Even a modest change in global temperature would mean redrawing the maps of the world’s wine regions.
As most people are now aware, global warming – runaway or not – looks set to stay for the foreseeable future irrevocably changing our world. Current projections suggest rising temperatures are on track to hit two degrees.
As Gregory Gambetta, a plant biologist and Professor of Viticulture at the Bordeaux Sciences Agro Institute of Agricultural Sciences, says: “Unfortunately, I think it is now right, I think two degrees is, well you know in the climate change estimates we’re tracking, the more aggressive temperature change. So I think that two is conservative for sure.”
It is clear climate change will have wide-ranging effects on the wine world. Some will be felt earlier while others will lie dormant and unnoticed until they arrive in full force. However, one of the most obvious changes will be where grapes can be grown.
For centuries, traditional growing regions for wine have lain between 20 and 30 degrees latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres. However, with the rise in temperatures these are inevitably set to change as some wine regions open up and others slowly migrate or even shut down. As Gambetta notes: “There are definitely regions that will become less suitable, there’s no question, and then there are regions that are becoming more suitable.”
Old wine regions that have been successfully established for hundreds of years, thanks to a once stable climate, are now facing adaptations like never before.
Bordeaux, one of France’s most illustrious, and traditional, regions recently made the bold move to change its permitted grapes to a more heat-resistant lineup as a direct response to climate change.
According to the meteorological service, Météo-France, the temperature in Bordeaux has risen by two degrees Celsius since 1950 and, as a result, in January 2021, the CIVB confirmed winemakers would now be allowed to use six additional grape varieties. For the reds, Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets, and Arinarnoa would now be permitted in blends along with the two white grape varieties, Alvarinho and Lilioril.
What these heat-hardy varieties tend to bring are naturally higher acidities, strong aromatics less likely to be dulled by heat, tougher tannins and more resistance to humidity-loving diseases like mildew and grey rot. However, as Dr Peter Dry of the Australian Wine Research Institute says: “It is important to note that the information on heat tolerance of grape varieties is largely anecdotal and more research needs to be done to establish the biochem and physiological basis.”
Although these new varieties cannot make up more than 5 percent of a producer’s vineyard or 10 percent of a wine, it illustrates Bordeaux’s acute awareness of its changing climate and the need to mitigate it while keeping the essence of the region intact.
However, notes Gambetta, “there’s almost zero uptake, it’s something that we do a lot research on, people are really interested in it but, if you talk to a nursery, for example, and you ask them ‘how much Touriga Nacional are you selling?’ … it’s almost zero. It’s not part of the wine style.”
The battle between traditional wine styles and what the region can actually produce as a result of climate change is likely to be one of the biggest challenges the wine world will have to confront. As Gambetta says “when you look at the temperature changes over the past 60 or 70 years in a region like Bordeaux it’s like that, it was really steady and then it changed really fast, and then now it’s steady again but it’s much warmer. It’s kind of creeping up now, so it’s difficult to predict, maybe you can get really drastic changes over a short period of time.”
According to Gambetta, these jumps in temperature are leaving many Bordeaux winemakers fearful for the future. “The people who are really scared, they have all sort of anecdotal stories about how things are going to go bad. Because they’re scared. I think the worst-case horror scenario – for a grower and a winemaker – is that they’re going to have to change varieties and change wine styles.”
There are some silver linings for Bordeaux, as the most recent temperature shift has seen some of the steadiest and most successful vintages in years. “It’s warmer, it’s maybe a little bit drier and because of that, the vintage quality is more consistently good.” The same stories, he notes, can be heard throughout Europe. “I was in Italy, Tuscany, several years ago talking to growers there, and many of them said ‘oh yeah Greg, vintage quality is just getting better.’ It’s more consistently warm, the growing seasons are consistently longer, maybe a little drier.”
Like Bordeaux, climate change for Burgundy has so far been a blessing, with the last few vintages – particularly from 2016 onwards – benefiting from slightly warmer temperatures. Although, winemakers are no longer having to worry about their grapes reaching phenolic ripeness, there are now concerns with both sunburn and drought. Harvest dates also continue to creep forward and the best vineyard sites are also shifting – previously they lay close to the valley floor, but now they are slowly climbing the cooler slopes.
Despite the recent boon it has brought, climate change may yet present a threat to Burgundy’s traditional grape varieties. In a recent Wine-Searcher interview with Eve Faiveley of Domaine Faiveley in Nuits-Saint-Georges, she noted Chardonnay is more likely to suffer and run into complications than Pinot Noir. As Gambetta reiterates: “Chardonnay is defined by Bourgogne… and those things though may do fine in other climates, those grapes do fine but they create something different.”
