A dry year in Provence

People and vines have a lot in common. A little stress can benefit the human body, pushing us out of our comfort zone, spurring us on to greater things. The same is true of vines: limit their water and nutrient supply among the rows, and they will thrive off the competition, producing grapes with concentrated sugars and flavours and balanced acidity. Give vines too much love and they grow at a leisurely pace, with no urgent reason to propagate.

Vines work hardest when their survival is threatened. Their reproductive future lies in those juicy grapes – so they stop growing leafy and vigorous, and concentrate on the berries instead.

But human or vine, we can all only be pushed so far, and for so long. Too much stress leads to burnout. Here in Cotignac, the heart of rosé wine production in Provence, there has been close to zero rainfall all year. This limited water supply benefits the vines to an extent, forcing their roots to dig down deep to the water table below. The grapes ripen earlier, their sugar levels rise faster – but only up to a point as acidity levels soon begin to decrease. Their period of optimal ripeness will be shorter. As with people, apply too much pressure past their natural limits, and vines shut down. And then the year’s wine production will not be met.

Winemakers in Provence are praying for rain. The August 15 Bank Holiday, the Feast of the Assumption, usually signals a change in the weather here. Rain is vital to the success of the harvest but timing is everything. If it rains too close to the harvest, the grapes will soak up all the water and become diluted, while hailstorms can wipe out an entire year’s work in a matter of days.

The weeks coming up to the harvest are precarious. This year, due to the drought, the grapes are only just starting to reach Veraison – to change colour and soften, becoming ripe and ready for picking. It’s the tell-tale sign that the harvest must soon begin but once ripening has started, the lack of rain is the biggest problem: the vine will not be able to hold to those optimal levels of acidity and sugar.

Livelihoods and passions are intertwined in the competitive world of winemaking and as every lover knows, no matter how strongly you feel, you can’t force a relationship to work. The weather and the vines engage in their delicate dance every year. The end result, the quality of the grapes, is an act of alchemy that the winemakers can only work to support as best they can. But perhaps the precarious nature of viticulture and wine production is what makes the most beautiful wines. No matter how tough the struggle, the journey is always worth it.

Nuria Stylianou

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