Up until a few years ago, climate change was the wine world's dirty little secret. Much discussed among winemakers witnessing dramatic changes in their vineyards — such as earlier harvest times and rising sugar levels in grapes — but hardly a topic of conversation at the consumer level.
Now the issue is bubbling up. Decanter magazine surveyed global winemakers in 2015, with over half saying they were feeling the effects of climate change. How winemakers deal with these changes have serious implications for the wine world.
Researchers have suggested that 50 years from now Burgundy, Bordeaux and Tuscany will no longer be suitable habitats for the grape varieties that have grown there for millennia — the very grapes that make these wines so highly regarded.
"In many of today's warmer regions, the future climates will be challenging for optimum grape growth and wine production," states industry bible The Oxford Companion to Wine. Dr. Gregory Jones, who wrote the Oxford entry on climate change, said in an interview that wine grapes and other specialty crops like cacao, coffee and olives have very narrow "climate niches."
"Small changes can push them over the edge," he said. "Specific grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are suited to cool climate environments, so their climate niches are extremely narrow in terms of temperature. Small changes in climate mean big changes either in the suitability of growing that grape or the type of wines that can be made from that grape."
The precious balance of flavour, acidity, alcohol, sugar and tannin that mark a truly fine wine is becoming harder to achieve in the storied wine regions of the world. At the mass-market level, wine brands are trying to turn a liability into a selling point, touting wines as "bold in character," "big and fruity," and "full of flavour." Critics might call them baked, jammy or hot. But these styles seem to be here to stay — at least in warm (or warming up) regions.
Vineyard and winemaking techniques can try to counter nature. Specialty yeasts can ferment wines to lower alcohol levels and winemakers can add acidity or water to deal with too much sugar. "Go back 20 or 30 years ago," said Dr. Jones, "and there were no companies in California that removed alcohol from wine. Today there are 50 of them."
Purists argue that these interventions negate the authenticity of a region's terroir and that these techniques cannot produce truly fine wines.
Climate change's dangerous effects are about more than heat. Freakish weather patters — drought in California, record-breaking temperatures in Oregon and Washington, and hail assaults in Burgundy and Bordeaux — are increasing torments.
Click through to read about two winemakers that are making new world wines through this brave new world
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