Wine and the Changing Climate
Jackson Family's Los Carneros, California vineyards
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.
California’s Jackson Family Estates is tackling drought head on with award-winning sustainability practices at their 40-plus premium wineries, including at Monterey, above. Heat and drought are expected to reduce California’s wine output by up to 70% by 2050. New vine plantings with deeper root systems, for example, can extend the viability of marginal areas. Meantime, the company is buying vineyards in cooler regions of Oregon, acknowledging that heading north is just part of the new world wine order.
In formerly outlying regions such as Tasmania, Britain, and even Scandanavian countries and parts of China, the crafting of high quality wines is now — or soon will be — entirely possible. English wines won an unprecedented 120 medals at the International Wine Challenge in 2016, with sparkling wines leading the way.
In late 2015 in New York City, Okanagan winery owner Anthony von Mandl launched his new line of CheckMate wines, ultra-premium Chardonnays showcasing the region’s potential. Made in tiny quantities — just a few hundred cases or less of each — the wines sell for $85 to $125.
Winemaker Phil McGahan joined CheckMate after making high-end wines in his native Australia. He then took off for California in 2007 due to heat extremes in Australia’s Hunter Valley. But after a few years in drought-battered California, he moved on. He calls the Okanagan’s cool and stable climate “a magical zone for Chardonnay.”
“The Okanagan is still a young region but everyone knows the potential is there,” he says. “And now there are people really exploring that potential and driving it to the next level.”