Cop au vin: French police on patrol to protect vineyards

Gendarmes patrol on bicycles in a vineyard in Bourgogne near Beaune

Amid the rolling green expanse of France's prestigious Burgundy wine lands there is an unusual sight: shiny police helmets bobbing between rows of vines.

Mounted on bikes and motorcycles, these gendarmerie officers are entrusted with shielding Burgundy's celebrated wine grapes from thieves.

Day and night they criss-cross the vineyards looking for raiders, both large-scale and small, who pose a perpetual threat to France's viticulturists.

"The damage is enormous," said Vincent Gros, who heads the Gros Frere et Soeur wine estate in the Cote d'Or region that hosts the central French region's most exclusive wines. 

Sometimes just a bunch is stolen here and there, sometimes several rows or entire blocks of grapes, lamented 32-year-old Gros, who said he had installed security cameras in isolated fields. 

"The presence of the police reassures us," he told AFP.

- 'Tempting' -

So who are the thieves? 

Often other farmers whose crops were damaged by frost, hail or sunburn. 

"When the harvest is small, it is tempting to go and steal grapes. All you need are cutting shears and a bucket," said Gros. 

"With 40 thieves cutting, it can go very quickly!"  

Sometimes the loss is accidental -- contractors have been known to harvest the wrong tract of land. 

At the start of the harvest in the Cote d'Or, under a brilliant sun, seasonal workers are carefully prising loose the precious fruit that will yield the next vintage. 

They stop occasionally to wave at two policemen zipping past on bikes.

Two more use offroad motorcycles for their surveillance, while after sunset, a team of three patrollers drive around by car and peer into the dark with night-vision goggles. 

- Mostly at night -

"When we spot people who have no business in the vineyards at night, we turn a spotlight on them.... and we question them," said a patrolling officer who identified himself only as Philippe.

"The thefts mostly happen at night... and in the early morning hours. Sometimes the thieves are many, and using harvesting machines." 

The patrols were started in the Burgundy region, whose unique wine-growing tradition has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, after a poor harvest in 2016 that was aggravated by a rise in theft.

According to Cote d'Or police department, stealing grapes is punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros (almost $50,999). 

"Grape theft is not only a crime but also directly affects the economy of the region and its wine sector already heavily affected by climate hazards," the department stressed on its Facebook page.