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For Champagne, which relies on a highly acidic base wine for its blends, climate change could not more disruptive and, as a result, the region is invested in dealing with the increasing threat.
According to Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC), the region has grown warmer by 1.2 degrees celsius and, in that time, the harvest has jumped a full two weeks ahead of traditional times.
Champagne, as a result, has leapt onto the offensive and, in 2003, it was the first wine region in the world to begin to calculate its carbon footprint. The region is also a strong advocate for sustainability and has embraced more environmentally friendly transport and machinery. Most impressively, the region has reduced the weight of Champagne bottles by 7 percent and – by that one action – has managed to reduce emissions per bottle by 15 percent.
The region’s style of sparkling wine is perhaps one of the most vulnerable to climate change, but it has also proven itself to be one of the most proactive wine regions in combating the changing environment.
As old regions adapt, some faster than others, the New World is arguably more able to implement change and capitalize on new wine regions and grape varieties without the restriction of European rules and regulations.
As Gambetta outlines: “In California, for instance, you know growers can do whatever they want, they do things in certain ways because maybe tradition was like that but there’s no regulatory structure limiting them, from say, changing a management practice, changing vine density, or something like this, whereas in the AOC system, this is true a lot throughout Europe and in France, specifically, they’re limited to some extent.”
However, like a number of hot, dry regions, California is at the frontline when it comes to rising temperatures and natural disasters and the pressure is on to find workarounds.
According to Gambetta “in California, most of the grape production … like 80 percent of them, are grown in the Central Valley of California – not known for premium wine, but it’s really hot and dry there and they have all sorts of water resource issues there. So a region like that, it starts to become really problematic.”
Along with drought, its sinister bedfellow fire is also becoming harder to mitigate. Although a natural part of the Californian landscape, the frequency and intensity of wildfires have increased. The years 2017, 2018 and 2020 all saw devastating bushfires sweep the state, ravaging millions of acres; and in 2020 at least a dozen wineries were damaged with a small number destroyed completely. As Gambetta states: “Coming from California, I hope there’s not a lot of fire seasons like there was in the past 10 years.”
For the Californian wine industry to survive, it is clear irrigation, renewable energy and sustainable viticulture will all have a role to play. Producers may have to look to shadier vineyard plots and experiment more with heat-resistant grape varieties and drought-resistant rootstocks, while managing fires and the effects of smoke taint. It is also not out of the realms of possibility that, one day, it may simply be too hot for California’s king grape, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Like California, Australia has also suffered in recent years, with the summer of 2019/2020 seeing bushfires on a scale seldom seen before. Torching more than 11 million hectares, the fires claimed the lives of 34 people and roughly 3 billion animals.
In the wine world, it meant much of the 2020 harvest was lost. In Adelaide Hills, 30 percent of vineyards were burnt to the ground, with Henschke losing their acclaimed Lenswood plot. In the Hunter Valley, some producers also chose not to release their 2020 vintage due to the effects of smoke taint.
Dealing with smoke taint is likely to become increasingly important, Gambetta says. “Smoke taint’s difficult because it changes as you age the wines, it’s very difficult; they don’t know all the compounds that cause it, it’s kind of a nightmare for growers.” Although grapes affected by smoke-taint are not always a write-off, producers will have to work hard to find more solutions to a problem that is unlikely to go away.
For Australia, the other obvious long-term issue is drought. Markus Herderich of the Australian Wine Research Institute says “availability of sufficient – and affordable – quality water for irrigation will be a key factor for wine-growing regions”. Dr Herderich also mentiones the importance of careful canopy management as a key tool for reducing the risks from heat damage and excessive sun exposure.
Despite the challenges, Australia is adapting, as Dr Herderich explains: “Closer to Adelaide, the Adelaide Hills wine region where we used to be growing predominantly white-wine varietals and grapes for sparkling wine in the 1980s, is now increasingly known for producing fine Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon dry red wines.”
Although, Australia is definitely on the frontline when it comes to climate change, it is not all doom and gloom, as Dr Dry points out.”I am excited by the wines that are now being produced in the Riverland and other hot climates of Australia from varieties such as Arinto, Fiano, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Aglianico, Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Lagrein and more.”
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However, it is not just the hot, dry arid wine regions that are at threat. New Zealand stands to suffer in the fall-out from climate change. Since 1909, the temperature has increased a full one degree Celsius and, as Gambetta states, an increase of a full two degrees is more than likely.
Central Otago, which tends to hang its hat on the ability to grow the phenomenally sensitive Pinot Noir, is set to get hotter with wilder, more unpredictable weather and stronger winds. As Phil Handford of Central Otago winery Grasshopper Rock explains: “There has been significant longterm warming as reported in my blog. Perhaps what we are seeing more noticeably lately is more extreme events as hotter airmasses and sea temperatures meet the cooler southern ocean… [the] hail event we experienced in spring 2019, rain event at new year 2021 when we received a third of our annual rain in three days. It is too early to say this is a new trend.”
