France’s drought hits crisis level

By Nicki Bourlioufas

As fires rage in the Napa Valley and threaten US wine production, the drought has worsened in France, with more areas reaching ‘crisis’ levels of water restrictions in September after the warmest European winter on record.

Most of France is now officially in drought with agricultural producers including grape growers facing severe water restrictions in much of the nation after a very warm spring, hot summer and lower-than-usual rainfall.

The persistent heat has forced water restrictions in 78 départements as at 25 September 2020, out of 95 on mainland France, with water usage limited to drinking, health and sanitation. The number of départements in a ‘crisis’ situation jumped to 54 from 50 in one week. The departments most affected are Haute-Vienne, Creuse, Gers, Jura, Doubs, Haute-Saône and Territoire de Belfort where non-priority water withdrawals including for agricultural use must end.

The chart below highlights the crisis drought situation in France as at 25 September 2020 and water restrictions in place. The heat in mid-September made the situation even worse.

In the US, out-of-control fires in the Napa and Sonoma counties are threatening US wine production. These region is the heart of wine production in the US, which is the fourth-largest wine-producing country in the world, after Italy, France and Spain. Climate change has made California much drier, making trees and other plants are more flammable.

Across the Atlantic, the 2019-20 winter in Europe was the warmest on record, with little snow, according to NASA. The spring was also drier and warmer than normal, with a historic heat wave in the middle of May.

The soaring temperatures have brought forward grape harvests, not just in Champagne but elsewhere in France. In the Loire Valley, in the centre of France where the drought has hit hard, harvesting has taken place up to one month earlier than usual, according to government reports.

Harvests brought forward

In Champagne, the harvest took place the earliest recorded since it started taking records in the 20th century, according to the Comité Champagne, the trade association for independent Champagne farmers and producers.

The harvest commenced on August 17, which was two weeks ahead of the ten-year average. The production of Champagne has been dramatically affected by drought as well as the economic downturn triggered by the Covid-19 crisis and is suffering a historic drop in its shipments.

The winegrowers and houses of Champagne agreed on a yield of 8,000 kilos / hectare (equivalent to 230 million bottles) for the 2020 harvest.  That is down from the 2019 maximum yield, which was set at 10,200 kilos / hectare  (down by 5.5% on 2018’s limit of 10,800kg/ha). The 2019 harvest was also affected by record-breaking heatwaves during the summer months of June and July and drought.

Australians drinking less Champagne

With lower production expected again this year, Champagne exports to Australia could keep dropping off. Sales of Champagne to Australia had dropped in 2019 even before COVID-19 hit sales.

The chart below shows the value of exports of Champagne and change from the previous year to global markets. After a decade of dynamic growth, exports to Australia fell for the second consecutive year in 2019 (down by 8.7% by volume and 7.9% by value). In contrast, the value of exports increased by 15.3% to the United States (Etats-Uni), 6.2% to the United Kingdom (Royaume-Uni) and 11.2% in Japan, as the chart below shows.

Source: Comité Champagne.

Within France, changes in local laws have worked against sales of Champagne too. If the drought and COVID-19 weren’t enough, 2019 saw the introduction of harsh laws against the promotion of Champagne.


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