Vineyard outside the White Barn, St. Helena

According to vintner Miquel Torres, “Climate change is the greatest threat for the wine business in general and for winegrowers in particular.”

Until relatively recent times, the term “global warming” was widely accepted for what we all have observed as temperatures continued to rise and droughts became more prevalent.

But that terminology did not really address the other severe changes in our global weather patterns such as the increased nature and intensity of hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, blizzards, spring frosts, catastrophic hail and torrential rains, along with many other conditions that now regularly occur year-round.

The more correct, and now universally understood nomenclature is “climate change,” a far better descriptor of what we are experiencing in virtually every country, city, town and village around the globe.

Climate change is the subject of countless credible scientific studies funded by governments, universities, business and agricultural interests as well as private research groups. And the overwhelming evidence (in excess of 90 percent of published studies) has for years pointed to our own man-made causes that must be reversed so future generations can continue to grow and prosper in the world we leave them.

An article by Mike Corder of Associated Press, recounting a recent study done by scientists from across Europe, appeared in the Aug. 3 San Francisco Chronicle. The study concluded that, “the late July heatwave across Western Europe was so extreme that the observed magnitudes would have been extremely unlikely without climate change.”

The scientists went on to say, “The heat wave temperatures would have been 2.7 to 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit lower without human-induced climate change.” After baking Europe, “the extreme temperatures shifted north causing massive ice melts in Greenland [11 billion tons in a single day and 197 billion tons in July] and the Arctic.”

Strong words indeed from a respected group of independent and nonaligned scientists in search of not only root causes but also solutions. Yet when we think about the earth-shattering effects that climate change brings to people and industry, wine would rarely be at the top of the list. That may be true unless you are a winemaker, grower, in the trade or just a lover of a good glass of wine.

Dr. Bruce Zoecklein points out in his February Wines and Vines Analytics article that, while the worldwide rise in temperature will have effects on a wide range of agricultural products, most will not be noticed by the consumer. But, “this is not the case in the wine industry where quality may be impacted.” Zoecklein goes on to quote one of the world’s most respected producers Miguel Torres who states, “Climate change is the greatest threat for the wine business in general and for winegrowers in particular.”

Zoecklien also points out that the actual change in climate may not be as consequential as its unpredictability in recent times and that, “among environmental factors, climate has a greater impact on vine development and fruit composition than either the soil or varietal.”

So, what’s being done in vineyards and growing areas around the world to combat the effects of climate change? Can we expect wine quality for some of the most heralded wine producing areas (e.g. Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Burgundy) to continue despite these external influences?

Conditions are changing in the wine producing areas of the world, and a few have taken the lead with some very unorthodox and controversial moves. Others have preferred to make more subtle moves to meet the challenge.

Blake Gray wrote an in-depth July 3 post on Wine Searcher that detailed much of what Bordeaux is attempting and clearly stated that, “this move is as much about wine style – and winemaking regulations – as it is about farming.” As weather warms, the growing cycle accelerates. The goal of Bordelaise winemaking is to preserve the ultimate style of the wine and perhaps new varietals may be the answer. Only time will tell.

Parts of Bordeaux are taking an aggressive approach to unauthorized varietals and allowing their inclusion in the time honored blends whose tradition dates back centuries. This year chateaux principles in the Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur districts have elected to expand from the top five sanctioned varietals with seven additional grapes that would better adapt to hotter and drier conditions. The four reds and three whites consist of well-known Portuguese varietals Touriga Nacional (of Port fame) and Alvarinho (aka Albariño in Spain) as well as Marsalen (widely planted in China), Petit Manseng (white), Castets (an old and virtually extinct Bordeaux variety), Arinarnoa (partial parentage of the very bold and tannic Tannat) and Lillorila (another hybrid with a genetic connection to Chardonnay).

While these varietals are new to the area, their addition has yet to receive the blessing or approval from Bordeaux’s Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) before implementation can officially begin. The five “official” grapes of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot) is actually a group of eight when you consider Carmenére, St. Macaire and Gros Verdot that were generally not replanted to any extent after the phylloxera scourge of the late 19th Century. There has also been a quiet (and fully authorized) revival of Carnenére (popular in Chile) for its ability to withstand warmer/drier temperatures.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France’s Southern Rhone allows the blending of 13 different grapes (both white and red) in its famed red blends and is taking a more measured response. With the climate changing to hotter and drier growing seasons, more producers are proposing the addition of a higher percentage of whites to reduce alcohol while adding acidity and freshness to the finished wine.

Also, interplanting reds and whites with a field blend/co-fermentation philosophy is gaining appeal to achieve a more consistent stylistic representation. Since this all falls within the existing AOC regulations, it remains only a choice of the winemaking team to make the decision with no official permission or regulatory changes. Again, this is an attempt to maintain a traditional style in light of varying growing conditions.

John Holdren is co-director of the program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and also served previously in a similar White House position from 2009 to 2017. He has addressed the international trade show and symposium, Vinexpo, on climate change and the wine industry on two separate occasions.

When presenting in Bordeaux two years ago, Holdren was quoted in Abby Schultz’s March 5 Barron’s.com article, “There wasn’t a single skeptic about climate change among an audience of 200 winegrowers and winemakers…They’re living it. They know that things have changed.”

“There wasn’t a single skeptic about climate change among an audience of 200 winegrowers and winemakers…They’re living it. They know that things have changed.” John Holdren, Harvard Kennedy School

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Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an email to me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.