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The Most Important Wine News of the Year
By Michael Franz
Jan 1, 2014
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Wine writers are almost always intent upon breaking good news rather than bad.  We're all about the great new vintage in Region X, or some hot new grape variety, or something along those lines.  We tend to steer clear of downer stories, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if you are now reading the only entry in this genre published anywhere in the world today, January 1, 2014.  However, if you really care about wine and are genuinely curious about the change taking place in the world that will affect it most, you'll read on.

There is perhaps some room for dispute about the degree to which human activities are responsible for climate changes across the globe, but the reality of alarmingly rapid change is now virtually indisputable.  Included among those whose direct experience can establish this fact most tellingly are grape growers in the wine industry.  The wine grapes with which they work around the world are--if you will forgive the cliché--canaries in the proverbial coal mine of global climate change.  And they are squawking up a storm, or, to stay true to the analogy, threatening to fall silent.

If you know a little about fine wine production, you are probably aware that many of its intricacies stem from the sensitivity of vine varieties to relatively subtle variations in their growing environment.  The composition of the soils in which vines are planted is probably the factor most widely assumed to affect wine quality and character, but climate is actually a much more salient variable.

To be sure, differences in soil composition and drainage are significant factors in determining the nuances of differing wines, but their significance is vastly exceeded by the importance of climate.  If you look across the world of wine, you’ll generally find that particular regions specialize in a relatively small set of vine varieties.  The predominant reason for this is that climate is the most powerful determinant of which varieties can produce excellent wine in any particular region.

Of course, within that region, you’ll get differing nuances in your wine if you plant your vines on this or that soil, or in a vineyard pitched at this or that degree of slope.  Wine writers emphasize these factors because they are very important in explaining why Wine X from Bordeaux tastes different than wine Y made down the road, but this can obscure the prior fact that everybody in Bordeaux is growing Cabernet and Merlot and nobody is growing Pinot Noir.  Sure, that is partly explained by historical and legal factors, but it is first and foremost about climate.  And climate is likewise the biggest reason why everybody making red wine in Burgundy is making it with Pinot Noir rather than Cabernet.

Hopefully I have laid this out in a way that you find clear, because now I need to muddy the waters by telling you that historically stable relationships between particular places and the grapes that grow best in them are now strikingly in flux.  And this is quite simply because climates in growing regions are changing.  And changing fast.  And it is happening all over the world.

Case in point:  When Steve Doerner left Calera Wine Company in 1992 to take his winemaking talents up to Cristom Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, his chief concern was that he wouldn’t be able to consistently get his beloved Pinot Noir grapes sufficiently ripe in Oregon’s famously cool climate.  But in less than a decade, the climate in Oregon had warmed so markedly that his worries about ripeness had turned into concern about whether it would soon become too hot to make Pinot-based wines marked by real delicacy.  Indeed, the relationship between place and grape seemed to be changing so quickly under the influence of a transitioning climate that he grafted 2.5 acres of Chardonnay over to…Syrah.

Is that a big deal?  Ask a vigneron in Burgundy (where variations in growing conditions have historically been considered in increments of mere meters between one vineyard and adjacent sites) what he would think if conditions changed to a point where his neighbors started planting Syrah, which has traditionally been grown no closer than 200 kilometers to the south in the Rhône Valley.  “Quelle horreur!”  But ask a dispassionate professor from the famous oenology institute in Dijon whether Syrah could now be ripened most years in Burgundy and the answer would be, simply, “Oui.”

Of course, one case hardly stands as adequate evidence of a global phenomenon.  But since my conversation with Steve Doerner in the mid-2000s, I’ve started asking producers around the world about changes in their climate as a matter of routine, and for every time that one of them has told me that things aren’t much different, there are another ten instances in which they say the changes have been dramatic.  And alarmingly so.

Last Friday, for example, Vincent Avenel, Export Director for the famed house of Faiveley in Burgundy told me that their viticulturalists must now employ differing vine training techniques in their various vineyards stretching down from the Côte de Nuits through the Côte de Beaune and into the Côte Chalonnaise.  Why?  Because growing seasons are becoming so broadly and uniformly hot that traditional local microclimates are being cooked into a single state of sameness.  And consequently, wines from communes that were formerly very distinct are sliding into a comparable sameness unless measures to the counter this result are undertaken.

Last Tuesday, for example, Federico Carletti, proprietor of Poliziano in Tuscany’s Montepulciano district, told me that he’s now training his vines and managing their leaf canopies in ways that are totally different than just a dozen years ago.  Back then, the favored approach was to open the canopies to assure full ripeness by letting sunlight penetrate directly to grape clusters.  Today, by contrast, the practice is to train leafy shoots into a canopy that will keep the clusters shaded because--if one does not do this--the grapes are prone to being scorched into raisins.

