The Heat Is On: High temps make for a special harvest in France

In case you’re out of touch with your TV, radio or newspaper, France is rather heated these days, and not just emotionally at the U.S. An extended heat wave has the normally cool French sweating, and the grapes in their most prized vineyards maturing unusually early. Temperatures have soared into the upper 90s and low 100s for days on end, dousing the fruit with constant warmth and making harvest time knock a bit early this year.

Apparently this has French grape growers grinning.

Normally, harvest begins in mid to late September, but this year, wineries in Bordeaux and Beaujolais began in mid-August — the earliest harvest since 1893. Some regions in the eastern reaches of French wine country, like Burgundy’s Chablis, are happily declaring this harvest the earliest on record.

Grapes need a long stint of warm, dry weather in order for the sugar and acidity to mellow. Heat transforms an otherwise tart, acidic grape into a plump, sweet grape, and that’s what vineyard managers aim for each year. So when Mother Nature delivers the goods minus the angst, life is fabulous. An early harvest also helps avoid possible later weather-related catastrophes in the vineyards. If there is rain during a harvest, the grapes can become watery, diluting flavor otherwise present in the fruit. Cold can shrivel the fruit on the vine. Humidity can grow mold.

Not that this harvest is all giggles. One problem grape growers can experience is over-ripeness. Think of a banana as it ages on your countertop. There is one day in a week where the banana is perfectly ripe for your taste. One more day, and it tastes different, too ripe. French grape growers had to rush back from their annual August vacations to taste and test the fruit to make sure it wasn’t already too ripe. And once they picked the grapes, they rushed them through the winemaking process before the semi-squashed grapes began fermenting in the hot sun.

When aging quality is the name of the game, as it is in France, high temperature is a friend. The extended heat drives up the sugar content in the grape, creating higher alcohol in the wine. Besides providing a quicker buzz, this trait allows for longer aging of wine.

It would be nice to run out and buy some of this greatly touted grape juice right now, but we won’t be able to taste this harvest’s gems for another two to four years. Mark it down on your calendar. Or better yet, maybe we’ll see some proof in this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais Nouveau, a fruity drink-now red released the third Thursday of November, is the first wine from each year’s harvest. Maybe we can judge for ourselves.


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