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Weathering the Storm

Can wine survive climate change?

 

Story by Amy Zavatto

Photos by Jeff Clark

 

Every night in spring, Jeff Newton places his cell phone next to his bed in anticipation of the call he hopes will not come. But after three decades in the wine business, he knows to expect to be shaken from his deep sleep. During the six-week spring frost season that runs from mid-March until around May 1 in California’s wine country, dropping temperatures set off vineyard alarms hooked up to the viticulturist’s phone, alerting him to dangerously low and damaging temperatures so he can quickly act to turn on the wind machines and sprinklers that offset damage from the cold. An average season would produce around 10 such episodes, but 2008 was a different story. “There are frost alarms in the vineyards that are set to call our phones at 34 degrees, usually around 3 a.m.,” he says. “This past year during that period we had double [the number of alarms], and they were sounding as early as midnight. We lost over 50 percent of 200 acres because of that frost.”

Global warming is a misnomer—or, at least, a term that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. True, it’s impossible not to notice that something is seriously amiss, atmospherically speaking, but it’s nothing as simple as a rise in temperature. Instead, it seems lately that the only thing predictable about weather is its complete and utter unpredictability. For the wine industry, that may mean one big barrel of trouble. “Guys who’ve been around longer than I have say they’ve never seen a frost like that in 30 years,” says Newton, whose company, Coastal Vineyard Care, oversees around 2,000 acres of estate vineyards and independent wine-grape ranches in Santa Barbara, California. “The wind machines function down to, say, about 28 degrees, and the sprinklers down to about 26. Well, there were certain circumstances where we had sprinklers and fans on and it was so cold that they didn’t work.”

That, unfortunately, wasn’t the end of it. In the following summer, some vineyards Newton oversees experienced temperature spikes at 120 degrees F, 10 degrees higher than usual, followed by more frost before harvest in the fall, causing him and his staff to pull all-nighters with the wind machines and sprinklers on top of 10-hour days in the vineyards.

Over the last decade, Australia has experienced a devastating drought; California’s wine country is two years into one, as well. Temperatures in France’s Rhône region have spiked more than 7 degrees. Early harvests—as much as two months premature on the calendar—are becoming more common, while formerly too-chilly, off-limits grape-growing spots, like England or even the Puget Sound in Washington State, are surprisingly viable now. Meanwhile, for many established winemakers, these extreme temperature swings have the potential to upend decades or even centuries of tradition, or at the very least cause them to sit up and take notice. Dr. Urban von Klebelsberg of Abbazia di Novacella, a winery situated around a 12th-century Augustine abbey in Alto Adige’s Isarco Valley in northern Italy, says he had to harvest unusually early in 2007 and then late in 2008 due to the “extreme weather situations” and generally rising temperatures. “You can definitely feel the climate change,“ he says.

Fever Pitch
“Just this past growing season in the western United States, we had the coldest April that we’ve had in about 40 years, followed by one of the warmest two-week periods in May ever on record, followed by the coldest five-day period ever reported in October—ever, ever, ever!” says Dr. Greg Jones, a climatologist from Southern Oregon University who specializes in studying how climate change affects the wine industry. In 2004, Jones completed a striking study that tracked 50 years’ worth of temperature patterns across 27 of the world’s wine-making regions. The results found that the average increase across all areas was a little more than 2 degrees, and that we will see another 3.8-degree increase over the next 50 years.

While a degree or two may not sound like much, it can make an astounding difference in whether a grape thrives or doesn’t in particular areas of the world. A good way to think about it is in terms of your own body: A normal, healthy body temperature is 98.6 degrees Farenheit. Add two more degrees, and you have a fever; add four more, and you’re in need of medical attention. Wine grapes can be just as sensitive. “Pinot Noir is probably the best example,” says Jones. “It’s a wonderful wine-making grape, but it’s fickle. From what we know globally, we know that Pinot Noir-friendly climates have roughly a 4-degree climate niche.”