Want more examples?

In Piedmont, harvests in Barolo and Barbaresco are now starting up to a month before they typically began as recently as the 1970s and ‘80s.  Very hot growing seasons (such as 2003, 2007 and 2009) are now becoming common whereas they were formerly almost unknown in this famously cool, foggy area that sits within sight of the Alps.  Additionally, heat is not the only important and recurrent change in Piedmont’s climate:  Hail has suddenly become a serious problem whereas it was formerly very rare, and one now sees hail cannon deployed in the area in hopes of dealing with it.

Still, the changes are not all bad.  Over the past century, excellent vintages for Nebbiolo in the Barolo and Barbaresco districts occurred only once or twice a decade.  Since 1996, by contrast, excellent vintages have been enjoyed every single year--with the sole exception of 2002.

Objectivity requires that we acknowledge that there are winners as well as losers in a changing global climate.  Piedmont has been a winner, and there are also up-sides to climate change beyond the world of wine.  It has, for instance, been quite a boon to grain farmers in northerly portions of Canada and Russia that were formerly quite marginal in climate. 

Do these silver-lining stories suggest that the plusses and minuses even out, so that we should not be concerned?  That seems to me like a mistaken conclusion in general, and one that is particularly mistaken with regard to wine.  Being able to drink Pinot from Winnipeg doesn’t seem adequate as compensation for losing it in Burgundy.  Now, that isn’t an outcome that you need to fear in the near term, I’ll readily admit.  But very distressing changes seem like they could lie only a few years away. 

Would it be okay with you if Pinot from Burgundy started tasting like Pinot from Carneros?

To consider that question, you may need to think back about a decade ago to when there was lots of high-end Pinot Noir grown in Carneros.  That was before Carneros got too warm in most spots to produce Pinot that wasn’t too ripe and chunky to be recognized for what it was supposed to be.  At which point Merlot and Syrah started replacing it, with the epicenter for Pinot production moving closer to the cooling waters of the Pacific, in the Russian River Valley.  Which continued until Russian River, in turn, started being regarded as possibly warmer than optimal for Pinot, at which time new plantings shifted as far west as possible, out to the extremes of the Sonoma Coast.

If you think about it, there is more than a little metaphorical similarity between California Pinot Noir--now teetering on the edge of the coastline--and a polar bear perched at the edge of a shrinking ice sheet.

Perhaps this is overly dramatic.  But perhaps it is not, as the changes are arising so quickly that being complacent seems, today, less rational than being alarmed.

I could multiply my examples with ease:  Ever more truly dry Rieslings are coming from Germany--even the formerly coldest places in Germany like the Saar and Mosel--because warmer vintages aren’t leaving behind the stinging acidity of former years, for which residual sugar was needed as a counterweight.

In Australia, almost all of the country experienced its worst drought in history between 2003 and 2012, with the entire belt of wine producing areas running down from the Hunter Valley through Victoria and across South Australia being very badly affected.  The Darling River simply ceased to flow for a year from late 2006 into August of 2007, and crisis conditions extended even to Tasmania (the southern island state to which producers like Penfolds had scrambled as a refuge from torrid, dry conditions in South Australia), with multiple areas within Tasmania reporting no significant rainfall for three years in the late 2000s.

In northern Italy, sparkling wine production has changed dramatically in both Franciacorta and the Prosecco-producing region centered on Treviso.  Prosecco has traditionally been planted on south-facing slopes in this hilly portion of the Veneto to maximize sun exposure, but now sites around the eastern and western sides of the hills are being planted in earnest--to avoid the increasingly scorching sun that has accelerated the inception of picking for autumn harvests back into summer by as much or more than a month for many producers, who can’t delay while acidity is being roasted out of their grapes.

Similarly, in Franciacorta in northern Lombardy, almost all serious producers have now added a non-dossage sparkling wine to their portfolio.  These were formerly exceedingly rare, but are now made possible due to dropping acidity levels.  These wines are actually very, very good, and I’ll be writing about them before the calendar year is out, but here’s the thing:  In Franciacorta, as in Piedmont, even the winners in climate change roulette are alarmed by the sheer speed of the changes.

I could go on, but these examples should suffice.  Still, perhaps this column has angered you, based on the premise that I should stick to reporting on wine quality rather than matters of global climatology and their possible implications for public policy.  If so, I’d understand, but would not agree.  It seems to me that informed public discourse is dependent upon citizens bringing their direct experience to bear upon debates of consequence, and my direct experience is telling me that we had all better pay very close attention to the astonishing--and troubling--transformations occurring before our eyes across the world of wine.

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Comments or questions?  Write to me at michael@franzwine.com