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Andrew Jefford: How Climate Change is Affecting the Wine World

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What will climate change mean for the wine world? Writer and broadcaster Andrew Jefford shares his grape expectations

Andrew Jefford

It's often an aside, at the end of a visit. Couched in vague terms, as anxieties usually are: where are we going? What's in store for us? Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco was typical.

I visited in June this year, by which time the 2017 growing season in the Langhe was a month ahead of schedule. 'We worry a lot,' he confided. 'It's very, very warm. The problem is the rain. It's getting more and more dry here.' I thought back to a 2016 autumn visit to the Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and a chat with James Palgé, the long-serving winemaker for Château Ksara. 'I remember when I arrived,' – he was originally from France – 'there was 90cm of snow on the ground. There used to be snow on Mount Lebanon until Bastille day (July 14th), every year. Now it's unthinkable. The winters are getting drier and drier, with less and less snow. It worries us a lot.' Napa growers, last year, were as drought-anxious, though a wet 2016-2017 winter subsequently put smiles on Yountville and Oakville faces – the same 'rain smiles' I remember seeing in Australia's Clare Valley after the winter of 2009 relieved drought conditions there.

The Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, where every winter there is less and less snow
The Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, where every winter there is less and less snow

There are no climate-change sceptics among winegrowers: the evidence for a warming world is comprehensive, played out (in a variety of ways) in every season, and every career. In particular, harvest dates for today's generation of wine growers have often advanced by up to a month (into early September, and sometimes late August, in the northern hemisphere) from the dates at which their parents used to harvest (early October or late September). Budburst, flowering and véraison (the point at which grapes change colour and begin their sugar and flavour ripening cycle) are all marching forward, too. And it's not just the waymarks of the season which have changed; you could say the wines have warmed. The 1959 Latour was 11.6% abv and the 1961 12.3%; Grange 1971 was 12.3%, too. These were all ripe, modestly cropped wines from glowing vintages. Nowadays the profile is very different: Latour 2010 is 14.4% and La Mission-Haut-Brion 15.1%; Grange 2010 is 14.5%.

Wine drinkers sometimes assume that, in a warmed world, some varieties will prosper while others will reach the end of the road. This is unlikely. Great variety-terroir combinations aren't easily eclipsed (the play of vintages illustrates the potential for accommodation), and many regions in any case have higher-altitude sites which might become viable even if the old familiar lowland vineyards get too hot. Varieties will very gently inch 'up-latitude', too. Syrah can now genuinely convince in Beaujolais, just as chardonnay and pinot noir do for sparkling-wine purposes in the UK. If Châteauneuf gets too hot for grenache (and we are nowhere near that stage yet), there's always mourvèdre... though as lead variety it would make a different Châteauneuf.

Aspersion is used to combat frosts in Chablis
Aspersion is used to combat frosts in Chablis

Earlier and earlier harvests, richer and richer wines: this was the scenario which most growers feared after the 2003 northern hemisphere vintage – that colossally hot summer which saw French wine growers racing home early from their summer holidays, the sand between their toes, to scramble their way through a chaotic August harvest. Regions such as Burgundy and Champagne produced sometimes impressive but stylistically bizarre wines in 2003, while over in Bordeaux only those sub-regions with substantial sub-surface clay (like Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe) could claim any kind of success; much of the right bank, for example, was baked out and fatigued. This is what we might call the simple warming scenario: an annually swelling crescendo of summer heat.

There hasn't, in fact, been a clear repeat of 2003; what we have had over the past seven or eight vintages corresponds more closely to the disruptive 'wild weather' scenario which climate scientists suggest will be the most likely short-term result of anthropogenic climate change. Much of the problem in Bordeaux in 2013 came as a result of colossal storms in early June and late July (the worst since the 1999 hurricane – and why did that happen?). Some Burgundy growers, and particularly those in Pommard and Volnay, endured a three-vintage calvary of hail damage in 2012, 2013 and 2014 (Michel and Frédéric Lafarge lost an entire harvest over the three years), and no vintage now passes in France without hail cutting scars through some regions (Beaujolais and Cognac have been badly hit during the summer of 2017, as was my local zone of Pic Saint-Loup in 2016).

Frost damage in the Roussillon in April 2017
Frost damage in the Roussillon in April 2017

When I travelled through Chablis in 2012, growers told me that the oncenotorious frosts the region was prone to had ceased to be a problem, and it was now hail that was their main concern. Alas, they spoke too soon: frosts were a major problem for Burgundy and other French regions in general in 2016, while the comprehensive lowland frosts of April 2017 have been a disaster not just in France (which is set to have a historically low harvest this year, down 16 per cent on the five-year average and even worse than 1991, the last catastrophic frost year) but in Spain and Italy, too. Spring frosts, just like the old days? doesn't that suggest that nothing much has changed?

Melting Glaciers
Arctic sea ice is declining by 13.3 per cent per decade.

Not necessarily. The seas are warming; Arctic sea ice is declining by 13.3 per cent per decade. The effect of this is reduced albedo (less sunlight reflected back into space) and increased evaporation and transpiration. This, in turn, has a disruptive effect on the polar vortex in winter, which under 'normal' circumstances is strong and its mass of cold air well-contained. The flow of the polar vortex is now tending to become disorganised, and bulges of cold Arctic air consequently push down into northern hemisphere mid-latitudes, which was exactly what happened this April – yet milder winters mean earlier and earlier budburst, vastly increasing that period of vulnerability to frost. If early budburst and a weak polar vortex become a regular spring combination, the results could be truly catastrophic.

These are some of the reasons why wine growers sleep uneasily in their beds for eight months a year. There have, it's true, been benefits of global warming: execrable vintages are much less common than they once were, and the pleasures of ripeness in simple red and white wines are delightful, and not now hard to find. Anyone who enjoys a fine glass of English sparkling wine once in a while should remember that at least part of the credit must go to anthropogenic climate change. This, too, is the reason why nebbiolo plantings have increased threefold in Barolo over the last 20 years, and why Chablis plantings have increased tenfold since the early 1960s. The risks, though, remain substantial, and the time lag between cause and effect in climate science is long, loping – and may prove sinister.

Andrew Jefford
October 2017

Andrew Jefford is an award-winning writer and broadcaster with a regular blog and column in Decanter magazine and contributing editor for The World of Fine Wine magazine.