Jones points to France’s Burgundy region and the Russian River Valley in California, two areas known for their great Pinots. Burgundy happens to be right in the middle of that niche, so if temperatures there increase by a half degree or even a full degree, it’s still well within the range of an appropriate Pinot Noir-producing climate; not so for California. “If we talk about the Russian River, they’re at the upper limit of that 4-degree niche, so if it warms by another degree or two, then they are pushed outside of what we today consider to be viable,” Jones says.

“For traditional wine-producing regions, our number one issue is the increase in temperatures that make the growing cycle much shorter,” says Pancho Campo, founder of the World Conference on Climate Change and Wine, a bi-annual global symposium that brings winemakers, viticulturists, climatologists and other industry experts together to compare notes and discuss solutions. Shorter growing seasons, Campo says, result in what is called “lack of phenolic maturity” in the wine. What’s so important about that? Phenols are chemical compounds found in all plants, but grapes happen to be chock full of them, and they play a vital role in the ultimate structure, aroma and flavor of the resulting product. One common phenol, for instance, is tannins—vital in aging red wines, among other things. When phenols aren’t given the proper amount of time to develop, says Campo, “the wine can have less complexity, it could be less true to its terroir and varietal character, and [there can be] loss of quality.”

Last November, I visited the Italian Alp-rimmed wine-producing region of Alto Adige and checked in with Dr. Heike Platter, marketing director for the Laimburg Research Center for Agriculture and Forestry, whose weather station has accumulated about 40 years’ worth of weather and temperature data. She relayed the Center’s findings: While the Alpine region has seen higher levels of winter rainfall, that rain has become increasingly sporadic in terms of when and where it occurs. It’s also experiencing warmer summers, causing more sugar to accumulate in the fast-ripening grapes. “A significant consequence of this increase is that vines are now being cultivated at altitudes 50 to 100 meters higher than before,” Platter told me. “Some varieties, such as Müller Thurgau and Pinot Nero, are even being cultivated at the extreme height of up to 800 meters. This tendency towards extremes in the weather impedes optimal efficiency of cultivation in organic viticulture.” In other words, if a grape has historically thrived in one particular place with a particular soil at a particular altitude, will its wine still taste the same if it has to be grown elsewhere? And what happens if and when you run out of places to grow? 

There are other negative impacts caused by rising temperatures—most notably, potentially climbing alcohol levels. “Generally speaking, California red wines have definitely gotten heftier over the past decade or so—alcohol levels are higher, and in many cases are necessarily being adjusted downward by winemakers,” explains Mary Ewing-Mulligan, a Master of Wine and the president of the International Wine Center in New York, as well as co-author of Wine for Dummies. “Also, the nature of the fruit flavors in the wines suggests grapes that were so very ripe at harvest that they progressed beyond ripe-fruity flavors into baked-fruit flavors. … The wines do not have true fruity character.”

Ewing-Mulligan points out that these stylistic changes can sometimes be the intentional fingerprint of a winemaker to make wines that are less complex and more approachable to a broader wine-consuming public, but still, she adds, “What seems to have happened is a convergence between Nature’s input and winemaker goals. To my taste, it results in unpleasing, exaggerated wines.”

But if, as Ewing-Mulligan suggests, those strident flavors are sometimes the intentional result of trying to please fans of the “big wine” style, could extremes in heat potentially be a good thing for the wine industry? If we’re talking in terms of the immediate now, possibly; in the long run, however, that’s unlikely. “I think the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way now,” says Newton. “People are making wines that are a little bit more elegant. Winemakers are just trying to figure out how to make their wines more balanced and lighter on the palate, so if that’s the way the wine pendulum is swinging, this climate extreme that seems to be happening is not a good thing.”

