Punctuating the first day of the Climate Change & Wine conference, internationally prominent enologists Jacques Lurton (left) and Michel Rolland (right) guided 350 participants through a blind tasting of 10 wines affected by climate change.
magnify Click image to view more.

Awake at the Switch

Alan Tardi - June 2008

At a conference in Spain assessing the effects of global warming on wine production, Alan Tardi discovers that what's bad news for some is good news for others.

Although they might not be able to say exactly what is—or isn't—causing global warming, winemakers are acutely aware that significant changes are taking place in the natural environment and that these changes are having a major impact on what they do and how they plan for the future. This was the focus of a conference entitled Climate Change & Wine that unfolded in Barcelona, Spain, this February under the auspices of the Wine Academy of Spain. Twenty-one speakers—primarily climate scientists, enologists, and winemakers—addressed an audience of nearly 400 people from over 40 countries. Former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore delivered the keynote address via satellite big-screen television.

Early on in the two day meeting it became evident that many involved with viticulture have been experiencing similar things. Spring bud break and fall harvest are taking place earlier—in some cases a whole month earlier--than a decade ago. Grapes are undergoing significant stress due to drought conditions (especially in areas where irrigation is prohibited by law) and/or intense heat. And levels of alcohol (due to high sugar content in the grapes) and concentration (due to extreme heat and sun) are much higher than in the past, while the quantity of the grape harvest has declined. While such anomalies have always occurred, they are now taking place with ever greater frequency and intensity. And because of this, what many have come to expect from a particular type of wine may be changing as well.

"In the near future," says Dr. Richard Smart, an Australian viticulture climatologist, "when it comes to some of the long-established reputations of a particular grape variety or wine in relation to a specific area of production, the past may no longer be relevant at all. If things continue on their present course, some grape varieties may disappear altogether and be replaced with those more heat tolerant, and some vineyards may have to be relocated to higher altitudes where microclimates are cooler." No more Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Nebbiolo in Barolo, or Tempranillo in Rioja? Such a thing would have devastating consequences, both for the small artisanal producer who holds fiercely to established traditions and for consumers who have developed an abiding appreciation for these wines.

But even if global warming should eventually result in heavy casualties for some, there will be plenty of opportunities for others. Thus far, in fact, many wine producers would have to admit that they've actually benefited from the present level of temperature increase.

Dr. Ernst Loosen, a winemaker specializing in Riesling in Germany's traditionally chilly Mosel River valley, says that cool temperatures used to be his most difficult winemaking challenge. "My grandfather used to select for ripeness when picking his Riesling," he notes. "It was often difficult to get enough sugar in the grapes, and sometimes we even had to resort to chaptalization [the process of adding sugar to grape juice to increase alcohol levels during fermentation]. Now, because of the warmer climate, that is no longer the problem. The sugar is there; now we must work hard to get enough acidity to balance it. Our goal is to adapt our viticulture techniques to make the same style wine we have always made under these new weather conditions."

Many winemakers, especially those in cooler winemaking regions, say the same thing: thus far, warmer temperatures have not had much of a negative effect. On the contrary, in some cases the warmth has helped grapes ripen earlier and more fully. More sugar in the grapes translates into more alcohol at vinification, which is generally a good thing (though it's sometimes difficult to say whether more concentrated wines with higher alcohol are attributable to global warming or the market trends that have lately favored such wines).

When asked how global warming had affected his work, Antoni Albet i Noya of Albet i Noya in the Penedès wine region of Spain says, "Whereas we used to remove leaves around grape clusters to aid ripening, now we tend to leave more leaf to shade the grapes from the extreme sun. Nowadays, we need to try to slow down ripening to allow the grapes to develop full phenolic maturity, not accelerate it [phenols are naturally occurring chemicals in grapes that contribute to wine's aroma and flavor]. Other than that, to tell you the truth, it hasn't really been a problem for us."

