Chris Losh

Comment - Wine - Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot

By | 2 May 2013

Whether global warming is fact or fantasy, the wine world is hit hard whenever temperatures don't behave themselves. To mitigate such circumstances, some producers are looking to lesser-known regions - such as Tasmania - for future grape growth. Chris Losh digs deeper.

The publication last month of the National Academy of Sciences report on how wine might be affected by climate change picked up column inches across both national and specialist press worldwide. Most reports zoned in (unsurprisingly) on the headline-grabbing idea that parts of the world might lose 70% of their vineyard area. But, in fact, the truth is more nuanced than that.

There seems to be broad scientific agreement that the planet is already 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was 100 years ago, and is set to increase by a further 1 to 2 degrees by 2050. It’s no coincidence, say scientists, that all but one of the ten warmest years on record (since 1880) have occurred in this millennium.

Climatologists at the Université de Bourgogne talk of a ‘thermic rupture’ in 1987, since when average temperatures have been climbing steadily. For the Burgundians, admittedly, thus far it’s not all bad news, with less well-exposed villages getting a new lease of life. 

‘The chronic lack of maturity in Pinot Noir (10.5% to 11%) in the past has transformed into 12.5% today,’ says Gregory Patriat, winemaker at Jean-Claude Boisset.

In nearby Beaujolais, meanwhile, a fair bit of experimental work is already being done with Syrah – a variety that simply wouldn’t have been able to ripen there two generations ago. Unsurprisingly, the vignerons are excited by the potential that this heavyweight grape can offer after centuries of Gamay.

British and German winemakers have also benefited from the extra heat, and it’s reckoned that large areas of so far virginal land in New Zealand are being considered for grape growing in the future. A few years ago, Miguel Torres bought a site up in the Pyrenees as a reaction to global warming.

But, while it’s almost certain that, as the mercury climbs, more places that were previously thought too cold/marginal/unreliable will become viable for wine production, it’s also true to say that climate change is not simply about higher temperatures.

We can also expect more extreme weather: More floods, more storms, longer and more intense cold snaps, longer and more severe drought. 

Feedback from wine regions suggests that this is already happening, and that ‘plague of frogs’ vintages like 2012, where country after country reported low yields following combinations of extreme cold, drought, frost and flooding, might become more normal.

With wet places expected to become wetter, and dry places expected to become drier, water availability (already an issue in many parts of the New World) will have a major impact on an industry that is already heavily reliant on irrigation.

"The main problem in Chile will not be temperatures increasing, but rain decreasing," says Concha y Toro’s chief winemaker, Marcelo Papa. "Dry areas will suffer because there will be less water available."

There is a good deal of talk about mitigating against climate change with viticulture; with canopy management, mulching round vines and growing grass covers down rows. All of this will help. But, nobody knows up to what level of temperature increase such measures will be effective.

Or, indeed, how far temperatures will increase. 

There is an inherent time lag in the warming process, which means that the planet is currently showing the symptoms of activity that was taking place decades (or centuries) earlier. Even if all global-warming activity were to cease now, the earth’s temperature would continue to rise in the medium-term. 

This is one of the reasons why making accurate predictions is so difficult. The National Research Council of the National Academies in the US foresees rises of 2-3 degrees C in 30 years’ time, and (more worryingly) 3-5 degrees by the end of this century.

The 2003 vintage in Europe gave vignerons a taste of what might be in store. The Burgundian climatologists described it as "putting Savigny-les-Beaune in the thermic conditions of the French midi Mediterranean".

Say what you like about the Languedoc, but it’s not great for Pinot Noir, and collectors didn’t fall over themselves for the 2003s. If this is the future for classic wine regions, it’s a worrying one.

This, in a sense, is the big question for the wine world: will regions that made their reputation with certain grape varieties still be able to grow them? And, even if viticultural developments mean that they can, will these wines taste like we think they should?

While such issues will be debated in Maipo and Mornington Peninsula as well, they’re most piquant in Europe.

If a grower in Marlborough thinks that his vineyard is too hot for Sauvignon Blanc, but perfect for Viognier he can replant, or find a cooler site. It’s expensive but simple to do.

The Kiwi Pinot Noir kings, Ata Rangi, in chilly Martinborough, are already experimenting with Syrah and Italian varieties – something that would have been a total waste of time 30 years ago, but might turn out to be hugely prescient should current predictions come true.

In Europe, however, where appellations are burdened with history and expectation and locked in by rules, decisions to replant are intensely political; the process far slower. As far as I know, nobody in Bordeaux is experimenting with Grenache or Nero d’Avola.

It’s not inconceivable that Beaujolais might permit Syrah. But what if, in 2080, the grape turns out to be perfect in the Cotes de Nuits, which is now too hot for Pinot Noir? It would be a brave appellation president who made that call…

The issue that was seized on by the press was the disappearance of swathes of traditional vineyard area. In fact, I’d suggest that most places currently under vine will probably still be producing wine in some shape or form. 

But, what is grown where and how ‘traditional’ wines might taste could be very different from what we know now.

Sectors: Wine

Companies: Concha y Toro

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Chris Losh looks at the latest issues affecting the global wine industry.

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