Climate change has a very severe effect on the vines that make the fine wines we love. Manuela Zoninsein takes stock of the vineyards under threat.
Sparkling wines by any other name than Champagne would taste just as sweet – at least, that’s what recent shifts in viticulture, due to the warming climate, are demonstrating. Once known as the original and best of the bubbly, this inimitable localised grape, whose provenance is France’s Champagne region, is finding itself faced with new competition; and most unexpectedly, from a region in southern England called Surrey.
Other gold standard wines are also encountering surprise rivals from upstart locales: Sweden has begun producing world-class Rieslings, Monterey Bay is now home to California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons and quality Merlot grapes are taking root in Okanagan Valley, Canada. Burgundy? Another degree hotter, and it could become a Syrah stalwart.
Master of Wine Jasper Morris, who directs the Burgundy account for fine wine distributor Berry Bros & Rudd, predicts: “Countries that were far north or didn’t have the wine tradition might become producers.” Northern Europe, the Andes, Canada – these regions are now showing themselves capable of providing the consistent heat needed to ripen grapes. “Even China could easily become a major player,” Morris hastens to add.
Many climatologists point to global warming – caused by greenhouse gases that result from human behaviour – as the explanation for wine-growing regions beginning to shift toward places that are cooler, including the poles, cool coastal areas and higher elevations. Gregory V Jones, climatologist at Southern Oregon University, leading researcher in the burgeoning field of wine region climate studies and the son of an Oregon vintner, has found that worldwide, higher temperatures are occurring during ripening, there is less frost and growing seasons are getting longer (from 20 to 40 days longer in Europe, and up to 90 days longer in Napa Valley). Southern Hemisphere climate changes were less pronounced than in the Northern Hemisphere, due to the moderating effect of the higher ratio of ocean to land mass. Jones believes those trends will continue during the next 50 years – which is the time frame according to which most vintners plant and tend their vineyards – with worldwide average growing season temperatures increasing an additional two to 3.5 degrees.
Greater warming is projected for southern France, parts of eastern Washington and central California. Temperatures in Spain and Portugal could increase more than five degrees, he says, which would make all but high-altitude viticulture extremely difficult.
Change you can taste
The acute environmental sensitivity of wine grapes separates vineyards from other agricultural systems, says Dan Cayan, a climate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Or, as Campbell Thompson, an Australian whose company, The Wine Republic, imports cool-climate wines into China, puts it: “Wine is the canary in the climate-change coal mine.” He points to European wine regions, that have recorded the date of the wine grape harvest for hundreds of years, as one of the best “human” records of climate change over a long period (before temperature could be recorded accurately). “With wine,” says Jones, “we can taste climate change,” especially since the slightest temperature changes can wreak havoc on high-quality wine, making it acutely sensitive to global warming.
Some among winemakers and connoisseurs are hesitant to blame global warming, in part because not all the science is definitive, and because we’re just beginning to understand what it means for our lives. Certain regions are known for mercurial temperature shifts, while others, like California’s coastline, remain consistently temperate – all of which makes it difficult to come to concrete conclusions. “Everything is so unstable at the moment,” contemplates Morris aloud, “that one’s reluctant to say there’s a [conclusive] effect from global warming.”
Yet others point to changing techniques as the cause for changes in grapes and quality. Vintners around the world have altered their viticulture practices during the past two decades, increasing the time that grapes remain on the vine – appropriately called “hang time.” This increased exposure of the fruit to the sun has raised sugar levels, which raises alcohol levels. According to The Wine Anorak, an online wine magazine, “Table wines used to hover around the 12% mark: now it’s rare to find them below 13%, and wines with 14 or 14.5% alcohol are commonly encountered.”
It’s unclear whether the higher alcohol content is due to climate change, to improved viticulture which has led to picking grapes later, or to changes in winemaking styles. “For example,” explains Thompson, “many winemakers are harvesting later: they’re looking for riper, richer flavours in the wines, and using more powerful yeasts, in order to match a sweeter fruit profile – in an ‘international’ style. Wines are becoming more alcoholic partly because of this change in winemaking, but also because of increasing temperatures.”
“Our parameters for ripeness have changed,” says Paul Hobbs, a California winemaker well known for his ripe, powerful wines. He no longer even tests for sugar levels. And by concentrating instead on the
phenolic development – which refers to other qualities of flavour “ripeness” such as tannins and acidity – many vintners, like Hobbs, are harvesting later. “I farm completely differently than I did 17 years ago,” he says. “I can’t see any effects from global warming on my grapes.”
It’s not just grapes, however, that have been affected; other luxury treats that are heavily dependent on weather, such as truffles, are migrating to newer, cooler territories. The area around Tricastin, north of Avignon, once served up a bounty of the rare delicacies; now they are moving northward. Rising temperatures are widely considered to blame.
One thing is certain: new regions, such as Germany, “now are seriously delicious,” asserts London-based wine critic Jancis Robinson in her column. On the other hand, she says, wines from warmer regions including Spain and Australia are suffering the rise in temperature, as evidenced by heat waves, drought and bushfires.
Vintners are responding in kind: Spain, where the first World Conference on Global Warming and Wine was held in 2007, in Barcelona, is studying whether vineyards can be planted in the cooler foothills of the Pyrenees. Belgium, Denmark and Sweden are also jumping into viticulture.
Perhaps the most salient proof that things are changing lies in the pudding – or should we say, the crème brûlée: late 2007, French wine regulators approved the use of vineyard irrigation, reversing centuries of tradition to rescue regions suddenly too hot for dry farming. Whereas New World regions have the flexibility to move to new locations to escape rising temperatures, says Thompson, “Burgundy and Bordeaux are very clearly ‘mapped’ and delineated, and far less flexible.” These terroirs, then, face a greater threat as temperatures continue to rise.
Water is quickly becoming the central issue. “In fact,” argues Fongyee Walker, founder of Longfeng Wines in Beijing, a wine consultancy and Master of Wine training programme, “the issue of water is far more important than the issue of grapes.” She claims it is easy enough to find drought resistant grape varieties; but “the act of making wine requires water in such great amounts – three to ten litres of it for one litre of wine – that it may well prove impossible to supply the industry’s needs.” She points to dry areas like Mendoza, Argentina, Rivertina in Australia and California’s Central Valley as particularly pressed. Victoria and South Australia, irrigated mostly by the Murray River, are regions already considering abandoning tracts
of land. Worries about water have risen to the top: the last Master of Wine Summit focused specifically on this issue.
The problem is when these rising temperatures continue to rise yet further, the wine becomes a soupy,
jammy mix no longer worth imbibing. We can’t yet tell the effect, and it depends in large part on the rate of change. A two-degree rise is what we’re facing at the moment; but with a five-degree jump, “all bets are off.” That’s when the human race begins to struggle to survive. And at that point, we won’t be worried about where the next glass of fine wine is coming from.
Which brings us back to the point that wine is a luxury to be savoured – increasingly so.
Originally published in the Fall issue of Millionaire Asia.