Climate change very real to winemakers around the globe

By Howard W. Hewitt

“It can be a whim or a wallop that can have an impact on the international wine world and what you are drinking in your glass at home.”

That’s how I opened the last Grape Sense column a couple of weeks ago. I suggested the whim of more Oregon winemakers looking at Gamay as a response to market and establishing some diversity beyond the state’s outstanding Pinot Noir.

But in this column, let’s think about the wham. When winemakers are given no choice or see catastrophic change coming right at them, they act like any farmer. Winemakers are considering changes because of climate change. Forget the politics of climate change. It’s not even relevant in this discussion. Many vineyard owners across the world believe they must anticipate warmer growing seasons. That’s a fact and not a political statement.

California’s Napa Valley winegrowers have taken the issue seriously and been looking at climate change’s impact since 2010. Napa Valley Vintners joined forces with the Climate Study Task Force led by Dr. Dan Cayan and his renowned team of climate scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

The task force reported early in 2011 that Napa had warmed slightly in recent decades but not as much as reported in some wine-related climate change stories.

Anecdotally, there are French vineyard owners who have noted their harvests have moved from October to September. Temperature determines what grapes are planted and even more so when those grapes are harvested.

There are studies related to or performed for the wine industry that suggest temperature increases of 2 to 3 degrees over the past 50 years. That may not seem like a lot, but it has many in the wine world thinking 20 or 30 years down the road for what it means to their vines.

In the short term, warmer temperatures mean earlier harvests and can be a challenge for winemakers to control alcohol content.

In the longer term, increasing temperatures will impact what grapes vineyards will best produce. The conversation and concern has even made its way, quietly, to the stodgy and highly regulated areas of Burgundy and Beaujolais in France.

The news really caught my eye when reading that some growers in Beaujolais and even southern Burgundy were experimenting with a few vines of Syrah. One story even referred to it as “secret” experimentation with Syrah. During a visit to Burgundy in 2016, I learned firsthand how grounded the Burgundians are in not just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but to their archaic laws, traditions and way of life.

I ate in some of the best restaurants in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy, and noticed seldom did wine lists include wines beyond Burgundy.

To even speak of Syrah seems sacrilege after visiting this wonderful wine area. Still, Burgundian winemakers are making big bucks. Burgundy is the most expensive wine in the world. Frankly, some of the lower end reds I tasted during a weeklong visit simply weren’t very good.

A little dirty secret of some areas of the wine universe and certainly not Burgundy is Syrah and even Merlot has found its way into thinner Pinot Noir wines to add body and structure.

While the Burgundians would shudder at such a suggestion, it’s not much of a stretch to see wine regions begin to accept the idea that some Pinot may need a little more body. Pinot Noir is very difficult to grow. Pinot grapes are small and thin-skinned. Pinot will not survive and thrive in a high-heat environment.

Politically, you can believe in climate change or not. In the wine world, climate change has winemakers in California and France thinking about the future of their industry.

Howard W. Hewitt of Crawfordsville writes every other week for more than 20 Indiana print and online publications. He can be reached at [email protected].