Parched in Provence

With southern France frying, a winemaker fights to save his infant vines
Aug 10, 2015

Jean-Marc Espinasse rolls out of bed at 4:30 a.m., slips on a pair of faded swim trunks and a t-shirt, and prepares to work by day's first light.

This summer, Espinasse is dedicated to an urgent mission: saving his newly planted vineyards from the two-month drought and summer heat wave that has been baking southeast France.

"Every day I look at the forecast, and for the last six weeks it says it will rain next week, but then the rain doesn't come," says Espinasse, sitting in his rustic farmhouse kitchen and dunking a piece of baguette in his predawn cup of coffee. "I don't want my vines to die."

The 48-year-old former Rhône winemaker, who followed his dreams to coastal Bandol, has been planting vineyards from scratch for the past two years and farming them organically. His goal is to focus on making rosé at his stunningly picturesque Mas des Brun. (Read my previous blog on Espinasse, "Bandol—The Hard Way.")

But while dry summer spells are often welcomed by producers with mature vines, they can be disastrous for fledgling vineyards.

Last year, a wet, cool season provided ample water for the 1.5 acres of vines he planted, with only about 1 percent loss. The vast majority are now vigorous, and some are even prematurely producing fruit.

This year, however, Espinasse's planting of an additional 2 acres was followed by one of the driest seasons in years with no rain on Espinasse's property since a 5-minute sprinkle June 10. Temperatures have since climbed daily into the 90s and occasionally past 100° F.

Espinasse estimates that he could lose 5 percent of the 6,000 vines he planted in March. So by 5:30 a.m. every morning, he is in the vineyard trying to keep casualties to a minimum.

"If you see a vine that's suffering and you can help it, it's a great feeling," he says.

A light mistral, scented with rosemary and garrigue, cools the air. There is just enough light to see the hillside where Espinasse has planted the rocky clay-limestone soils primarily to Mourvèdre (Bandol's signature grape for reds and rosés), along with rosé blending grapes Cinsault and Ugni Blanc. The western part of the vineyard—the part planted this year—is dotted with 100 gnarly, old olive trees. The only sounds are a chorus of crickets punctuated by the crowing of neighbors' roosters.

Espinasse drags a 400-yard-long hose from an agricultural water hookup to one corner of his well-plowed vineyard. His infant vines planted this spring vary in size from plot to plot. Healthier specimens are waist high and bushy. Others struggle, only a few inches tall and showing a few small green leaves.

The Cinsault looks particularly frail. Also stunted are vines planted closest to Espinasse's olive trees and to an adjacent forest, as well as those in the densest clay soils. 

Walking a row of Cinsault, Espinasse scrutinizes each plant and waters the soil around each with several quarts. He bends to uproot clusters of weeds around the vine bases.

Squatting by one stub of a vine, he says, "This one was drying up, now it's come back to life. When the top leaves start drying up, you only have several days, maybe a week, to intervene."

Working from dawn for several hours before the heat rises past 90° F, and again in the evening, it takes him about a week to complete his watering and weeding rounds. Then it is time to repeat them.

"Vines are like humans," he says. "A baby cannot live by itself; it needs someone to feed them and make sure they are OK."

Bandol, like many French appellations, categorically bans irrigation of vines in production for wines that bear its AOC designation. Vines can start producing Bandol rosé in their fourth season—meaning that irrigation is permitted the first three years after planting.

"You have to find a good balance between letting them struggle to put down roots and helping them out," Espinasse says.

About 7:15 a.m. the sun rises over the nearby forested hilltop known as La Gache, bathing Espinasse's vineyards in a warm yellow light and casting long shadows.

Espinasse has seen plenty of sunrises this year, giving him time to reflect on his terroirs. He recently received approval to plant another 3 acres of his property next spring.

"Next year, it's going to be rock'n'roll," he says. "Maybe we'll be luckier with the weather."

France Provence

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