Pleasant Surprises
Is there an upside to any of this doom and gloom? Well, sure. Some typically chilly regions, like Germany, are experiencing more consistently good vintages than ever before. “You go to Germany and go back 50 years, and they’d have one to four good vintages [out of 10],” says Jones. “Now it’s nine out of 10.” Germany bases its wine classification system not just on geography, but also in great part on ripeness levels of the grapes at harvest, which means the wines made from the ripest grapes produced during a good year go right to the top of the class. If they didn’t achieve the right amount of ripeness, the wines would be de-classified—in other words, lowered in status because they didn’t meet Quality Wine attributes. “They haven’t declassified a wine probably in the last 10 years, because now the grapes are able to ripen nicely,” Jones says.

Another surprise from Germany is that now it’s becoming a contender in, of all things, Pinot Noir. “I can honestly say some of the best Pinot Noir I’ve had lately has been from there—and that’s not traditionally the best Pinot Noir area,” Jones says. On the downside, one of Germany’s great specialties—Ice Wine—is struggling. “German law says you have to pick the grapes at minus 7 degrees C [about 17 degrees F] in order to produce natural Ice Wine. Now, the temperature maybe goes down to minus 5 or 6, but doesn’t reach minus 8 as consistently as it has in the past.”

However, according to Jones, many wine regions are experiencing less year-to-year fluctuation in quality and, thus, racking up the points in critics’ ratings. Jones’s study showed a trend toward more consistent and improved quality in wine from the regions of Burgundy’s Beaujolais, the Rhine Valley, Barolo and Bordeaux. Still, the extremes in ripeness can easily push a wine over the top. “To the extent that a wine drinker enjoys lighter or fresher-style wines, the changes are negative,” says Ewing-Mulligan. “Many Chablis wines these days taste as ripe as southern Burgundies and have lost their individuality—their piercing acidity, their mineral aromas and flavors—to some extent. But the broad climate-induced change has not happened all at once and forever: Some vintages are still cool relative to today’s norm, and in these vintages the classic style is evident.” Ewing-Mulligan cites the 2002 and 2006 vintages from Chablis as standouts. 

And then there are places like England, possibly one of the last spots on Earth one might think about when browsing the shelves of a wine shop, but where outstanding sparkling wines abound. “Regions that are seeing benefits from climate change are, for example, the south of England, which has become a very interesting region to produce quality sparkling wine,” says Campo. “There are several French Champagne houses that are doing soil mapping and studying the terroir because the soil is very similar to Champagne and the climate is becoming quite similar. A lot of sparkling wine is already being produced in England, and they use a lot of varieties like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and the results are amazing. It’s a very high-quality sparkling wine.”

Across the globe, wine producers are finding ways to adapt, like re-thinking once tried-and-true methods of vine training and pruning. “We’re changing our trellis system in certain areas, trying to fluff up the canopies so there’s a little more leaf protecting the fruit. More leaves around the clusters help to block the direct sunlight,” says Newton. “Also, some people are installing mister systems to cool the vines and the fruit.” Other wine growers, like those in Alto Adige, are looking at planting at higher elevations in search of desirable temperatures. In the lab, experiments with plant breeding and genetics are creating grapes vines that are more heat-resistant and rootstock that is more salt-tolerant (drier soils also tend to be saltier). And then there are those who are simply looking to other potential viticultural areas for salvation. These are all smart, good solutions, but it all sends a little bit of a chill up the spine. Will there be a day when Pinot Noir is ungrowable in Burgundy? Will the word “Chianti” mean nothing to future generations? “Our vine growers know so well that the history of viticulture in Italy and Europe along the centuries is a history of continuous adaption,” says Ruffino’s chief agronomist Maurizio Bogoni in Tuscany. “Everyone who works with nature is particularly sensitive about news of a mad climate.”

What does climate change mean to wine lovers? It does make you stop and think that maybe it’s not a bad idea to sock away a little extra money for a case or two of a favorite vintage from a beloved winery. And, maybe, to start paying closer attention to the wicked whims of weather beyond our own personal boundaries. But even though he hears alarm bells in his sleep, Newton and other viticulturalists aren’t quite ready to send up the distress signals. “We’re always adjusting; there’s always a curve ball,” he says. “That’s kind of what it is to be a farmer.” 

 

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