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Climate Change Forces French Vineyards to Alter the Way They Make Wine

Growers change grape varieties and reshape the landscape to protect some of the world’s most valuable vineyards from warmer temperatures

By NICK KOSTOV
Mon, Sep 26, 2022 8:38amGrey Clock 4 min

BORDEAUX, France—The wildfire began on an usually dry summer day in a forest bordering the Liber Pater vineyard. Winemaker Loïc Pasquet saw the flames rise and spread toward his precious vines, which produce Bordeaux that sells for $30,000 a bottle.

Hours before evacuating Mr. Pasquet and his staff destroyed the grass around the vineyard to prevent it from catching fire and dug trenches to block the blaze’s path. He also sprayed local trees with water drawn from the vineyard’s ponds. The vineyard was spared.

The emergency measures are just some of the steps winegrowers are taking to survive in a region that is home to some of the world’s finest wines and sharpest temperature increases. Many growers are harvesting weeks before grapes traditionally ripen; others are investing in land located in cooler climates. Some are transforming the landscape of wine country itself, planting more trees to ensure better water retention, and less erosion and runoff after heavy rain.

The situation has become so dire that winemakers in Bordeaux and other regions have begun to change practices that have been in place for generations. Winemaking is tightly regulated in France with rules governing everything from the location of specific appellation to its grape content.

This year vineyards around Bordeaux were allowed to irrigate their vines, a practice that is usually forbidden. The French organization that governs wine appellations also recently approved six more grape varieties to be added to the grapes currently allowed for the production of Bordeaux wines. The new additions include four reds—Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, and Touriga Nacional—and two whites, Alvarinho and Liliorila. All were chosen for their ability to thrive in warmer, drier conditions.

“It was crazy,” said Georgie Hindle, a wine expert who covers the Bordeaux region at wine publication Decanter. “No one knows if this decision will change the profile of a classic claret.”

In February, United Nations climate scientists published a report stating that surface temperatures in the Mediterranean region—which includes Southern France—have already risen 1.5 degrees since the preindustrial era. That is higher than the average increase of 1.1 degrees for the entire planet, according to the U.N., exposing the region to higher risk of heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather events.

Wine grapes are highly sensitive to changes in the climate. Sunshine warms and ripens the grapes, producing sugar that converts to alcohol. Too much sun risks burning the grapes. It also heightens the alcohol levels, leaving the wine unbalanced and giving its fruity notes the taste of jam.

Wine connoisseurs say the best wines are produced at the northern limit of where the grape is a viable crop, giving the fruit time to mature and for complex flavours to develop. A handful of small growers have begun investing in land in areas that were once regarded as too blustery for vineyards, including Brittany and Normandy along France’s Atlantic coast. But established châteaux say relocating production to different regions is problematic. Regulations require growers to label their bottles according to the appellations or areas where they are produced. That means authentic Bordeaux wines cannot be produced outside the swath of terroir, or specific soil, that surrounds rivers that feed the Gironde estuary in Southwestern France.

“We’re talking here about making fine wine,” says Mr. Pasquet. “You can make wine anywhere in the world—but a number of precise details go into making fine wine.”

This year unusually warm spells in some places in March caused early budding of the vines, leaving them vulnerable to a wave of late frost in April. Growers installed massive candles throughout their vineyards to warm their fruit and used helicopters to disperse stagnant air.

Then came the summer drought, which forced much of France to undertake water restrictions as rivers up and down the country ran dry.

On average, grape harvests now happen up to three weeks earlier than they did 30 years ago, according to winemakers’ unions. This year winegrowers in the prized Languedoc-Roussillon area started the harvest period at the end of July while in parts of Corsica it began in early August—both several weeks early.

“We started in August. That’s never happened before,” said Pierre-Olivier Clouet, technical director of Château Cheval Blanc in the Bordeaux area.

Cheval Blanc has responded by moving into agroforestry, planting hundreds of trees among the vines—a technique borrowed from the history books. Mr. Clouet said the trees provide shade, improve soil quality and allow the vines to suck up more water. A flock of sheep now roams among the vines, fertilising the soil, while a new artificial lake on the property adds moisture.

In the region of Isère, winegrower Nicolas Gonin said his decision to uproot the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines planted decades ago and replace them with local varieties was vindicated this year. “It is better to increase the number of grapes that you grow,” he said. “They have different characteristics, and when one has a tough year, the others can do well.”

