Thursday, Dec. 03, 2009

How Global Warming Could Change the Winemaking Map

Many Bordeaux winemakers are declaring 2009 the best vintage in 60 years, but Yvon Minvielle of Château Lagarette isn't celebrating. Like many vintners across France, Minvielle is feeling uneasy after another unusually warm summer and early grape harvest. "They say everything is going great in Bordeaux, but take a closer look," he says. Heat-stressed vines ripened at unequal rates this year, and only skillful picking spread over a full month allowed Minvielle to gather a mature crop.

Such seasonal headaches are becoming more commonplace in France, and many vintners are placing the blame on global warming. In the past 30 years, harvest dates have moved up an average of 16 days because of unusually warm growing seasons. Grapes are reaching their sugar ripeness before their aromas fully develop, alcohol levels are soaring and acid levels are dropping — forcing some winemakers to resort to chemistry in their cellars to produce a quaffable cuvée. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the earth's temperatures could rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 if nothing is done to combat climate change. "While 2 to 3 degrees [Celsius] may be manageable, if temperatures rise 4 to 5 degrees ... the vineyard map will never be the same again," says Bernard Seguin, head of the Climate Change and Greenhouse Effect Unit at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Avignon.

Nervous about that possibility, French vintners are now calling for action. Last month, the 8,000-member Vigneron Indépendant wine growers association urged world leaders to take bold measure at this week's climate change summit in Copenhagen to reverse the trends of global warming. That followed a dire warning by Minvielle and other industry figures in an editorial in the French daily Le Monde this summer: "French wines, elegant and refined, the jewels of our common national heritage, are in danger."

No crop is a better canary in the climate coal mine than the grape, says Jean-Pierre Chabin, a scientist at the University of Burgundy's Center for Climatology Research. "It records the climatic year, so what's in the bottle is the result of the six preceding months' weather," he says. And to expert palates like that of Antoine Pétrus, voted France's best young sommelier by the Union of French Sommeliers in 2007, the change in the taste of some French wines is already recognizable. Sun-baked, unbalanced wines like those produced following the European heat wave of 2003 — when temperatures soared above 40 C — were once considered a rarity. Now, Pétrus says, they are becoming much more the norm. "We've observed over the last several vintages that temperatures and effects of climate [change] have become far stronger," he says.

Many vintners have resorted to extraordinary measures to maintain the quality of their batches. In the Côte du Rhone region of France this summer, high temperatures and lack of rain forced some growers to start irrigating their vineyards — a practice forbidden in quality French vineyards, but permitted by the National Appellations Institute (INAO) in 2009 for several southern appellations. In cooler regions like Champagne and Alsace, many winemakers are doctoring their cuvées in order to maintain acidity levels. "My father's challenge was to ripen his grapes enough to avoid having to add sugar to the wine," says Olivier Humbrecht of the Domaine Zind-Humbrecht winery. "Today, my problem is being able to keep enough acidity." Meticulous, biodynamic vineyard management has allowed Zind-Humbrecht to retain the structure of their famous Gewurztraminers for now, but many others have turned to using tartaric acid — a practice authorized this year in Alsace by INAO for only the second time since 2003, says Humbrecht, an exceptional measure that could "become common practice in five or 10 years."

Such difficulties are almost enough to make France envy England, where winemakers boasted the best sugar-acid balance in their history this year. "The idea that we could grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and get it to ripen to the level we now can was once unimaginable," says Stephen Skelton, author of the UK Vineyards Guide. "It's changed in 10 years, really, and that is entirely down to global warming."

With English winemaking on the rise, Skelton has been receiving calls to lead prospective French investors like Cristal maker Louis-Roederer on British vineyard tours. And some vintners have already made the jump across the English Channel. Earlier this year, Didier Pierson, owner of Champagne Pierson-Whitaker, the first Champagne maker to purchase a vineyard in southern England, bottled his inaugural batch of English sparkling wine, which he expects to start selling in 2011. Christian Seely, director of AXA-Millésimes, the winemaking arm of the French insurance group, also launched a joint venture with a Hampshire vineyard this year to begin making a sparkling wine.

Seguin believes that a significant global temperature rise may now be inevitable and French winemakers will need to adapt in order to survive. Some have already begun planning for the worst. "The solutions are to be found in all the common experience of our forefathers," says Gérard Gauby, owner of the Domaine Gauby winery in the southern Roussillon region. Gauby advocates a return to ancient Mediterranean "Gobelet" vine training, in which the leaves form a protective umbrella over the grapes — similar to a technique Minvielle used in Bordeaux during the 2003 drought. He is also searching in North Africa for grape varieties like Grenache and Carignan, which have adapted to harsh climates. Likewise, in the southern town of Gaillac, Robert Plageoles of the Domaine des Tres Cantous winery has started planting drought-resistant grapes like Onedenc and Verdanel, which he calls "the wines of the future."

But Gauby isn't sure that winemaking in France's southernmost regions will even survive without large-scale irrigation. If the world keeps getting hotter and drier, he says, "it's perhaps better to stop making wine, and keep the water for drinking." A wise plan, undoubtedly, but one oenophiles the world over will hope is never necessary.