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WineInk: Wine and the climate crisis

Kelly J. Hayes
WineInk

It’s been pretty hot around here.

Temperatures in the mid to high 80s have been the norm for this month. That’s about 5 degrees warmer than the daily average for August and we have broken records throughout the “dog days” this summer in the Aspen area. And then there’s the smoke that has settled in like an unwelcome tourist from California’s Dixie fire.

But imagine beginning the harvest of wine grapes on a day when the temperature tickles 120 degrees. That was the high temperature not far from Sicily’s Gulphi Cantina on Aug. 12 as they began to pick the white grapes, including the indigenous Carricanti, that will make up part of their 2021 harvest.



It was reported that SIAS, Sicily’s regional agriculture-meteorological information service, recorded a temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.84 degrees Fahrenheit) at the island’s Syracuse station, about 30 miles from the Gulphi Winery. The agency posted on its Facebook page that it is the highest temperature ever registered since its network was installed in 2002. If verified by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), it would be the highest temperature ever recorded on the European continent, besting a 48 degrees Celsius (118.40 degrees Fahrenheit) day in July of 1977 in Athens, Greece.

While the harvest expectations for Southern Italy are hopeful despite the heat —grapes began to be picked in July — the prospects for the Northern regions of Italy are a bit more concerning. Heavy rains have delayed harvest dates there. And in France, the devastating combination of an April frost, hailstorms and the same rains that killed over 200 people in the German Ahr Valley wine region have contributed to a feeling of pessimism about the 2021 vintage. Last week France’s farm ministry reported that the 2021 production of wine output in France is projected to be as much as 30% less than it was in 2020.


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All of this comes at the precise time when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a climate study stating that we are in a “Code Red” climate crisis for humanity. Oh, and last Friday it was revealed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared July 2021 the world’s hottest month in 142 years of records.

Canary in the Coal Mine

It has been said that the wine industry has, and will be, a good indicator of what will happen in the broader world of agriculture as we deal with climate issues. Wine grapes are intensely climate sensitive and the industry, because of the economic impact, studies itself relentlessly. As a result, there are researchers in the U.S., France and Australia who are examining the effects of climate change on wine grapes, using the industry as a proverbial “canary in a coal mine” so that they can predict future changes in agriculture.

As the temperatures rise in the established wine regions, grapes ripen faster which lowers the acidity levels and increases their sugar levels. Wine regions like Burgundy and Barolo have benefited from this when the grapes have been picked at the right time and for the right wine style. Warmer growing seasons have resulted in some exceptional vintages. Wines with higher levels of alcohol can be fuller, softer, and fruitier, if that is what the winemaker is looking for.

But that time to pick is coming earlier each year in many regions and it is getting harder to predict which grapes will do well and which will wilt and shrivel in the rising temperatures.

The sweet spot for wine regions has always been between the 30th and 50th parallels on either side of the equator. For centuries, certain grape varieties have been planted in latitudinal lines around the Earth that have proven to be good hosts for those grapes. Closer to 30 degrees from the equator has always been too hot for some varieties like pinot noir, and beyond 45 degrees toward the poles has been perceived as too cold for others like Cabernet Sauvignon.

But now, with the increase in global temperatures, everything seems to be migrating further away from the equator. In England a sparkling wine region has emerged near Kent and Sussex which sit right at the 51st parallel. French Champagne producers are hedging their bets by purchasing land and planting the Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier in this northerly clime that offers similar soils to the motherland.

A vineyard on a fjord near Flam village in Norway. Getty Images

Canada’s Okanagan Valley is at the 49th parallel and it seems primed for the introduction of more Bordeaux-style wines as the seasons grow longer. And there are experimental plantings in places you never would have anticipated a decade or two ago. Ever think you might drink wines produced in Belgium? Or how about Norway or even a Danish Riesling? Well, it may take a while, but there are vineyards being planted to test the theory that Scandinavia could, one day, be a viable place for wine grapes.

The Short Term

While there is urgency about making longer-term changes to where wine will be produced in the coming decades the real-life effects of climate change on wine are happening as you read this. A year and a day ago in Napa Valley the Hennessey Fire, which became known as the LMU Complex fire, ignited. A series of dry lightning strikes started the fire, which would eventually scorch over 300,000 acres, damage or destroy 30 wineries and cost several others their 2020 vintage. Last week, I sat with one winemaker in the southern end of the Napa Valley as we watched D-9 tractors cut huge firebreaks between his vineyard blocks. “We have to do something,” he said. “When we lost 2020 it was the second vintage in four years that we had to pull.”

In 2017 the Atlas Peak fire had left smoke taint on the grapes and cost the winery that harvest as well.

Later that day, miles away in Calistoga, I sat with another winemaker who will not produce wines from 2020 either. But his culprit was the “Glass Fire” that started six weeks after the LMU Complex Fire at the other end of the Valley. The winemaker’s home was saved but his neighbors all lost theirs. “It used to be you saw a puff of smoke or heard a siren, you’d look up. But now anything like that makes the hair stand up on your arms.”

Meadowood Napa Valley engulfed during the September 2020 Glass Fire. Associated Press

Fire is just one of the climate-oriented issues that is challenging the future of wine in California. The drought has made all California winemakers conscious of just how dependent they are on their diminishing resources and each day brings new concerns about the availability of water down the road. And insurance, always expensive, has exploded in price with each of the fires over the last four years. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a reasonably priced policy to cover losses of property, much less lost vintages.

These are the things that keep winemakers awake at night.

As we sit here in Colorado, sipping a Chardonnay as the sun sets with an orange-ish hue due to the smoke hanging in our sky, it is easy to forget the implications of that smoke on your glass of wine. As harvest season begins in California, let’s hope that the vintners are spared another round of climate-induced catastrophes.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE


2018 Ladera Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Pillow Road Vineyard

Aug. 18 was International Pinot Noir Day. Normally I would ignore such designations, but, as I just this week indulged in a splendid Russian River Pinot paired with a grilled beer can chicken, I thought it would be a good time to pay homage to the finicky Pinot grapes. Ladera Vineyards is perhaps better known for the mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon from their Howell Mountain vineyards than the Pinot Noir that they source from 35 miles away in Sonoma County near Sebastopol. But this Pillow Road Vineyard sourced wine is a keeper. Made by Kiwi winemaker Jade Barrett (who had a stint at Randy Lewis’ Lewis Cellars before coming to Ladera) the wine is ruby red and imparts aromas of plums and red raspberries on the first whiff, soft and inviting, a bite of tannin on the tongue, gives it sense of character. The wine ends on spicy note and sticks around long enough to be a part of the next nibble. A great combo on a summer’s eve with my bird.

 


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