Winemakers are not alone. Globe-trotting enological consultants and climatologists who specialize in viticulture are busier than ever, thanks in part to the changing climate. While small grower-producers such as Albet i Noya can react directly to the immediate conditions of a particular season, large commercial producers must rely on the preemptive advice of specialists on how to respond to broader changing weather patterns. Such experts are also increasingly called upon to identify entirely new areas that, thanks to warmer temperatures, are now or might soon become suitable for viticulture. And because these large commercial concerns think on a big scale and plan far ahead, they are investing heavily in research and acquisition of new territories. There is much speculation right now on what might be the next "hot"—that is, cooler—regions for grape growing. Areas of South America such as Chile are considered to be extremely promising (in general the Southern Hemisphere is thought to be less vulnerable to global warming due to the higher ratio of water to land mass), as are some areas of China and Australia and even northern Europe.

Many enologists see the situation not just as a challenge but also as an opportunity. "If the old terroirs should disappear, we will find new ones," says Michel Rolland, an internationally acclaimed enologist.

"And many people forget," adds Jacques Lurton, another prominent enologist, "that terroir has always been manipulated by man. Look at the Médoc area of Bordeaux. It was nothing more than a swamp until it was filled in during the 1600s. In a sense, this present situation is not much different."

Some entire regions have benefited tremendously from warmer temperatures. Not too long ago, Stephen Skelton, an accredited Master of Wine, was one of a handful of mavericks (some called them lunatics) who grew grapes and made wine in the United Kingdom. "Ten years ago there were only 36 of us in the entire country," he says. "We were definitely on the fringe. Today there are over 200 winemakers in Great Britain, and more are joining us all the time. For winemaking in Great Britain, global warming has definitely been a good thing." A similar situation has arisen in Denmark as well.

Perhaps, jokes Dr. Smart, wine journalists have the most to gain from global warming: "With all these brand-new wines emerging, there will always be something new for them to write about!"

For most attending the conference, however, climate change is no joking matter, as Dr. Smart would be the first to point out. "We're at the very beginning of something that might eventually cause extreme calamity and starvation. Winemaking is the ‘canary in the gold mine' of agriculture, an early warning sign of potentially devastating things to come. It's up to us in the industry to try and do something about it before it's too late."

One person doing just that is Miguel Torres, head of one of Spain's leading wine concerns, with operations on three continents (Chile and Napa Valley, California, in addition to Spain) and some 44,000,000 bottles produced annually. Torres has committed over 10,000,000 euros to installing solar panels at its Penedès winery which, when fully operational, will provide an estimated 11 percent of its energy needs. (The company was also a corporate sponsor of the conference.)

Many others in the wine industry are looking at other ways to minimize carbon impact. In the case of wine, two primary factors generate most of the waste and carbon emissions. First, wine must often be transported long distances to get to market. The second is that wine incurs tremendously high packaging costs relative to volume—bottle, label, cork, capsule—which collectively call for a lot of energy to produce. Once a bottle's contents are consumed (and 50 percent of all wine produced is drunk within two years of being produced), all this packaging becomes waste which must be disposed of, requiring even more energy. A simple and practical idea circulating in the wine community is to ship wine intended for immediate consumption in large recyclable aluminum kegs. This would reduce disposable waste and, because the liquid is shipped in bulk, cut down on the cost of transportation. A number of importers have already suggested this idea to their customers, and the initial response has been positive.

Besides these rather isolated efforts, can the wine industry, with its relative economic insignificance, really have any impact on global warming? Suggesting some answers, Gore began by painting a very bleak picture of what will happen if current trends continue unchecked. He ended, however, on a positive note: "Along with adversity comes opportunity. We have an opportunity here to turn things around. It is not too late. Each individual can make a significant difference by looking at his own habits contributing to global warming and resolving to change them.… Even though the wine industry contributes only 1 percent of carbon emissions, it's one of the strongest voices against global warming and a leading force in spreading awareness. If other industries responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions had a similar awareness, we wouldn't be where we are today."

Alan Tardi, a chef, writer, and restaurant consultant, divides his time between Italy and the United States. His book Romancing the Vine won the 2006 James Beard Foundation Wine and Spirits book award.