Forest fires burn cellars and vineyards in Provence


A devastating forest fire swept through parts of the Var region in Provence, leaving wine growers reeling from the loss of buildings, equipment and grapes just days before the 2021 harvest. “It was Annus horribilis for French winegrowers. We had frost, we had hail and now forest fires, “said Eric Pastorino, president of the regional trade group Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence (CIVP). Wine spectator.

The extent of the damage is not yet known and the fire continues to burn in some areas, although its spread has been stopped. Only a few winegrowers were able to return. Authorities estimate that more than 19,800 hectares have burned so far, including vineyards, towns and 17,500 hectares of protected forest in the Plaine des Maures nature reserve. Two people are confirmed dead. At the most critical stage, 1,200 firefighters were fighting the blaze. Thousands of people have been evacuated from homes, hotels and campsites.

The overall impact on the Côtes de Provence appellation, renowned for its rosé wines, should be limited. The area contains 49,400 acres of vines.

Brice Aymard, director of the CIVP, said Wine spectator that maybe 5 percent of the appellation had been affected. But for those in the fire zone, it was terrible. The damage to the fruit on the eve of harvest is particularly heartbreaking. “You have grapes that are either shriveled from the heat, or sprayed with fire retardants, or they’re at the end of the row of vines, so they burned,” Aymard said. “But the grapes in the center of the plots are beautiful and they can be harvested.” There is also the concern about the smell of smoke, although it is not clear how much smoke the grapes have been exposed to and for how long.

Tragically, a few areas appear to have lost everything, Pastorino said. “Their cellars burned down, their house burned down, their equipment burned down, everything. We estimate that around ten areas have suffered serious damage. Those of the nature reserve were particularly affected. The forest is a vital enclave of biodiversity in the region, but in this case it also fueled the trajectory of the fire.

“Half of the Plaine des Maures nature reserve has been devastated,” said Concha Agero, deputy director of the French Biodiversity Office.

A few vines adjoin the forest. Two decades ago, after another forest fire, wine growers pushed for the creation of firewalls, but encountered opposition from environmentalists protecting the forests, anxious to make further changes to the land and impacts on Hermann’s turtles, an endangered species. “We would really like to have firewalls. It’s an old system that has proven to work,” said Pastorino. “It works well. It doesn’t stop the fire but it slows it down.”

The owners of Vignobles Chevron Villette own plots of vines surrounded by classified forest. These vineyards were hit hard by the blaze, they say, although the extent is unclear. Fortunately, they have plots in other areas that remain unharmed and their buildings are doing fine.

The owners of Domaine Mirabeau were unable to return, but a worker helping the firefighters sent them photos showing that outbuildings and rows of vines had burned down, but that their house and cellar were still standing.

Authorities believe the blaze started on August 16, with a cigarette butt discarded at a motorway rest area near Gonfaron, near the nature reserve. Five days later, a man was arrested for attempting to start another forest fire along a road in the Massif des Maures with a lighted log; passers-by were able to extinguish the fire. At this point, investigators do not believe the incident is related to the larger fire.

A dry summer combined with extreme heat and strong Mistral winds made the region particularly vulnerable. Fires have also recently broken out in the region of Beaumes-de-Venise in Provence and in Aude.

To date, the Var fire is no longer spreading; however, it is not under control, according to Var firefighters. Four hundred firefighters continue to fight the flames from the air and on the ground. A strong mistral could make it take off again.

The evacuated winegrowers have not yet been able to measure the extent of the damage: charred tractors, cellars reduced to ashes, the potential for the smell of smoke. “You can’t reach the estates so it’s complicated to manage,” explains Pastorino, who is also president of the Gonfaron wine cooperative, which has 150 wine growers and 1,500 hectares of vines. Within their cooperative, 99 hectares of AOC Côtes de Provence vines have burnt down, some totally, some partially.

The Var fire follows two vintages hampered by frost. In April 2020, temperatures inland in Provence dropped below 16 ° F, with some plots experiencing crop losses of 80%. But like the Var fire, the impact was localized, leaving the winegrowers optimistic about the 2021 yield.

“This year’s performance will be similar to last year,” Pastorino predicted. “We are starting the harvest this week. We always hope for nice surprises.

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