Wines and Climate Change

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smIf you don’t believe in climate change, you may want to go do something else rather than read this post. But if you do, then you should first read this blog by Dr. Vino: Confronting climate change in Germany - four views, http://www.drvino.com/2013/03/20/confronting-climate-change-in-germany-four-views/#more-12320)

The quandary these German face:  If you’re a cool climate wine growing region, how do you deal with climate change?  This post highlights the approaches taken by a few German growers.  This problem isn’t imminent in the sense that Germans are still going to able to produce world class Rieslings for some time.  But you can only do so much to counteract increasing heat.  And heat will continue to increase.  A few decades down the line…

I sympathize with the efforts of these German winemakers. And there are things you can do.  You can orient your rows differently, adjust your irrigation practices (if you irrigate), pick earlier, play around with your trellis system, and so one.  But let’s be honest.  These practices are fine if you’re at the margins.  If you’re a littler hotter than you’d like to be, some of these practices can bring you back into your comfort zone.

But if you’re a lot hotter than you want to be, these things aren’t going to work very well.  And that’s probably where we’re going to be a few decades down the road. To be sure, there is not going to be a uniform increase in heat across the planet. Even as the average temperature rises, that does not mean that the temperature in any particular area will follow suit. It may well be some areas will cool as the planet in general warms.  So some areas may well simply dodge the bullet and continue on with business as usual.

That being said, I think it’s fair to assume that most winegrowing regions will experience an increase in temperature over the next decades. If playing around the edges isn’t enough to compensate for the increased temperature, what to do?

I think we’re going to see some combination of the following adaptations.

First, a winemaker can move. Maybe Napa Valley becomes too hot for world-class Cabernet, but there’s always Oregon. Or Washington. Or British Columbia. Or the Yukon. I am being a little facetious here, but you get the idea.

The winemaker also has the option of staying put. But if he stays put and keeps doing the same thing, he’s going to see a dramatic decline in the quality of this wine. But while the adaptations the Germans are experimenting with may only work around the margins, there are more dramatic adaptations which can be very effective. First and foremost is variety selection. There is no question that some varieties do well in cooler climates (Pinot Noir, Riesling). Others prefer hotter climates (for example, Petites, Zinfandel). So areas which excel at Pinot today may excel at Petite Sirah 30 or 40 years hence. Related to the idea of moving to other varieties is the possibility of using different clones of the same variety. While one clone of Pinot Noir is not going to produce identical wine to another, at least you’re still getting Pinot Noir.

Of course, all that assumes that you’re not in a low-lying area. If, due to rising sea levels, your vineyard is now sitting under a few feet of salt water, finding a new variety or clone is not going to do you a whole lot of good.

If you’re into genetic engineering, it may be possible to modify the genome of your favorite grape to address higher temperatures. Even if genetic engineering isn’t your thing, it may well be possible to develop clones of grapes using traditional breeding methods that will accomplish much the same thing.

Another possibility is that the winemaker stays put, more or less, at least in the sense that he doesn’t move 1000 miles. But altitude certainly has a lot to do with temperature, as we see with species moving up to higher elevations as the planet warms. Grapes are no different in this regard. So what may work well today at a 500 foot elevation may work just as well a few decades from now at 1500 feet or 3000 feet. Of course, that assumes that you can find a mountainside nearby. If you can’t, scratch this option.

Those are just a few thoughts. I guess I’m not too concerned that climate change is going to result in the elimination of wine grapes on the planet. And I do think with human ingenuity, we will find a way to deal with increasing temperatures.  Of course, there is still human stupidity to consider. If the wine drinkers of the future are like those of today, and would rather drink a mediocre Cabernet than a world-class wine they have never heard of, you can scratch much of the above.

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