What does climate change mean for our wine? About Norwegian Riesling and British bubbly.
Not so long ago, English wine was seen as a bit of a joke. Where it was made, generally in the frigid lands of the southern counties, it was compared to German wine, which at the time hardly counted as a ringing endorsement. It was sweet, produced in vanishingly small quantities and sold barely at all. England was, in short, a vinicultural wasteland.
Fast forward a generation, and a sparkling transformation has taken hold. Across a bubbles beltway, from Cornwall in the southwest to Kent in the south-east, English vineyards have expanded at a startling rate. New businesses have converted agricultural land to vineyards and investors have poured millions into the ground in a race to create the best “Fizz Anglais”.
The emergence of English Sparkling is a symptom of a global shift in an industry that is entirely dependent on weather. The chalky white soil that makes up much of southern England has always been geologically identical to that of the Champagne region. What has changed is the climate; a small rise in average temperatures has been enough to create ideal conditions for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier - the holy trinity of grape varieties used in the best sparkling wines.
England’s wine industry is fizzing so much today that the grand Champagne houses, including Taittinger and Pommery, have partnered with English growers or planted their own vines. English wines now regularly beat their Gallic rivals at the biggest awards in the business. And opportunities are multiplying elsewhere on a changing global wine map, as growers diversify and investors bring a new outlook to old and new wines.
As temperatures rise, vines thrive ever further to the north. Vineyards have been planted in recent years in Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and Canada. Adventurous oenophiles can now sip a chilled glass of Norwegian riesling.
But while climate change has created new frontiers in wine, it is forcing established growers to adapt - or risk withering on the vine. Higher temperatures mean grapes accumulate sugar much sooner. This in turn boosts alcohol levels, forcing growers to harvest grapes much earlier - sometime before complex flavours have had a chance to develop.
In mountainous regions, one solution to this warming has been to run for the hills. Familia Torres, a global Spanish wine maker, has planted new vines in the foothills of the Pyrenees at altitudes above 1,000 metres - an impossibility only 20 years ago. Temperatures are lower but the elevation brings new challenges: it’s harder to get water and weather can be more extreme.
Climate change is compelling growers to look for new aspects, too. South-facing slopes in the northern hemisphere - and north-facing slopes in the south - are sometimes now too sunny and warm, causing grapes to overripen. In the Yarra Valley of Australia, shaded, south-facing slopes are being cultivated for the first time, sometimes for vines that thrive in colder climates but which had not been considered viable there before.
Some grapes are becoming unviable in regions that have been famed for centuries for growing them. In Bordeaux, where cabernet sauvignon is one of a small number of wines permitted to be produced by strict regional rules, the governing union has fast tracked experiments with new, more heat-resistant varieties as growers warn of a looming crisis. They include the relatively obscure castets and the late-ripening arinarnoa. Last year Bordeaux recorded its highest ever temperature of 41.2C as southern Europe sweltered in a heatwave.
Extreme and unpredictable weather, which has increased with the changing climate, is presenting yet more headaches for growers - and opportunities for innovators. “It hails when it never used to hail, rains in the summer when it used to be dry, and is dry in the winter when it used to rain,” Gaia Gaja of the Gaja Winery in Italy told the New York Times last year. Wetter summers have been a boon for vine-bothering pests, she added.
In Australia and California, parts of which have been ravaged by fire in the past two years, new technology may mitigate the effects of smoke on the flavours in grapes. Meanwhile in Burgundy in France, growers are firing particles of silver iodide into storm clouds to frustrate the formation of hailstones, the biggest of which can destroy vines.
While England’s wine industry booms, growers in the hottest regions are preparing for a future in which no vines may survive. A recent study in the journal Wine Economics and Policy predicted that “vast portions” of southern Italy, Greece and France might themselves become vinicultural wastelands by 2050. As climate change transforms the wine atlas, investors in fine wine are buying up recent good vintages in the assumption that their value will skyrocket as unpredictable harvests hit supply.
The question now is not whether change is coming to the wine industry - but how quickly.