Climate Change & Wine

By Ben Rubenstein, Principal/Wine Guru

Let me begin by making this clear, I do not intend to argue about the human effect on climate change.  Throughout the earth’s history, temperatures have risen and fallen.  Scientists have used tree-rings, coral growth, ice cores and many other proxy measurements to construct a 2,000-year history of global temperatures; showing a warm period about 1,000 years ago and a cooler period about 400 years ago.  Today, science shows that the earth is warming and that’s going to have an effect on where certain grapes are grown, how they ripen, and eventually how a wine will taste.

Typically, a grape grown in a hot year in a warm climate can produce an exceptional wine.  The winemaker can pick that grape at optimal ripeness with full-flavor potential.  Recently researchers from Harvard University and NASA studied 400 years of climate and harvest data from France.  They deduced that the average temperature in France has risen 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century, which has led to some very highly-rated vintages in Bordeaux in the last 20-30 years.  Rising temperatures, however, can also create many problems – irrigation issues, disease proliferation in vineyards, erratic precipitation that could cause soil erosion in the vineyard during heavy rainfall, among others.

To combat rising temperatures, some have suggested that winegrowers need to alter where and what they are planting in order have the ability to continue to create fine wines.  “Move vineyards to higher latitudes and higher elevations” was a recommendation made in 2013 in a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The following year, the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment said that in the U.S. “The area capable of consistently producing grapes required for the highest quality wines is projected to decline by more than 50% by late this century.”  This is leading some winegrowers to alter their practices in the vineyard.  They are managing the vine’s canopy differently to increase air circulation around the berries.  They are experimenting with sprays to protect the vines from the sun, much like we use sunscreen.  Technology like drones are monitoring temperatures and water in the vineyards.  Some are even replanting to varieties that will fare better in warmer growing seasons. 

Recently, Champagne Taittinger purchased 170 acres of land in southern England in order to produce sparkling wine.  Many feel that the soil and climate in this part of England is similar to the Champagne region of France.  Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger intimated this purchase was a result of rising temperatures in Europe, “Our aim is to make something of real excellence in the UK’s increasingly temperate climate.”

So as the earth continues to warm, rest assured, the talented winegrowers and winemakers in the world will continue to craft amazing wines, they just might be coming from places we are not used to seeing.

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