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Coping with Climate Change (February 22, 2008)

In October I attended a symposium in Chicago organized by Serene Sutcliffe MW. She had invited ten young wine producers from around the world and asked them how they were grappling with the effects of climate change in their region and what challenges they faced in the future.

The questions Serena Sutcliffe put to the panelists – given the undeniable fact that the global climate is getting warmer – were:

  • Will the wines they make be drunk young or cellared for years?
  • Should they be experimenting or sticking to traditional methods?
  • Should they be looking at new origins for the oak they use?
  • Should they acidify if the summers are getting hotter?
  • Will there be a water shortage?

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon of Champagne Louis Roederer told us that the Champagne region had an average temperature over 30 years of 10.3°C. It is now closer to 12°C. Night temperatures are warmer and so are winter readings. Being so northerly, the Champenois are not unduly worried about this (because they get riper grapes), although some producers are already looking at southern England to purchase vineyard land. Lecaillon mentioned that Roederer is producing a lighter champagne bottle that will reduce their carbon imprint by 5 per cent.

Jeffrey Grosset of Grosset Wines in Australia's Clare Valley commented on the 2007 drought and the impact it might have on soil erosion. Without a cold winter the bacteria in the soil could thrive.

Thomas Duroux, Château Palmer's winemaker, explained that Bordeaux might have to "play with rootstocks and reorder our canopy management to control the sugars. Merlot could suffer due to the increase in temperature. Cabernet Sauvignon, better suited to warm climates, as the wines of Napa Valley have shown, could take a more prominent place in out terroir."

Serena Sutcliffe, speaking on behalf of Domaine Fourrier, said that the average temperatures in Burgundy since 1970 had risen 1.3°C and were more in line with those of the northern Rhône. This could mean Syrah planted in Burgundy.

Albiera Antinori stated that Tuscany has experienced a reduction of harvesting time and a rise in the alcohol strength of Antinori wines in the past few years. They are looking to counter the effects of global warming by planting at higher elevations.

Arnaldo Caprai of Marco Caprai in Umbria mentioned the growing unpredictability of weather, citing dramatically different harvests in the past five years, "one very rainy, one very dry and hot, one precocious, the next one very late."

Francesca Planeta from Planeta in Sicily is used to heat. She ventured that the island's indigenous varieties can withstand extreme conditions, stressing that plant density and cultivation methods could counter any significant climate change in her region.

Hans Vinding-Diers, the winemaker at Bodega Noemia in Argentina, uses organic and biodynamic viticulture to obtain lower alcohols under the strong Patagonian sun. "In a way, to battle with or against weather is nothing new in winemaking," he said. "The weather change can be beneficial for some areas as well as a detriment to others."

For David Powell of Torbreck in the Barossa Valley, water management is the prime concern. He grows oats, barley, triticale and legumes between the rows and puts straw under the wines to retain soil moisture.

Raffaele Boscaini of Masi had a positive spin on global warming: "We now have more time for the appassimento (grape-drying for Amarone) process this gives us a distinct advantage in the early and most crucial phases – warm temperatures and helpful breezes in October are positive factors."

Adrian Bridge of Taylor's Port has seen changing weather patterns in the Douro Valley – hailstorms, snow and unusual high rainfall, which contributed to great lass of crop in 2002 and 2006. "Our greatest annual fear," Bridge told us, "is the hurricane season in the southern US, as the tails of these storms often whip across the Atlantic and bring rain to our harvest."

There is no question that winemakers everywhere will have to deal with the twin problems of climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gases. The young winemakers at this symposium were fully tuned into these imperatives. Climate change may be an initial blessing for cool climate regions (like Champagne, Loire valley, Northeastern Italy, to say nothing of Ontario and BC), but in the final analysis, unless we can arrest the heating up of the planet, our grandchildren might not be able to taste the wines we enjoy today.




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