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Climate Change Means Wine Change
By Paul Lukacs
Feb 20, 2018
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Last year was a worldwide wine calamity.  From wildfires in Chile, South Africa, Portugal, and Spain, not to mention California, to vicious spring frosts followed by searing summer heat in both France and Italy, virtually every wine producing country suffered some sort of tragedy.  Things were so bad that the award-winning English wine writer, Andrew Jefford, calls 2017 “one of the most disaster-strewn years since phylloxera.”

That’s an exaggeration of course.  The vintages following the two World Wars proved even worse.  But the problems back then came from a lack of resources.  Especially in Europe, vineyards and wineries were in disrepair, and few proprietors could afford to make the necessary repairs.  By contrast, producers today are flush with cash, wine never having been more popular with more people.

Last year’s misfortunes may simply result from an international spate of bad luck, but it seems far more likely that they are due to climate change, whether man-made or part of some sort of natural cycle.  Over the past few decades, no agricultural crop has been more affected by climate change than wine grapes.  In 2017, the damage really became evident to anyone who cared to look.

Fires break out regularly in many wine regions, particularly those that typically experience little rain during the growing season.  But 2017 was both hotter and windier than usual, resulting in more fires and more problems for firefighters trying to contain them.

It’s more difficult to pinpoint the cause of the unusually bitter frosts, but some scientists credit warming oceans and a build-up of low pressure over the two poles.  Whatever the cause, however, 2017 was just an extreme example of a longer lasting phenomenon, since spring frosts, coupled with summer droughts and high temperatures seem to be becoming a viticultural norm, not an exception.

All of this is disturbing on an environmental level, and the fate of the earth’s ecosystem is obviously more important than the taste of a glass of wine.  All the same, that taste is changing, and changing fast.  Choices made by winemakers account for some of the change, but more has to do with the raw material that nature gives them. 

That material is different than it was a generation ago.  Spring frosts result in smaller crops come fall.  This becomes especially true when the frosts are coupled with mild winters since budbreak then comes earlier.  Each vine produces fewer grapes, if grapes at all.  At a time when demand for wine keeps growing, supply suffers.

Equally disturbing, quality suffers.  Early budbreak, coupled with hot, dry summers, means that the grapes ripen sooner than they used to.  But while they contain the same amount of sugar, they lack acidity and full flavor development, what winemakers call “physiological maturity.”  The only way to attain that is to leave the grapes hanging longer on the vine.  Doing so, however, brings even higher sugar levels and more sugar, which ends up as either sweeter or more alcoholic wines (or both).

Regardless of cause, climate change is a problem for many more important things than wine.  But because differences in style and quality seem much more nuanced with wine than with other agricultural products, its effect becomes especially noticeable for those of us who care about wine.  This website, for example, is filled with commentary concerning what makes one wine superior to another.  Climate change means that the criteria for making such judgments is changing.  Wines sporting residual sugar, and hence a hint (often more than a hint) of sweetness used to be disparaged; today they are widely praised.  Similarly, wine with a low level of acidity used to be considered unbalanced; today no one much minds.  And while wines with lots of alcohol used to considered out of whack, they have become so common these days so as to be widely regarded as normal.

None of this means that wine made a generation ago was inherently better than wine now.  It is to say, though, that wine has changed, and seems to be changing ever faster.  There are lots of explanations, including shifting consumer tastes and decisions made by winemakers that enable them to satisfy those tastes.  The biggest explanation, though, helps account for all the others, and at least in the foreseeable future is the one that nobody can do anything about--climate change.