Many of the changes are still experimental. Some growers are modifying the density of their plots to require less water while others are collecting rainwater during the winter to boost their irrigation systems. Planting vines at a different angle, some say, can reduce their exposure to punishing sunlight. Many growers are also planting vine roots that are more resistant to drought and delay the maturity of the fruit.

In cooler times, growers used to cut the leaves of their vines so they would get the maximum amount of sun and more alcohol content. Now the leaves go untouched to better protect the grapes, preserving the fruit’s acidity. One grower said he uses machines that draw alcohol out of his wine so that it isn’t too strong.

Some winemakers, including in Champagne, in the North of France, say it has still been an excellent year. Younger vines have struggled, but the older plants with long roots have performed well, producing small grapes with thick skins that contribute flavour and colour to the wines as well as staving off diseases such as mildew.

“For now the impact of global warming, we feel it—but it’s not yet a negative impact,” said Brigitte Bâtonnet, of Champagne producers’ group CIVC.

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The Lipstick Index Is Back

Sales of the cosmetic product are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak discretionary-goods environment

By JINJOO LEE
Fri, Nov 25, 2022 2 min

Masks off, lipstick index on.

In a gloomy economy, consumers might cut back on other discretionary purchases but will keep shelling out for small luxuries such as lipstick—or so goes the theory. “When lipstick sales go up, people don’t want to buy dresses,” Leonard Lauder, then-chairman of Estée Lauder who is widely credited for coming up with the so-called “lipstick index,” told The Wall Street Journal in 2001.

L’Oréal Chief Executive Nicolas Hieronimus called this out during the company’s earnings call in October, noting that a luxury lipstick or mascara is only €30, making it an “affordable treat.” Sales at L’Oréal rose 9.1% in the third quarter compared with a year earlier despite slower sales in China due to Covid-related lockdowns. Coty, maker of CoverGirl makeup, said organic sales grew 9% over the same period.

Beauty sales have also been a rare bright spot for retailers: Target said beauty category sales grew roughly 15% in its quarter ended Oct. 29 compared with a year earlier, with Ulta Beauty shops in Target tripling their total sales volume over that period.

While Macy’s namesake stores saw comparable-store sales decline last quarter, its beauty-focused Bluemercury chain saw same-store sales grow 14% last quarter compared with a year earlier. Kohl’s locations with Sephora are outperforming the rest of the department-store chain.

Of the 14 discretionary categories that market research firm NPD Group tracks, prestige beauty—products you might find at a department store or a Sephora—is the only category that is seeing unit sales growth year to date. And lipstick, which suffered during the masked-up pandemic, is making up for lost time.

Lipstick sales have grown 37% through October this year compared with a year earlier, according to Larissa Jensen, beauty industry analyst at NPD Group. That is an acceleration from the 31% growth seen during the same period last year. Lip product is the only major category within prestige beauty where sales are actually up compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to Ms. Jensen.

Cosmetic companies have also called out strong sales in fragrances, calling it the “fragrance index.” Demand has been so robust that there is an industrywide fragrance component shortage, Coty said in a press release announcing third-quarter earnings earlier this month. CEO Sue Nabi said during the call that Coty hasn’t seen any kind of trade-down or slowdown, also noting that consumers are shifting away from gifting perfume to buying it for themselves.

“A big piece of it is just a shift in what wellness means to consumers,” NPD Group’s Ms. Jensen said. “Beauty is one of the few industries that are positioned to meet [consumers’] emotional need. It makes them feel good.”

While the lipstick effect could be observed in the recession in the early 2000s, that wasn’t the case during the 2007-09 recession, during which lipstick sales declined alongside other discretionary purchases. Part of this might have had to do with category-specific dynamics.

There was a lot of newness in the cosmetic industry in 2001, including lip gloss, a relatively nascent category back then. That tailwind simply wasn’t there starting in 2008, though nail polish turned out to be consumers’ small indulgence of choice in that period. This time around, consumers may be eager to show off a part of their face that was hidden behind a mask for so long during the pandemic.

In an otherwise bleak environment for companies selling discretionary goods, those in the business of selling cosmetics look well poised to come out of the holiday season looking freshened up.

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