French winemakers are fearful of another heatwave after an unusually rainless autumn and winter and unseasonally dry spring weather.

The south and west of France been experiencing the driest spring conditions for decades, and several regions are already suffering from ‘the worst drought in 50 years.’

Barely three weeks after southern France was covered in a blanket of snow, water restrictions, including irrigation bans, have been imposed in a number of départements. On Saturday, a fire destroyed 20 hectares of forest in the Dordogne with numerous other fires breaking out in the southwest.

The French environment minister Serge Lepeltier, who has described the situation as ‘worrying’, says the drought is probably the worst in 50 years.

With weather conditions in France becoming hotter and drier, vines are ripening more quickly. Concern is growing about the effects of climate change, particularly in marginal climates for viticulture such as Burgundy.

‘There’s clearly been global warming,’ said Burgundian wine producer Henri Jayer. ‘Between 1960 and 1980, I harvested 15 times in October and 5 times in September. Between 1980 and 2000, I harvested 5 times in October and 15 times in September.’

Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti believes that climate change is effecting wine styles.

‘So far climate change has been beneficial for wine in Burgundy, but too many years like 2003 could risk changing the character of our wines,’ he said.

Following the unprecedented 2003 summer heatwave, 2004 was another very dry year in many parts of France. If current conditions persist, 2005 looks set to be the third consecutive year of drought.

According to Meteo France, seasonal rainfall in the past six months has been less than half the norm in some regions. The south and west of the country have been hardest hit. Aquitaine and Limousin have had their driest autumn and winter for half a century.

Other drought-affected regions include Poitou-Charentes, Picardy, parts of the Loire and Brittany, Languedoc and Provence.

Written by Rupert Joy