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Climate Change is Disrupting the Wines we Love

While contemplating a topic for month’s column, northern California was experiencing yet another “atmospheric river,” dumping rain and snow at record levels.

In Napa, lying just a few hundred feet above sea level, snow blanketed vineyards and vines. Social media blew up - not just with images most had never before seen, but with lots of concerned wine drinkers asking questions about the impact on the vines. Growers assured their consumers that because bud break had not yet happened, all was fine. Plus, in the face of a record drought, moisture in whatever form was most-welcome.

Of course, the deluge of rain and snow comes in the midst of record drought in California (and many other places). The impact of a parched wine country is still fresh in the minds of many wine drinkers. In 2020, several fires, sparked by lightning, ignited dried-out vegetation and tore through Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Yolo and Lake Counties. Nearly one-third of the acreage in Napa County burned. In September 2020, yet another fire erupted in Napa, consuming 40,000 acres and destroying 1,200 structures – including wineries and luxe resorts. Between August and October of that year, over 400,000 acres burned and much of wine country, while grapes were ripening on the vines and field workers expected to soon harvest, was chock full of smoke.

At nearly the same time that California was experiencing its own freak weather, across the world, yet another wine region was reeling from increasingly unpredictable weather. While not a stranger to cyclones, the one that hit New Zealand in mid-February was particularly destructive. Fueled by rising water and air temperatures, Cyclone Gabriel clobbered the country’s wine region with floodwaters and what one media account called “torrents of silt” – and all right as harvest was set to begin for the 2023 vintage.

Climate change is impacting everything and as these couple of examples underscore, that includes wine. The triad of unpredictability, increased severity and more frequent occurrence of impactful weather events are already affecting how and where grapes are grown and, ultimately, impact the wine consumer.

Take the 2020 fire events in northern California. Wine growers in the region lost an estimated $601 million USD in crop value according to the industry trade group, California Association of Winegrape Growers. If not actually consumed by fire itself, many winegrowers and winemakers opted to drop the fruit for fear of smoke taint. A majority of growers did harvest the 2020 vintage, but even now, what is eventually released remains in question.

Rick Aldine, North Coast Grape Manager for Agajanian Vineyards & Wine Company, told Wine Business Monthly in 2022, “Every vineyard and every varietal that was hanging after August 17 from Mendocino all the way down to San Luis Obispo has a smoke taint number.” He continued, “That is a fact. Not one grower can say ‘I don’t have taint.’ I can tell you, every grower has a taint number now.”

For growers that did harvest, they also saw the value of their grapes decline by nearly 50 percent compared to 2019 and the actual volume of the 2020 harvest declined by nearly 30 percent.

In New Zealand, early estimates peg the overall damage from Cyclone Gabriel at upward of $8 billion USD though the actual impact on the 2023 harvest is not yet known, even in the heavily impacted Hawke’s Bay wine region, the nation’s second-largest wine region.

In 2019, The New York Time’s wine critic, Eric Asimov, wrote about the impacts of climate change on wine in a four-part series. He cited five factors profoundly affecting the industry, and I would add, will transform how we experience wine.

First, he described how the wine map is “expanding.” Areas once thought too cold for ideal grape growing are proving to be ideal in the new changing climate. “England is a perfect example,” he wrote. “Thirty years ago, nobody had ever heard of English sparkling wine. But as the climate has warmed, a world-class sparkling wine industry has developed.” He also describes the migration of grape growing into parts of northern Europe, including Denmark, Norway, and Sweden and in the Southern Hemisphere, “deep into Patagonia in Argentina and Chile.”

Second, as the planet warms, vineyards are being planted at ever higher “altitudes once considered inhospitable to growing wine grapes.” From Washington State to Burgundy to the famed vineyards of Catena Zapata in Argentina, vineyards are going up and up and up with great success.

Third, curtailing sunlight to prevent over-ripening of grapes is increasingly the norm. The placement of vineyards to take advantage of sunlight to help ripen grapes has gone in reverse, with every effort being made to shield grapes from intense afternoon sun through the orientation of new plantings and enhancing canopy management for existing vines.

For consumers, the fourth factor identified by Asimov may be the most psychologically disruptive – namely that growing different types of wine grapes may be needed to maintain wine making in the most historic of regions. “It may seem impossible to imagine Bordeaux without Cabernet sauvignon and merlot, or Champagne without pinot noir and chardonnay, but the prospect of a much warmer future may require even the most famous of wine regions to rethink their methods,” he wrote.

I know. Mind blown.

Finally, Asimov’s fifth factor takes us back to where we started and the unpredictability of weather events in the emerging world. “Forest fires, flood, droughts – wine regions will have to learn how to deal regularly with these once-rare devastations.”

This much is clear. Wine making has been around for over 8,000 years and has adapted, time and again, to place and climate. I have no doubt it will continue to do so. But what it means in these early years of the 21st century for the artistry and acumen of the grower and winemaker has perhaps never been more paramount.

And for consumers, it means we need to broaden our understandings of both viti-culture and vini-culture beyond contemporary confines such that we can embrace and enjoy what the future has to offer.

As always, Salud!

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