As the planet warms, time-honored wine-producing regions are becoming inhospitable to classic grape varietals. Forget France: Iceland and the Yukon might be the appellations of the future.
According to NASA, the ten warmest years in recorded history have all occurred since 2000. While American politicians remain deadlocked as to the existence of climate change and what exactly to do about it, sizable segments of the global agricultural industry are already feeling the heat.
Sixth-generation winemaker Alois Clemens Lageder has been heeding the warning signs for three decades. It was around that time, in the mid 80s, when his father began planting Roussanne, Marsanne, and Assyrtiko grapes on the family farm—fruit typical to the warmer parts of southerly Europe. The Lageder estate, however, is in Alto Adige, bordering Austria under the shadows of the Italian alps. Grapes like these had never flourished in this region. It was a bold agricultural calculation that proved prescient, giving birth to a legacy of experimentation that continues at the vineyard to this day.
Regardless, neighboring vintners weren't exactly eager to uproot the German- and Austrian-born varietals for which the region was known. "It's difficult to generalize it, but I think in Europe, people are focused a lot on tradition," explains Lageder. "That's why changing is not our best talent." The younger Lageder was determined to try. Inspired by the forward-thinking approach of his father, he assembled a European winemakers conference on climate change—way back in 2005. "The attendees were mainly vintners from the region, and local and international press," he recalls. "The topic led to good discussions and people were curious in general. There was a certain 'wow' effect, as it wasn't something common to discuss."
While it didn't incite overnight disruption in the industry, Lageder's symposium was a pivotal moment in modern winemaking—signaling that the challenges of a warming planet had become impossible to ignore. Half a world away, the Napa Valley Vintners followed suit, sponsoring their own study on the issue shortly thereafter. "Locally, we can't combat climate change—only adapt," observes Chris Howell of Cain Vineyard in St. Helena, California. "In Europe, I no longer hear alarm but rather acceptance, even resignation. But I don't hear much about adaptation. In California, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of alarm yet, except among climatologists like Greg Jones."
A professor of environmental science and policy at Southern Oregon University, Jones has been studying issues surrounding grape-growing for 30 years. To him, the choice is simple: adapt or find new work. Luckily, winemakers are historically adept at doing just that. "Agriculturalists are more aware of climate than virtually anyone else on the planet," he asserts. "If you are growing anything, you are not doing it in the same way you were doing it 20 years ago. There's no doubt."
But wine grapes are hardly your standard crop. They produce a liquid prized for its nuance; its subtleties tirelessly analyzed by discerning connoisseurs. Higher annual temperatures are already producing fruit with more sugar and less acid, resulting in noticeably "hotter" wines, with as much as 1 to 2 percent more alcohol in the bottle. Winemakers now regularly work with yeasts designed to optimally metabolize these higher sugar rates. Explains Jones: "You find this balance between the higher sugar level and the reduction of acid, and those two clocks are ticking all the time. The other two clocks are flavor development and aroma development. When the climate becomes warmer, the vine will accelerate its growth and its sugar development, and the development of flavor and aroma gets decoupled from acid and sugar. You get a decoupling of the ripeness clocks as they are developing in the fruit. The sweet spot becomes narrower, and eventually you hit a threshold where that variety in that climate can't perform anymore."
That's not all bad news, necessarily. An unexpected upside, of sorts, is that certain colder regions of the world, never before hospitable to grape-growing, will climb within that threshold. We could soon start seeing wines from appellations as unlikely as Iceland or the Yukon, even. Large-scale commercial enterprises have already started working this to their advantage. "Some of the bigger guys have diversified their holdings across multiple different geographies," explains Jones. "You end up protecting yourself from risk."
This is something of a no-brainer to a multi-million-dollar conglomerate, but to the local, family vintner, transcontinental diversification isn't in the cards. "The best we can do is hedge our bets with alternate varieties that might be better suited in 20 to 30 years," says Howell. Unfortunately, few small-scale wineries have the capital to gaze that far down the road. Withstanding a succession of even several subpar vintages is hard enough. "Climate change will affect ripening, and ripening affects flavor. Fine wine is all about flavor," Howell points out.
The most fastidious monitoring of increasingly fickle ripeness doesn't insulate vintners from the added specter of pests, disease, and drought—all symptoms of prolonged warming patterns. To combat these woes, winemakers have to rely on the commitment of their local community. It helps that as agriculturalists, they tend to be as ecologically minded as they come. "Napa as a whole is pretty progressive in its response," Tom Gamble, of Gamble Family Vineyards, boasts of his own region. "Groundwater restrictions have been in place for a long time, in case rainfall is in a long-term decline. We participate in river restoration projects and practice fish-friendly farming, which restores and increases shade to the river, and manages invasive insect species that spread vine disease. If warmer nights are a result of climate change, these insects are able to establish populations where before they could not." Like many of its neighboring wineries, Gamble recycles 100 percent of its water. Napa, for its part, restricts commercial development to further protect the precious resource as best it can.
Many other renowned winemaking regions, however, stubbornly cling to the past—at their own peril. In Bordeaux, where permitted varietals are strictly guarded, changes to traditional production techniques have occurred at a glacial pace (for lack of a better term). The quality and output of recent vintages has suffered considerably as a result, and enough for the people pouring it to take note. "They are starting to plant 'experimental' varietals in Bordeaux and other [highly regulated] appellations, to see what will work if the climate becomes too warm for the varietals currently permitted there," concedes Catherine Morel, a sommelier at 71 Above in downtown Los Angeles. "If the climate continues to warm, there will be regions where grape cultivation becomes nearly impossible."
Jones echoes this assessment, lamenting that innovative measures can only go so far: "People are applying these things all the time. But adaptive capacity in the plant system or the human system reaches a point when it's just not worth it to work with that variety. Maybe you'll have to move." More likely, you'll have to get used to enjoying new styles and flavors in wine. If one of the most traditional institutions in human history can endure radical upheaval, your palate can surely withstand the same.
Relative to the more calamitous ramifications of global warming, an off-flavor chardonnay seems laughably trivial. Yet, since the dawn of antiquity, wine has existed as a romanticized cultural touchstone. As a result, its existential threat is packaged with an unexpected human weight that's somehow lost when discussing the impersonal metrics of, say, rising sea levels. And it's not even that trivial: Last year, wine accounted for $56 billion in sales in the US alone.
In a more tangible sense, the preparedness of farmers and vintners highlights the immediacy of this issue; it informs how we must all conform to a new normal. Climate change isn't some nebulous menace looming on the horizon. It is here. It is now.