Drinking wine & climate change

Are the wines of yesteryear gone for good?

Only a couple of years ago, whilst walking to the exit of a three-day international wine fair in Germany, I was intrigued by a Chinese producer promoting a lovely array of wine. The lovely Asian girl explained the ‘terroir’ being so similar to Bordeaux and how the final product had a certain Bordeaux-esque style to it. I was sceptical at first - fine Chinese wine? No way! But boy was I wrong. It was so smooth, fresh and, dare I say, enjoyable, that I initially blamed it on having drank too much at the previous stand. Yet the huge scores from the likes of Jancis Robinson and Decanter Magazine probably meant I wasn’t slightly tipsy after all.        

But it’s not just China that are producing particularly interesting wines. Wine-producing areas have radically changed over the years. Only a few years ago, ‘New-World’ wines often referred to areas in Australia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa and the USA. These areas all fall within the 30 to 50 degrees latitude in both the northern and southern hemisphere where the climates are said to favour wine making. Fast forward to today, and there is even the introduction of ‘New Latitude Wines’ from areas above the 50 degrees and lower than the 30 degrees latitude. Areas in Vietnam, China, Denmark and Norway falling outside the traditional wine-making zones and now producing stunning wines that are turning heads in the wine world.

The question remains, how have these areas suddenly managed to start producing such great wines? I personally believe that the improvement in wine-making techniques have definitely given wine producers more tools to experiment further afield, however climate change is also a factor we cannot deny.  If you doubt climate change, why not ask a wine producer how things went this year. you’ll get tales of hailstorms, wild fires, frost and small yields. climate scientists warn us the planet is already 1.2 °C warmer than in the pre-industrial era and we may already expect irreversible change. We are seeing frequent and extreme heatwaves, incredible rainfall, biodiversity loss, disrupted ecosystems and crop failure amongst others.

Around the world, smart wine-producers have been adapting and experimenting with new grape varieties and techniques to combat or adapt to climate change for years. Heavyweight producers Gaja in Piedmont, like many other clever wine-producers, had set aside an area of their vineyards solely dedicated to experimenting with different grapes varieties, vineyard management techniques and sustainable solutions to combat the changes in climate they expect to face in the future.  

New Zealand winery Craggy Range

Frédéric Drouhin, president of the well-known ‘Maison Joseph Drouhin’ winery in Burgundy, states that even though global warming has had a general positive effect in Burgundy, since grapes reach full maturity much easier than 20-30 years ago and harvesting is often three weeks earlier than it used to be, they are still having to combat new diseases such as ‘flavescence dorée’, as well as extreme weather conditions such as frost.

Similarly, German wine producers are happy with the current situation. Mosel and Rheingau have been churning out some of the most incredible quality dry white and red wines from these typically cool climate areas. However, there are producers in areas like Champagne who may be worried that acid levels may be dropping. If the high acidity, which is so integral to keeping the freshness and elegance of the wine is in jeopardy, could it be a potential end to the worlds’ favourite’ sparkling wine?

Across the pond in California’s wine-making region of Napa Valley, producers are grappling with a vortex caused by a warming planet. This includes heat waves, droughts, cold snaps, wildfires and more. Many do not believe that climate change is the only cause of these extreme weather conditions, but a growing number of producers are acknowledging that climate change, at the very least, has intensified the problems.

It is a similar situation in Bordeaux, where I personally spoke to many a winemaker about the issues of climate change during a recent trip. There are no specific ‘climate change’ government regulations, and no winemaker feels obliged to change their methods, however all serious winemakers are aware of the situation and most are consciously changing their ways to more sustainable and environmentally-friendly methods.

The wine itself has also changed considerably. I don’t remember Bordeaux wines with an alcohol percentage of more than 13%, but nowadays it’s not uncommon to see alcohol percentages of 14% or 15%. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The producers are aware that the modern consumers tend to prefer high-alcohol wines, and this has suited the Bordelais extremely well. Better still, harvesting in Bordeaux has also moved earlier in the year due to earlier and more consistent ripening resulting in a spectacular sequence of formidable vintages such as 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.

James Sichel, owner of Château Palmer and Château Angludet explained that the future depends on action now. “We take sustainable development very seriously. It is not only the reduction of our own carbon footprint that’s important to us, and which we are constantly analysing, but properly tackling climate change through a number of measures we have implemented”. Be it the rising Gironde tides, the increase in frost or hotter summers, producing the best grapes in Bordeaux in 2020 is extremely different to what is used to be. This alone is a wake-up call to the wine-industry.

Though the wine industry, being rather traditional may have been slow to react compared to other industries, it cannot limit or reverse climate change on its own. I think it should be at the forefront of change. The industry is changing but there needs to be an aggressive movement towards fighting for a government’s response by declaring a crisis. Only then will everyone be required to change their behaviour.

Agriculture is responsible for a significant percentage of the planet-warming greenhouse gases produced each year, and winegrowing is amongst the most visible and influential agricultural enterprises in the world.

Luckily, many premium wines are made using sustainable or organic methods and not only is there a growing demand, but there is also a growing consensus that these methods actually improve the end product. Many great producers that have pioneered organic culture believe they are already reaping the benefits of their foresight.

Yet, the elephant in the room remains. Though the global quality of wine has improved, climate change is only being tackled in the vineyard of which the global effects are negligent, but the end-product positive and refined. So, if the climate keeps moving in this current trajectory, will the present methods and grape varieties adapt to warmer weather, or will they have to change clones and varieties?

Will Burgundy no longer produce elegant wines from the delicate Pinot Noir grape?

Will Bordeaux become more opulent and richer, much like Calfornia?

Will the Australian Shiraz or Californian Cabernet lose their freshness, and will Champagne from Champagne be a forgone memory?

Nobody really knows and though experiments are being done, only time will tell. What is certain is that unless there is a global will from governments and producers alike to slow the change, the wines of the future will be a whole lot different to what they are today.


Photograph: Palle/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock