Global Warming Is Turning the Welsh Valleys into a Wine Hotspot
One of the few silver linings to come out of impending changes in climate is that countries like Wales—historically lauded for its ability to produce drinkable vinegar—will finally get a look-in on the viticultural landscape.
Unless you've spent your entire drinking career swilling cans of Tennent's Super, chances are you can find your way around a wine list. Red or white? Merlot or Chardonnay? Chilean or French? These are all reassuringly familiar wine words and you can probably get by without resorting to a generic house white. Hell, you might even know your Right Bank from your Left Bank.
But what if you were presented with a choice of Canadian or Welsh wines? Or if northern German wines dominated the menu in the same way alcopops do in provincial nightclubs?
No, this isn't a whimsical concept for a trendy new pop-up bar, but rather the reality of the wine industry in the near future.
According to experts, climate change is set to turn global wine production upside down, and while it might seem trite to worry about wine lists in the face of potentially catastrophic weather phenomena, one of the few silver linings to come out of impending flooding and drought is that countries such as the UK—historically lauded for its ability to produce drinkable vinegar—will finally get a look-in on the viticultural landscape.
Back in 1989, famous viticulturist Richard Smart suggested that climate change would eventually impact wine production around the globe, and his assertion was met with widespread derision. Now, there's a raft of data to prove him right. Rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather is wreaking havoc on traditional wine-producing regions. In Australia, Hunter Valley vineyards are reeling from massive rainfall that threatens crop disease, while the West of the country has seen wildfires threaten production and contaminate grapes. Meanwhile, large swathes of California's wine country are too parched from drought to make wine production viable.
Of course, these changes haven't happened overnight, nor will we see a significant shift in climate conditions in the immediate future, but it's happening nonetheless.
"When we talk about climate, we're talking periods of 50 years. Anything less than 50 years is just weather," says Chris Foss, head of the wine department at Plumpton College, the first to offer courses in winemaking in Britain and a symbol of its growing wine industry. "There will always be variability in weather from one year to the next but global warming is creeping up on us. Buds are bursting earlier and grapes in many regions are not ripening properly. The other consequence is an increase in dramatic weather events: more storms, more flooding, more sudden temperature shifts. That's not good for any kind of agriculture, never mind viticulture."
Experts predict these changes will have less of an impact on the Southern Hemisphere—largely because of its greater ocean area—but Mediterranean Europe, especially Iberia, will be hit the hardest. While the changing climate won't render winemaking in this region impossible, it will make it considerably tougher.
"Also, a lot of winemaking in these areas is based on tradition," says Foss. "So the reputation of these producers will inevitably suffer if they're forced to switch their grape varieties or bring in modern methods. Alkalising a wine to make it drinkable, for example, is not very traditional."
So will England become the new Rioja? Could the valleys of Wales rival the valley of Rhone? Not quite, but the idea isn't as far-fetched as you might think. England has gone from having only a few wineries three decades ago to having more than 600 today, and is already producing some very high quality award-winning sparkling wines. Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2009, a sparkling wine from the South Downs in Sussex, got an official stamp of quality when it was served at Buckingham Palace at a state dinner in October in honour of visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping. They're not going to slosh out any old plonk for a visitor of that calibre.
"Our climate isn't that different to the Champagne region," says Alistair Nesbitt, director of Climate Wine Consulting. "So sparkling wines are doing well in this country. The next step is getting some really good still and red wines under our belt."
And we're already on our way. With sunnier autumns and average temperatures one degree warmer across parts of the UK than they have been throughout the 20th century, grapes have the opportunity to ripen further before harvest. This results in fruity flavours and lively acidity—two components which are playing an increasing role in wine from Wales, of all places.
Schlepping through a muddy Welsh field on a cold, grey afternoon amid heavy downpours is about as far removed from the quintessential image of a sunny warm vineyard on the continent as you can get. But at Llanerch Vineyard, near Cardiff, this is all part of a day's work in producing the grapes that go into its award-winning Cariad wines, which include a number of still whites as well as the UK wine industry's poster child, sparkling.
"Don't forget, the Romans were producing wine in Britain thousands of years ago," says vineyard director Ryan Davies, as he shows me around the rows of vines that help produce the vineyard's 10,000 bottles of wine per year. "I can't vouch for the quality of that but wine from this part of the world is nothing new. Nowadays we have a better understanding of viticulture technology and have access to hybrid vines that are resilient to the diseases and pests our climate is otherwise susceptible to."
Of course, in the spirit of journalistic integrity it was important I sample this quality myself, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. Each variety has a rich, full flavour with "fruity aromas," a "good richness on the palate," and some other wino expressions I've learnt in the course of my research for this article. Basically, they were from Wales but they tasted like real wine.
This perception bias towards English and Welsh wines is not, I am consistently told, uncommon.
"If you go back 20 years, everyone would say it tasted like vinegar and they'd probably be right," says Robb Merchant, director of White Castle Vineyard in Abergavenny, just up the road from Llanerch. "But the fact is, we're producing excellent wines and if we keep a focus on quality then it won't be long before wine consumers become more open to trying homegrown wines."
White Castle, which has already built up a firm following of oenophiles from Bordeaux, Napa, and South Africa's revered winemaking Stellenbosch region, is one of 13 vineyards of the Welsh Vineyard Association.
"A lot of people come along because they think it's a bit of a novelty," says Merchant, "But they're always blown away by the wines we produce in this region."
White Castle produces a range of wines including fruity reds, and supplies a number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the area. Again, this is not the trappings of mere novelty.
"It's still very early days and the industry is very small," says Nesbitt. "We're talking 2,000 hectares—just above the size of Tasmania in terms of production—across England, and much less in Wales. But in terms of quality and exposure, there's a lot going for the sector. I know some producers are already looking to export their wines and we can expect to see that increase.
"Climate change is a big issue for the planet, but it definitely spells good news for English and Welsh wine," he adds. "As temperatures and weather changes across the world, we can definitely expect to play a much larger role on the global wine production landscape."
I'll drink to that.
Watch the MUNCHIES Guide to Wales and find out more about the vineyards transforming Wales' wine rep.