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It’s Getting Hot in Here: Climate Change & the Wine World

Since discovering the miracle of fermentation, humans have been mighty crafty at creating alcoholic beverages across millennia, culture and, importantly, climate. Got rice? The Japanese invented sake. Got corn? Witness the birth of Kentucky bourbon. Live in moody Scotland? That peat might come in handy.

Fermenting grapes into wine, however, is one of the most ancient arts. From the Fertile Crescent in ancient Mesopotamia, to Greek and Roman celebrations of the vine, to the determination of early Christians to preserve wine for sacramental purposes, grape juice remains just as vital today as it has always been.

What has changed, and dramatically so, is the planet, if not man’s determination to catch a buzz. The impact of global warming on wine production is heating up, pun intended. The unprecedented heat wave of 2003 in Europe, for example, was a wake-up call to colder-climate regions that depend on crisp evenings. Places like Germany’s Mosel, France’s Burgundy and, even more tellingly, the Champagne region are planted to delicate grapes such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; these grape varieties rely on a dramatic diurnal temperature shift in order to create the kinds of lower-alcohol wines on which they’ve staked their claim.

More simply put, you need enough sunshine to ripen the sugars during the day but enough chilly evenings to protect the acidity in those grapes. Too many searing hot days followed by hot-and-bothered nights equal wines that will be out of balance, i.e., wines with monstrous alcohol and ripe fruit profiles but with little or no structure. When your expensive Grand Cru Pinot Noir tastes like Lodi Zinfandel, you’ve lost your identity. There’s a lot at stake here.

In places prone to frost, such as Champagne, it’s always been a chicken-and-egg story. If you don’t have enough ripeness to make full-bodied wines, why not carbonate what you do have to work with? Use what you have as alchemic material, be it rice, honey, wheat, barley or tart, thin grape juice that transcends itself if allowed to go through a second fermentation in the bottle. Voilà, Champagne! If you’ve never had a still wine made from grapes grown in Champagne, there’s a reason for that; they’re awful (except for perhaps in 2003!). But this poor-quality still wine is what makes great sparkling wine, so climate change means major problems for a region that relies on unpleasant weather.

While this might mean big changes for bubbly producers in France, it does open up new opportunities in places such as the UK. If you’ve never had a fine table wine from Britain, there’s a reason for that, too; historically, they’ve been undrinkable. As the ripening curve for grape growing creeps into previously untenable northern latitudes, it may well be that someday Champagne’s still Pinot Noirs will take over its southern neighbor Burgundy’s throne. And perhaps world-class bubbly will become feasible on the southern shores of England; the excellent Nyetimber sparklers from West Sussex are putting British “fizz” on the world wine map already.