In Marlborough, the climate has not only got hotter but has slowly shifted from a clean, dry heat to one with more humidity, which is encouraging diseases like mildew to thrive. Due to its flat topography and proximity to the sea, another threat to the region is sea-level rise. A distant, abstract threat, perhaps, but no one is too keen on their favorite Sauvignon Blanc being lost to the waves
Martinborough is also set to change. As reported to local New Zealand news outlet, Stuff, the winemaker Clive Paton at Ata Rangi in Martinborough has long been planting grape varieties better suited to the heat and feels both Syrah and Tempranillo may become increasingly valuable players.
It is possible that New Zealand, being significantly cooler and wetter than its nearest neighbor, may be lulled a false sense of safety. However, as Handford states: “The real challenge may come from extreme events… I say ‘may’ because of the uncertainty. With New Zealand situated in latitudes between the Southern Ocean and the tropics there is a lot that can create unstable weather events. Increased extreme events have been documented as a global trend with climate warming. These events may prove to be more significant for grape growers in New Zealand than a simple increase in mean temperatures.”
Brave new world
In a warming world, sun-baked regions like Greece, Southern Italy and parts of Australia may struggle to maintain their traditional wine identities and some may fall off the map completely. However, when one door shuts, another opens and regions which have historically been too cool are beginning to emerge.
Well-established regions like Canada, China and Patagonia that typically sit on the fringes of the viable global winemaking belt will continue to develop while others like Scandinavia and Japan begin to dip their toes deeper in the world of wine.
Perhaps the wine world’s most famous benefactor of climate change is England, a traditionally chilly, damp northern European country not known for its wine. However, in recent years as temperatures have climbed, England’s cottage wine industry has expanded exponentially into large luxury estates and even designated wine regions like Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. Several years ago there was even an ambitious – and desperately unsuccessful – attempt to make Scottish wine.
A defining moment for English wine came in 2016 when during a blind tasting – which had clear shades of the famous Judgement of Paris – eight Champagnes were pitted against four English sparkling wines. The judging lineup consisted of both well-recognized French sommeliers and English wine writers and the results came as a shock to the wine world. Both first and second place were claimed by two English sparklers – Hambledon and Nyetimber, respectively – marking a significant turning point for English wine.
Although English wine may be one of the few winners in a changing climate, producers will be wise to remain on their toes to manage increasingly wild weather patterns and rising flood risks. As Gambetta says, the prediction of “temperature changes are pretty accurate but precipitation patterns, which are super important, are much much less accurate, so that’s difficult”.
Perhaps one of the most unusual developments in the wine world has been the planting of vineyards in the Scandinavia. Entrepreneurs and mavericks are testing the waters and growing vines in Denmark, Sweden and even Norway with varying degrees of success.
In Denmark, the extra warmth has led to the development of some key wine regions, most notably Jutland, Funen, Zealand and Bornholm. Although the country is still regarded as extremely fresh to the wine scene, wineries like Skærsøgaard Vin in Jutland are routinely winning awards and, as the planet warms, Denmark is likely to only become stronger on the international wine scene.
In Sweden, climate change has gifted the country an extra month of summer which has led to the production of some award-winning wines. Although not as established as Denmark, the regions of Skåne, Halland, the Blekinge coast and the islands of Gotland and Öland have all become home to various vineyards like Hällåkra Vineyard. Although hardy Germanic hybrid varieties like Solaris and Rondo remain the key grapes, international varieties are also slowly making their presence felt.
Although Norway still remains very much on the fringe of the new wave of Scandi wine activity, two new regions are emerging as hubs of wine production. Both the Norwegian regions of Østlandet and Vestlandet are now home to plantings of Solaris, Rondo and Riesling with winemakers using the reflective properties of the fjords to harness the power of the sun. Although severe frosts still pose a threat and it is not uncommon for winemakers to have to chaptalize to raise sugar levels, both these threats are set to reduce as the planet warms.
A new wine belt
Leaving our previously stable climate and moving into uncharted territory paints an unpredictable and potentially frightening future. However, as much as it is likely to disrupt old established regions and traditional practices, it may also bring opportunities to regions previously left out of the wine game.
A new global wine belt may be emerging, Gambetta believes. “The traditional point of view, right, is that things will move towards more northerly or southerly, as the case may be, latitudes and higher elevations because of the temperature change.”
However, that may prove little comfort for the producers in places that are already hot, and don’t have as much room to move.
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