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Of Humans and Beavers
By Marguerite Thomas
Sep 3, 2019
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The Baltimore region was recently ranked second only to Oklahoma in the number of severe storm warnings issued this past summer.  One of those tempests hit the city on Tuesday, August 6, when a slow-moving thunderstorm dumped so much rain on my neighborhood in downtown Baltimore that flash floods barreled across several blocks, stranding cars in some intersections.  Golf-ball sized hail plus wind gusts up to 70 MPH added to the general turbulence.  While climate change probably can’t be blamed for this wild weather—after all, fierce summer storms in this part of the country are not unheard of—it further heightened my fears about the increasingly erratic climate and, on a related note, concern for the future of wine.

As wine lovers, most of you know at least a little about how the winemaking community is trying to adjust to climate change.  “Humans and beavers are the only two mammals that alter their environment to suit their needs,” wrote our friend and colleague the late Nick Passmore.  “Humans are the only ones that do it, on a large or small scale, out of curiosity AND necessity.”  Some cooler countries, England, Sweden, Denmark and Poland for example, are adapting to the higher temperatures as these regions become more suitable places for grape growing.  Germany’s Riesling and the Loire Valley’s Cabernet Franc have seen a succession of outstanding vintages thanks to warmer weather. 

Other regions, however, have already been experiencing the negative effects of a hotter climate for several years, and this situation is only expected to get worse.  According to a study conducted by the NGO Conservation International (published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) which looked at the effects worldwide that a warmer climate has on nine major wine-producing regions, the forecast for the next 50 years concludes that “Europe will be the main victim of the negative effects of global warming, with an expected drop in production of 85 percent in the areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea.”

Similarly affected regions include France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions and Italy’s traditional wine growing zones.  California, Australia, Chile and South Africa are also included in the doomsday forecast.  Across the globe some vintners have been harvesting their grapes earlier for the past several years.  Others are buying land at higher altitudes where temperatures are cooler, or are reducing sun exposure by planting vines on north-facing slopes (or south-facing in the Southern hemisphere). 

But here’s an additional approach.  With climate change in mind, Elizabeth Wolkovich, an Associate Professor of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, advises wine producers to start thinking about varietal diversity.  “Maybe the grapes grown widely today were the ones that are easiest to grow and tasted the best in historical climates,” she says, “but I think we’re missing a lot of great grapes better suited for the future.”  Many countries, says Wolkovich, plant 70-90% of their total acreage with the same twelve grape varieties, which represent one percent of the available diversity.  Some grape varieties, she explains, are better adapted to hotter climates and have higher drought tolerance than most of the fruit we see today.  Her advice?  “We should be studying and exploring these varieties to prepare for climate change.”

Wolkovich reminds us that while growers in Europe have the advantage of tremendous grape diversity, strict labeling laws have created limitations on their ability to take advantage of this diversity.  “For example, just three varieties of grapes can be labeled ‘Champagne,’ and for ‘Burgundy’ four.  Similar restrictions have been enacted in many European regions, forcing growers to focus on a handful of varieties.”  New World winegrowers face a different kind of problem:  Although there are few (if any) restrictions on which grape varieties may be grown in which regions these growers have limited experience with Europe’s diversity.  And then there’s China, where more than 75% of grapes grown are Cabernet Sauvignon.

It seems certain that French restrictions regulating grape varieties are going to loosen.  One example of this is a proposal that passed a key winemaker vote in July this year to allow seven new grape varieties into Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellation vineyards.  The allowed red wine grapes in Bordeaux have traditionally been Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère.  Bordeaux white wines have generally been made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, plus tiny amounts of Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche.  The newly permitted Bordeaux red grape varieties include Marselan, Touriga Nacional, Castets and Arinarnoa, and for the white grape varieties Alvarinho, Petit Manseng and Liliorila. 

You may already be familiar with some of the grapes that are being recommended for planting in hotter climates.  Touriga Nacional, for example, that dark skinned red grape associated with Portugal’s hot Douro Valley; Petit Manseng, a white grape long associated with Southwestern France and now gaining popularity in steamy Virginia; and Alvarinho (or Alvariño), a white grape widely planted in Spain and Portugal.  Less well-known varieties are Arinarnoa, Castets, Liliorila and Marselan. 

Some time in the not too distant future you might well have a chance to enjoy a glass of at least one of these wines, so while we wait for them to appear let’s learn a little about them. 

MARSELAN, a hybrid crossing of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, is by far the best known of these relatively obscure wines.  “Marselan has got a little of everything,” wrote Nick Passmore.  “It’s a wine that’s very showy, easy to understand.  It has some tannins.  But they are pretty soft and well integrated.  It’s got a lot of flavors.” Created in 1961 at the French National Institute for Agricultual Research (INRA) at their Domaine de Vassal station in Marseillan (hence the name of the grape), Marselan has been planted in more than twenty countries so far including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and China, as well as in California, Arizona and in its native France, notably in the Languedoc.  “Marselan is one of those environmental tweaks that hasn’t had much impact on the world, but it looks like it may actually be catching on,” wrote Passmore a couple of years ago.

ARINARNOA, a crossing of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, developed in 1956 by France’s National Research Agency, produces darkly colored, firmly structured tannic wines with good natural acidity.  In addition to growing in Languedoc and Provence Arinarnoa is also planted in Penedès, Lebanon, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  The vines are said to have late bud burst (which protects against spring frost), and are resistant to grey rot.  The name Arinarnoa comes from the Basque words “Arin,” meaning “light,” and “arno” which means “wine.”

LILIORILA is a rare white grape variety that was developed in 1956 by the INRA.  It is a cross between Chardonnay and another little-known grape with the enticing name Baroque.  (According to The Oxford Companion, Baroque was at one time known throughout Southwest France and was valued by growers in the early 20th century for its resistance to powdery mildew.  The wine it produced “displays the unusual combination of high alcohol and fine aroma, something akin to ripe pears.”)  Liliorila is described as a powerful white wine with excellent aromas and not much acid.

CASTETS is a very rare red variety first identified in Bordeaux in 1870.  The Oxford Companion (Jancis Robinson) has written that is was “almost extinct.”  Larousse described it as a vigorous vine, with late budbreak, that produces “good, highly coloured vin ordinaire.”  The vigorous vines are resistant to downy mildew and they produce medium to large grape bunches with very small, round berries.  The wines are said to be deeply colored, with relatively low acidity, and are suitable for aging.