Wine, #Climate and Change

Posted on April 19, 2012

With climate and change comes opportunity. With climate and change comes disaster. Which is it? People, scientists and politicians disagree. For wine, the answer is potentially both. Here is why.

A consistent climate is good. Plants get used to it. Growers get used to it. Both maximize the opportunities provided by their own micro climate. Stability is good. You know what you get. You can plan. Consumers enjoy it, too. We expect the wine from Napa to taste a certain way. We expect wine from Australia to taste a certain way. Part of it is climate. Part of it is habit. Part of it is laziness. Many of us go for the most typical.

A changing climate is good. It leads to variation, which is interesting. Who would want to taste the same wine every time, over and over again, even within a vintage or a label? A warmer climate, of course, means new regions can become wine regions, which is good for those who then get closer to them, be it producers or consumers. A colder climate could be good too, especially for wine regions that struggle with drought and high alcohol values in their wine, such as Chile, Australia, and lately, California. A changing climate means everybody has to be on their toes. You never know.

According to The Napa Valley Vintners climate study, conducted by researchers at Stanford University, global warming could lead to 50 percent less land suitable for cultivating premium wine grapes in high-value areas of Northern California. However, some cooler parts of Oregon and Washington state would become correspondingly better for growing grapes. Even as growing temperatures may rise, Napa Valley might be spared. The Valley has many micro climates, access, technology and means to install new irrigation techniques, as well as increasing consumer tolerance for higher wine alcohol levels (I wonder why). Another tactic might be to switch to a more heat resistant grape varietal, but this might not go down well with what consumers are used to from that wine region. Imagine you could not get your California Cab, Chardonnay or Merlot any more. Inevitably, the ripening of balanced fruit for existing varieties and wine styles will become more difficult, with excessive temperatures at the wrong times in the growing cycle, soil erosion and other problems.

Elsewhere in the world, climate change has already brought opportunity for wine growers in Northern Europe, including the UK and Denmark. By the end of the last century there were less than 10 commercial vintners producing wine in Denmark. There was widespread acceptance of the view that commercial production of wine here was impossible. Despite its northerly location, Denmark has been developing a wine industry over the last decades that has benefited from global warming. The Danish vintner association now has 1,400 members (but some are individuals with 100 vines or less), and almost 50 commercial producers. Fruit wine is obviously another story, and Scandinavian countries have long traditions here already. Eiswein ("ice wine") might be another winner up north as it already is in Vermont.

In the UK, the production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines is a major growth area, pioneered in the 1980s by Carr Taylor and Lamberhurst using native grape varieties. More recently, vineyards such as Nyetimber and RidgeView Wine Estate, both in West Sussex, officially the sunniest county in the UK, have been planted solely with Champagne varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). The amount of red wine produced in the UK is small (an average 10% of total production), but the late harvest dessert wine using the grapes with the sweet sounding names of Huxelrebe, Ortega and Optima is a remarkable feature.

The fact that weather impacts grapes and wine is not news. In fact, this is the basis of the notion of terroir, the idea that each place of production has its own characteristics that affect the taste of wine and makes it unique to its origin. Cold climate wine production has also come a long way, with better methods, new grape varietals, and more daring wine producers who challenge assumptions about what can be done.

The interesting thing about any change is that it leads to innovation (or oblivion). People and plants have to adapt, and in the process, new outcomes become possible, and new ideas and ecosystems emerge (or die). In the Portuguese Douro valley, highly susceptible to climate change, they are now using cover crops against soil erosion, a practice more commonly associated with sustainable, organic viticulture. I would love to see new vintners emerge in Canada, Scandinavia, and China. Needless to say, this is an easier line to take if you do not own a high end vineyard already.

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Posted in: Climate Change