August.”
The Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC is home to blends of syrah and grenache that feature an array of dark fruit flavors, herbal notes and meaty characteristics; it can have bold tannins and dense profiles that can improve with age as the wine gradually comes out of its powerful, youthful shell.
“Syrah brings the tannins, and is the architecture of the blend,” McKinlay said. “The grenache is round and fruitier, and puts the flesh on syrah’s bones. The grenache is the most commonly planted in the south. Most people love it because it fills out the blend and the tank.”
It’s not the first unusually hot and arid summer; as recently as 2019, McKinlay had to deal with a record-breaking June heatwave. But late August rain and a cool, dry September acted as moderators to produce a vintage she said was “splendid, very rich and dense with plenty of complexity.”
The experience proved to her the vines are “unbelievably resistant,” and as the oldest blocks of the vineyard near their 70th birthdays, showed the strength of their deep roots. Only 80 of the 740 acres at Domaine de Mourchon are planted to vineyards, which are currently organically farmed. The process to move to biodynamic farming is underway.
It’s a move meant to best preserve the property for future generations. The surrounding woodlands that aren’t under vine act as a buffer to any neighbors that don’t use ecologically responsible farming practices, and increase the biodiversity of life around the estate.
“We are trying to focus on our advantages,” said McKinlay, whose parents bought the property in 1998. “We’ve been making wine here for 2,000 years. Our philosophy is based on knowing the place, terroir and working with the unique circumstances we’ve got.
“Long-term, I want to think about my kids or their kids and what is our greatest asset that we need to protect, and that’s thinking long-term about the health of our soil and how to best protect it from the soil up,” she said. “We can work on our biodiversity, and find ways to make the environment stronger, more resilient and more autonomous – to give these vines a long, healthy, productive life without exploiting them.”
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two from the Côtes du Rhône:
• Cellier des Dauphins Les Dauphins AOC Côtes du Rhône, High Environmental Value, Blanc 2021 ($10.99): Winemaker Laurent Paré knows how to capture the finest “crunchy” qualities of a white wine. In a blend of 70% grenache blanc and 30% viognier, there are flavors of pear, Granny Smith apple, honeysuckle and fennel bulb.
• Les Vignerons de l’Enclave AOC Côtes du Rhône Rouge La Résistance Sans Soufre 2020 ($18): Black cherry, leather, anise, charcuterie meats and a rich tannic structure. Sampled on the second and third day after it was opened, it revealed more fleshy, opulent flavors.
Three from the Southern Rhone:
• Les Vignerons du Castelas AOC CDRV Signargues Rouge Domaine du Fournier 2018 ($16): Black pepper, blackberry, thyme, rosemary and sage flavors sweep in to combine with hearty tannins.
• Domaine de Galuval AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Le Coq Volant Rouge 2019 ($15): Black and red fruits offer an introduction, as rosemary and plum compote come in on the finish.
• Domaine de Mourchon AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret Grande Réserve Rouge 2019 ($25): Blackberry flavors mingle with anise and ground clove notes. Bold and full-bodied.