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  • October 17, 2022 4 min read

    Part 3: Future Proofing

    Understanding any problem helps manage the solution. The challenges facing wine production from climate change are well documented. As temperatures rise, wine regions have adapted historically to find solutions to suit their specific geography.

    In more mountainous regions, planting vines at higher and cooler altitudes are possible, replacing vineyards at lower altitude as they cease production. Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. At the foothills of the ever-growing, snow-capped Andes mountains, the Mendoza region’s vineyards are responsible for most of the country’s wine. A remarkable achievement, considering the region is technically a desert. Irrigating the vineyards from a complex series of water channels from the Andes’ snowmelt makes Mendoza’s vineyards viable.

    Meanwhile, in central Spain’s top tier of its wedding cake-shape terrain, La Mancha grows a vast number of vines successfully in this hot and arid region. Key to its success is growing vines in its natural state as a bush without training on wires. Combined with spacing each vine many meters apart to reduce competition for nutrients and water. Much of the vine’s moisture is derived as a result of the extreme diurnal range when the steep drop in temperature overnight causes dew to form on the ground.

    Altitude is not an option in flatter regions and in vineyards near sea level. Inspiration from a wine region’s ancient best practice to surviving millennia of extreme heat with scant rain and the added challenge of exposure to very strong drying winds. The Greek island of Santorini has arguably the world’s oldest continually cultivated vineyards. Santorini’s grape growers developed a unique system of training vines. The Koulouri system prunes vines to grow in round, concentric circles to form a protective basket shape while optimising access to nutrients and water.

    A daring alternative is to introduce and plant new grape varieties more tolerant of higher temperatures. For example, in 2021 the French agricultural governing body, the INAO approved the 2019 proposals for six new varieties to be planted in Bordeaux: four red varieties: Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan and Touriga Nacional and two white varieties: Alvarinho and Liliorila. Scientists in Bordeaux had studied 52 varieties with attributes for late ripening and coping with hydra stress in drought conditions. Authorised for planting in 2021 and restricted to the generic AOP for Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, to account for no more than 5% of the total estate’s surface area and 10% maximum in the blend for either red or white wines.

    Many of France’s wine regions have experienced earlier dates to commence the 2022 harvest because of the exceptionally high temperatures that race the grapes to ripeness much earlier than normal. The Champagne wine region, France’s coolest wine zone would typically harvest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in September, but has had to commence in August, a once in a lifetime occurrence. Mr Philipponnat, President of family-owned Champagne house said: "So far, global warming has helped: harvest in good weather conditions without rain, without too much cold, with ripeness and little rot." But tempered with a caution: "What's coming now is possibly over-ripe grapes. Possibly too dry summer seasons that will cause other problems, that we'll need to adapt to. We'll need to adapt our viticulture and adapt our oenology – the way we make the wines."

    This trend is rampant throughout France and other European countries where harvest is commencing at least two weeks before the traditional dates. For some regions, early harvest dates are not newsworthy. The Chablis north-west satellite region of Burgundy has been progressively harvesting Chardonnay from October to early September in recent years. "The wines may become different and we may have to adapt to other grape varieties or cultivation methods that are a little different from what we do now," said Laurent Pinson, Chablis wine producer.

    One concern with accelerated ripening is that while the grapes’ sugar ripeness is achieved, the sprint to maturity might result in the grapes not achieving optimum physiological ripeness of the fruit and skins and fully developed aromas and flavours.

    Cooler wine regions, Germany, New Zealand and the U.S. Pacific Northwest’s Oregon and Washington State could adopt heat-loving varieties also. There are 1,100 varieties globally with potential to be examined for suitability.

    However, this option comes with a caveat. Challenges of regulation to permit new varieties, finance to fund massive replanting, awaiting several years to full production and winemakers’ emotional attachment and expertise to a traditional varietal established over centuries have to be overcome. For instance, how acceptable would it be to replace Burgundy’s cool climate-loving Pinot Noir with the more heat tolerant Mourvèdre and Grenache? Not least would be the loss of Burgundy’s prestige and premium price gifted by the region’s unique terroirs specifically in their Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards so eloquently expressed by locals Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Often, commercial reality helps make the decision.

    There is bright hope for the future of wine based on past performance. The wine industry has a proven track record of adapting successfully to change for over 8,000 years. They now have an added ally, we the consumer.

     

    Acknowledgements: Wine Spectator and Reuters.

    Liam Campbell, Judge at international wine & drinks competitions.