Is That A Hint Of Climate Change? How the Crisis is Changing Wine
Do you fancy a nice glass of red or white wine with your dinner? If yes, have you taken the time to really taste to see what notes are in it?
If you have, you recently might have caught one note — likely just the slightest hint (for now) — that you just can’t quite put your finger on. No, it’s not raspberry or cherry; neither chocolate nor coffee. That note you might be tasting… well, that’s climate change.
Grapes have had to adapt to not only hotter and hotter summers in regions where they have historically been grown, but also to warmer winters, increasingly common drought, and the sort of unexpected, sometimes violent storm events that are often amplified by the effects of climate change, from hailstorms and late-spring frosts to wildfires.
At the same time, as our world warms, new wine regions have started to develop. And like coffee farmers, some existing vintners are seeking out cooler, higher elevations to keep their businesses afloat.
There’s simply no denying that climate change is already having a dramatic impact on wines around the world, but what does the future have in store (if we don’t take urgent action)? Read on to learn more.
Fancy A Glass Of English Wine?
“Climate change is no longer a theory at all. It is very concrete and visible in the vineyard,” says Cécile Ha, a spokesperson for the Bordeaux Wine Council.
The accelerating effects of the climate crisis are forcing the wine industry, particularly those who see wine as a fine agricultural product rather than an industrial-scale beverage, to take decisive steps to counter or adapt to the shifts.
Scientist and historians have found that many grapes are now harvested almost two weeks before their historical norms. And for wine making, the harvest point is crucial. In 2020, France had its earliest harvest in 500 years. The crops this year were mature more than a month earlier than previous years.
These harvests have become impossible to predict and present two problems for wine makers:
- Grapes that stay on the vine too long get too much sugar in them, making a more-alcoholic, less tasty wine, and also become acidic.
- Grapes harvested too early do not develop the right balance of fragrant tannins that give wine its characteristic flavors.
And with the world warming, new wine regions are popping up.
Successful vineyards have historically been found between 30 and 50 degrees latitude. But as the earth continues to warm, areas that were once too cold are now becoming suitable to produce wines – and some of the new wine regions may surprise you.
England has seen rapid growth of vineyards along its southern coast and has been producing increasingly sought-after sparkling wine.
“I was astonished that you could create wines with such quality, energy, and flavors in England,” says Adrian Pike, managing director and winemaker at Westwell Wine Estates in Kent, England.
Vineyards have also been planted in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. And in the Southern Hemisphere, wine makers are pushing further into Patagonia in Argentina and Chile.
Well That’s An Interesting Note
So climate change is affecting where and when grapes can grow, but it is also affecting how they grow too.
“Wine grapes are extremely sensitive to climate and this is much of what makes wine so exquisite. But it also means wine grapes are extremely sensitive to climate change,” says Elizabeth M. Wolkovich, associate professor of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia.
Since wine grapes are so sensitive to their environments, the slightest change in the growing conditions can lead to drastic results in the quality and size of the grape yield.
One way growers have been trying to curtail these impacts is to change the amount of sunlight grapes receive. In the Northern Hemisphere, conventional wisdom long has been for vineyards to be planted on south-facing slopes. Now, winemakers are planting on northern slopes.
Increased afternoon sun and intense heat makes grapes overripen, creating a flabby and dull wine. So growers have also been seeking higher grounds to escape the growing intense heat too.
At higher elevations, high heat often lasts for shorter periods, and nighttime temperatures are colder than at lower altitudes, providing some respite for the grapes.
If the growing season gets too hot for too long, the grapes will rush through their life cycles too quickly. As just one example, in 2019, Southern Australia experienced its hottest summer since national records began in 1910, and it ushered in an 8 percent loss of white wine varieties.
It Only Gets Worse
As climate changes continues to worsen, wine will continue to change – and not in good ways.
We may no longer see the Bordeaux region make cabernet sauvignon and merlot, or Champagne produce pinot noir and chardonnay.
Instead, wine makers may have to develop new wines in hopes of replicating the wines we love.
Vintners in Bordeaux and the Napa Valley are experimenting with new grapes such as touriga nacional, marselan, castets, and arinarnoa. The hope is for these grapes to save traditional cabernet sauvignons, but whether it will work remains unclear.
Additionally, in California, wine makers are also experimenting with grapes that can withstand the heat better—grapes like aglianico, charbono, tempranillo, shiraz and touriga nacional—which are already grown in warmer regions of Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France.
What Can You Do
If one thing is clear, it’s that it’s time to act on climate.
No more kicking the can down the road. No more beating around the bush.
The threats ahead couldn’t be clearer. So let’s get to work.
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