Reporting From The Unifed Wine & Grape Symposium: Climate Change and Wine
Although I have fretted quietly (and sometimes not so quietly my friends can report) about climate change for some time, I've never actually been in a room with a climatologist before. It's one thing to hear Al Gore or scientists on the Discovery Channel talk about it but it is another thing altogether to hear it live from people who studied it and to hear it related specifically to one of my favorite subjects, wine.
The consensus among the Climate Change panel members at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium was that change is imminent, indeed it is already happening. How that change will continue to manifest remains uncertain. The one constant that I took from the panel is that temperatures will continue to rise over the next few years and this will directly affect at least some of the wines we love. If you have been following the tribulations of ice wine producers during this season, you may already be aware that some wines are changing. Without question, the future of winemaking will be different than it is today.
But the warm weather presents a variety of challenges. In Napa there has been an over five degree raise in minimum temps over the past 40 years with a 90 day longer growing period. In fact, the potential reduction of viable production acreage for high to premium wine could be reduced by 81%. Some pretty scary numbers for those of us who love Napa wines. Overall the best regions for wine growing in California will be shifting to the north and coastal regions. Certain varietals are more at risk than others. Riesling and Gewurztraminer flourish in cooler temps as does Pinot Noir. Washington and Oregon already seem to be experiencing the benefit of these temperature shifts but it' could prove problematic in the future for California growers who wish to produce these wines. You can see a slide that shows how the growing regions on the west coast will shift here.
Dr. Robert Wilkinson, who is the Director of Water Policy at UCSB weighed in on the future of precipitation. It is a lot less easy to determine what the future of rainfall looks like. Everyone knows the temperature will rise but it the future could either be much wetter or much drier. He showed a bunch of different graphs indicating conflicting data. No one seems to know for sure which naturally makes it very difficult for winemakers to plan ahead. The warmer weather also means that the snow level in the mountains is creeping ever higher. For California and other regions that rely on snow as natural water storage there may be some tough years ahead.
One thing we don't like to think about is the bugs on things we eat and drink. But where there is agriculture there are insects and pest control is another issue facing wineries and other industries. As the climate shifts, pests often have a wider range. Dr. John Trumble of the Department of Entomology at the University of California Riverside gave a non wine industry related example that expressed it perfectly. The Mountain Pine Beetle, a rather ugly little bug that chomps through timber wood at alarming rates can now migrate further north because of warmer temperatures. It is then able to infect whole new regions and cause mass devastation which may eventually lead to higher prices in timber over the next 10 years. For wineries, similar situations could occur and we may hear about crop devastation due to unfamiliar insects in new areas which aren't prepared to handle them.
Dr. Jones also presented the work of Hans Schultz who works in the steep vineyards of the Mosel Valley in Germany at the Geisenheim Institute. Schultz's work in Europe dovetails with Jones's North American data. The hotter temperatures are provoking a variety of changes. He cites the gravely soil of the famed Chateauneuf du Pape. The gravel, which rests on top of the clay soil, is a traditional part of the vineyards. However, the gravel traps heat and may have to be removed as the temperatures continue to rise. The Champagne region and the Douro region in Portugal are also areas perceived to be at risk due to warmer temps (perhaps this explains why cooler England has been making such good sparkling wines recently). The news from Europe overall is that the wine industry there may have to do some adapting. The Mosel Valley may not be the most hospitable place for Riesling any more, Burgundy may no longer be grow Pinot Noir in the same way.
The predominant message of the panel seemed to be that in order to roll with the inevitable temperature shifts over the next few decades, winemakers are going to have to be adaptable and ready to diversify. Whether it is changing the grapes grown or shifting the methods used in creating wine to prepare for shorter ripening periods and the longer growing season, winemakers are going to have to depart from tradition. I imagine this will be particularly difficult for the European wineries with long histories. It may also force consumers to think differently about the wines they drink, to lose their attachments to certain varietals and regions and learn to embrace new ones. The history of the wine industry will definitely not determine its future.