A couple of years ago, when I told a colleague that in Champagne they were experimenting with different grape varieties as a contingency against global warming, he was incredulous. “You mean different clones, surely? Not completely different grape varieties.” The idea that champagne may soon taste different was a step too far, even for a wine insider familiar with the viticultural challenges of climate change.
It wouldn’t be today. With every year that passes, we become more aware that the world is getting warmer and, unfortunately, more familiar with extreme weather events that cause devastation to the landscape and to local communities.
Earlier this month, exceptionally heavy rain caused deadly flash floods in Germany and Belgium on a scale that shocked the world. Germany’s Ahr Valley, whose main business is winemaking, was one of the hardest-hit areas.
The region’s 38 wineries lost cellars, barrels and bottles; in one case a heavy grape press was carried away by the deluge. Meike and Dörte Näkel, sisters and fifth-generation winemakers, lost their family business, but were grateful to escape with their lives after clinging to a tree for seven hours until a rescue boat came to their aid.
The disaster is part of a grim pattern. Across the world, winemakers and grape growers have increasingly been coping with the havoc and crop damage wreaked by increasingly erratic weather: hail, spring frosts, warm winters, heat spikes in summer, droughts and floods, not to mention the wildfires suffered in California and Australia.
Then there’s the underlying issue of temperatures. These have risen persistently over the past three decades. This can be seen when you track grape-picking dates back to the Middle Ages.
In Beaune, Burgundy, between 1354 and 1987, grapes were, on average, picked from Sept 28, whereas from 1988 to 2018, the harvest began, on average, 13 days earlier, according to a study published in Climate of the Past.
It’s a pattern that has accelerated in recent years. “2008 and 2013 are the last late-picking vintages we have had… everything else has been either normal picking date or early picking date,” says Jacques Devauges of Domaine des Lambrays in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits.
Seasonal fluctuations in weather can create big differences in the flavour of the wine – that’s why everyone goes on so much about vintages. The best wines are made in marginal climates, places where grapes can ripen, but only just, giving the grapes a long growing season, and producing fruit with good acidity and finely delineated flavours – all of which makes wine regions very sensitive to thermal change.
The upside is that England and Wales owes its exciting new wine industry to global warming. But even here, you can see change within change. England’s credentials as a sparkling wine region are now so compelling that Taittinger and Pommery have invested in vineyards here. Now, England is also beginning to produce convincing still wines, which require a warmer climate than sparkling.
And what about the future? If global temperatures rise by 2C, then wine-growing regions in the Pacific Northwest could increase by 20 to 100 per cent and those in New Zealand by 15 to 60 per cent, according to a study published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
But the same study estimated that in this conservative warming scenario (a second scenario considered a 4C rise) 56 per cent of the world’s current wine regions would be lost as we know them. Some countries would be more affected than others, with Spain and Italy expected to lose 65 per cent and 68 per cent of their climatically suitable winegrowing regions respectively.
Of course, to some extent, it is possible to adapt: that is what Champagne is looking at doing. Right now, almost all champagne is made from one or a combination of three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. However, officially, seven different grape varieties are permitted.
Bollinger is one champagne house that has been planting some of the forgotten old varieties in the hope that slow-ripening petit meslier and arbanne will be able to bring more freshness to the champagne in years to come.
On behalf of the entire region, agronomists are also experimenting with new grapes, crossing champagne varieties with other grapes to see what other solutions they can find to the global warming question. And yes, inevitably these grapes will make wines that taste different.
In Bordeaux, after a decade of research, four new red and two new white grape varieties have been authorised for use in the region’s wines. The red grapes arinarnoa (a cross between tannat and cabernet sauvignon), castets, marselan and touriga nacional, along with the white alvarinho and liliorila (a baroque and chardonnay cross) were selected for their ability to cope with shorter growing seasons, higher temperatures and increased water stress.
The idea is that these could be insinuated into the blend to balance the wines without creating radical flavour differences, though that’s not to say that wines would taste the same.
Some scientists have suggested that if temperatures keep rising, the only way to keep producing good wine in Burgundy, for example, would be to rip out pinot noir and replace it with grenache or mourvèdre. To which the response has to be: would it even be burgundy if it weren’t made from pinot noir?
Between 1967 and 2010, the Douro Valley in Portugal recorded a 1.7C increase in average temperature throughout the vegetative cycle, from bud burst to picking, and in the spring of 2017, the region experienced a rare snowfall and localised frost.
These prompted Adrian Bridge, chief executive of the Fladgate Partnership, whose brands include Taylor’s port, to set up the Porto Protocol, a platform to help wine producers communicate on how they can manage the impact of climate change (by moving vineyards to fresher, higher locations, through canopy management and looking at different grape varieties, for instance) and reduce their own contribution to global warming.
Marta Mendonca, who manages operations there, tells me that the concern that comes up most frequently is water: “the need to manage water more mindfully.” But as she notes, “More than it is an issue for wine, climate crisis is an issue for us as a species.”
Wines of the week
Morrisons The Best Soave 2020
Italy (11%, Morrisons, £4.35)
In Soave, in the northeast of Italy, they’re increasingly using an old vine trellising system called pergola Veronese to mitigate the effects of climate change by increasing the shade afforded to the vines and protect them from the sun’s fierce heat. This soave is a really super cheap white. Juicy, and reminiscent of lemon mousse.
Tesco Finest Pouilly-Fumé 2020
France (13%, Tesco, £13)
Made for Tesco by Fournier Père et Fils, a family company that was established almost a century ago, who say they are “one of the first witnesses of climate change [and have] adapted farming practices to cope with this.” This is a very impressive Loire sauvignon blanc, marrying riffs of grassy freshness with a whiff of struck flint.
Château La Négly
Tradition La Clape 2019 Languedoc, France (12.5%, Co-op, £12)
The beautiful wines of Château La Négly are a new arrival on the shelves at the Co-op. There’s a lovely rosé and also this gorgeous red, which is both fresh and richly flavoured, made from a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre and aged in French oak.