"I've been farming since 1995, it's been almost thirty years and I've never seen this," says Pascal Pelissou, 51, a winemaker in Brens, Tarn. In his hands, a bunch of grapes ravaged by this disease caused by tiny fungi.

On his 40-hectare farm, "the pressure of mildew was so strong" that "100% of the plots were affected, to different degrees".

On Merlot, "it's 100% losses" and even the few bunches spared "will not be worth picking because they will not cover the costs of harvesting," he explains, tearing off the yellowish leaves, a sign of the presence of the parasite.

Winemaker Pascal Pelissou in front of his vines affected by mildew, August 21, 2023 in the Tarn © Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Cédric Carcenac, president of the Maison des vins de Gaillac, estimates the overall harvest losses on the vineyard at 30%, but "It can still rise, we are not immune, for several reasons such as the drought that will catch up with us in August," he adds.

30% less turnover

The disease, which also hit Bordeaux hard, developed in Gaillac during the heavy rainy episodes of June.

"In volume, we were more than double the rainfall compared to a normal year and with high temperatures," Thierry Massol, wine advisor to the Tarn Chamber of Agriculture, told AFP.

Clusters of reason parched by downy mildew in Rabastens, August 21, 2023 in the Tarn © Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

"But it's very heterogeneous," he relativizes, after a morning of meeting the Gaillac winegrowers: "I have some who will have lost 80% of their harvests, others may have a very good year."

Twenty kilometers away, in Rabastens, Roland Legrand lost one hectare out of the 50 of his vineyard, including Mauzac, a white grape variety very present on Gaillac.

"It is a sensitive grape variety and the peculiarity is that the disease arrives first on the bunches and then on the leaves, which makes it more difficult to detect," he explains.

A situation that worries the 38-year-old winemaker, because "it is 30% less turnover, for higher charges because it was necessary to treat more".

"So who is going to bear the costs of crop loss? Insurers tell us they can't; So who?" asks the winemaker.

In July, the federation of insurers announced that losses caused by late blight were not covered by the climate multi-risk contract, which excludes damage caused by diseases.

Winemaker Roland Legarnd in his vineyards affected by mildew, August 21, 2023 in Rabastens, Tarn © Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

It only covers direct damage caused by excess water or moisture, while the development of late blight is explained, according to insurers, by an "alternation of rain and heat".

Compensate for damage?

In an interview with the Vitisphere website published in early August, the Minister of Agriculture, Marc Fesneau, said he was "working on classic measures (exemptions from charges, measures on taxes on unbuilt land ...)".

"There is a challenge, that of demonstrating that this event (mildew) is the product of a climatic hazard, which insurers refuse to do," he added.

Winemaker Pascal Pelissou in the middle of his vineyards affected by mildew, August 21, 2023 in the Tarn © Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

In Brens, Pascal Pelissou thinks that "the fact of accumulating hazards for three years, namely frost in 2021 and drought last year" does not push insurance companies to want to compensate these episodes of high presence of mildew.

"We would like it to be insured because it is still due to a climatic event," he adds.

At his side, Thierry Massol, confirms that ensuring mildew would be "a solution" to mitigate climate change "very present in our vineyard".

According to the statistical service of the Ministry of Agriculture, Agreste, "wine production would be between 2023 and 44 million hectoliters in 47, at the level of the average" of the years 2018 to 2022.

But these forecasts, according to the same source, "are provisional in view of the uncertainty surrounding the consequences of mildew attacks in the vineyards of Bordeaux and the Southwest".

© 2023 AFP