LE CANNET-DES-MAURES – After a wildfire blazed through a once-picturesque nature reserve near the French Riviera, winemakers who grow the region’s celebrated crop are taking stock of the damage.
Rows of charred grapevines stand next to a vast expanse of steaming black vegetation devastated by the fire, which raged for a week in late August. The blaze left two people dead, injured 27 and forced some 10,000 people to evacuate around the Var region, not far from the famed coastal resort of Saint-Tropez. The region is well-known for its Cotes de Provence wines.
At least one small wine estate saw its vines completely destroyed. And the grapes that survived may be too smoke-damaged to produce a sellable wine.
Pierre Audemard of the Domaine de la Giscle vineyard lost his cellar full of stock and his equipment in the fire. "We're receiving hundreds of messages from people who want to buy our wine, but we have nothing left,” he told local broadcaster France-Bleu.
The MDCV wine group, which owns several vineyards in the region affected, considers itself relatively lucky, but is still facing losses.
Some 15% of the vines at the group’s Chateau des Bertrands vineyard burned down. A couple of rows of burnt grape vines separate the rest of the lush and untouched vineyard from the blackened forest beyond.
Because of efforts by firefighters and the layout of the vineyards, the fire was stopped in its tracks.
“The vineyards act like a natural firefighting wall, they separate the winds and prevent the fire from moving from one plot to another,” said Maxime Mathon, head of communications for MDCV.
Others were not so fortunate. A smaller wine estate across the road, nestled in a dense section of trees and vegetation, was completely consumed by the fast-moving fire.
As firefighters descended onto one vineyard that was becoming cornered by the smoky fire, a family that had stayed behind instead of evacuating tried to put out smaller flames with garden shovels.
For the winemakers lucky enough not to have lost their crops, their attention now shifts to the lingering effects that could threaten their wine production during the upcoming harvest.
“Even if a vineyard has not been directly touched by the fire, the smoky winds can actually affect the taste of the wine,” said Mathon.
Winemakers will only know if they have a sellable product during the vinification process, where they ferment the grape juice, turning it into wine.
In an industry that prizes the consistent quality and style of wine hailing from the Var region, the concern is that the fire could have tainted the crop too much for its traditional attributes to come to full fruition.
“We will have to have very strict tasting sessions for this harvest to ensure that the product we are creating is as usual high quality,” said Mathon.
It's been a particularly difficult year for French wine, after a surprise April frost killed off vines and caused 2 billion euros in industry losses. A study later by World Weather Attribution said the frost was made more likely by climate change.
Winemakers in the Var region have long dealt with hot summers and the risk of fires, and the latest blaze was among several to hit the Mediterranean region this summer. Scientists say that the world will see more and more such extreme weather events, driven by climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.
Today, the grounds of Chateau des Bertrands are empty, except for a group of well-kept horses that slowly graze next to a section of grapevine. While firefighters battled the wildfire, the horses had been hurriedly rushed into trailers for evacuation as the growing flames approached.