Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- Global warming is giving French vintners a new potential headache: In a few years, champagne could be going head-to-head with British bubbly.

A leading organization in France's fabled wine industry sounded the alarm Friday about the ill-effects of rising temperatures on the livelihoods of winegrowers ahead of a climate summit in Copenhagen next month.

Climate change has sped up harvests in Burgundy, altered the taste of Alsatian wines and disrupted hydration patterns of grapes grown along France's Mediterranean coast, an industry expert said.

Michel Issaly, president of Vigneron Independant, a wine growers association that he says accounts for about half of French total wine production, said the economic stakes are high.

"For those consumers who like consistency, if things go too far and the taste fundamentally changes, then we risk losing big chunks of market share," he told reporters at a Paris wine fair.

Areas where wine can be cultivated are moving northward in Europe. Four or five decades ago, it was "absolutely absurd" to think wines could be grown significantly in Britain, Issaly said. "Alas, and this is a crying example of the consequences of global warming. Because of increasing temperatures, they are able to grow in Britain."

"We know -- we've spoken with our British colleagues -- that within a few years, they will be able to make wine that will be close (in taste) to that of champagne," Issaly added.

Recent weather patterns have brought more hailstorms to some French areas. Rising temperatures can dry up fields, deprive grapes of their acidity and increase the alcohol content in wine.

"For tens and even hundreds of years, the degree of alcohol fluctuated between 10 and 12 degrees. In 2003, we were looking at about 13 to 13-1/2," Issaly said. "Today, we have suddenly risen to 15 degrees in some regions. That presents problems for drinkability."

The concerns, mostly, are over the longer-term, he said.

If temperatures continue to rise, grapes like the Pinot Noir, which don't like too much sunshine, "could disappear from a large portion of Burgundy" over the next 20 to 30 years, Issaly said.

French winegrowers already are facing tough competition from "New World" wines produced in countries such as South Africa and Australia. In addition, the global economic crisis has made many wine aficionados more cost-conscious -- putting downward pressure on prices.

To be sure, higher temperatures doesn't necessarily mean bad news for all winegrowers. Warmer temperatures and dry conditions can make grapes sweeter, and reduce the need to add sugar to wine.

"To be really honest, we benefit from global warming because we don't have to chaptalize our wines any more," said Jacky Martinon, a winemaker in Burgundy, referring to a process of injecting sugar into wine.

At the fair, winegrowers groaned about the effects of climate change. At one point, hundreds clinked their glasses and bottles in unison to express their concerns about the consequences of inaction on global warming.

"To make good wine, you need sun, but also rain," said Maryse Meyre, a Medoc vintner. "We aren't used to such hot temperatures for such long periods of time."

Pascal Husting, director of Greenpeace France, which co-hosted the news conference at the fair, said a celebrated French craft is on the line.

"There will always be winemaking in France -- that is for sure," he said. "But it will definitely be no longer the wine that France has built its reputation on."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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