My father once told me that if a winemaker could make one great vintage in his lifetime, he could die a happy man,” says Jean-René Matignon, of Château PichonLongueville. The technical director of one of Bordeaux’s most prestigious wine producers began making wine in 1985 and was fortunate enough to have his first great vintage as soon as 1988. “After that superb year, I said to myself, ‘Well, I could tell my father I had made my one great vintage.’”
As it turned out, that was just the beginning. The company had an even better vintage in 1989, and a great one in 1990, 1995 and 1996. In fact, after almost 25 years at Pichon, Matignon has enjoyed 10 top-quality vintages. “This is something my father would never have dreamed of.”
Matignon’s experience isn’t unique. Winemakers from Rioja to the Rhine and Orvieto to Oregon have been enjoying unparalleled quality and consistency. Global warming, it seems, has been a boon, delivering ideal conditions in many of the world’s established winemaking regions.
However, more and more research suggests it may change for the worse, and at a conference in Barcelona this year, viticulturalists and climate scientists warned that if temperatures continued to increase at the current rate, the wine industry would change beyond recognition.
“As temperatures rise in the hottest wine-producing areas,” says Richard Smart, one of the world’s pre-eminent independent viticulturalists, “it will no longer be possible to grow wine varieties there successfully.” The prognosis isn’t much better in cooler and moderately warm regions either. Although producers won’t have to stop making wine, says Smart, they will have to make significant changes.
Champagne will be a thing of the past, as will Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, Rioja and just about any other European wine you can think of.
“All of the regional styles will change,” says Smart. For those in Europe that have built up reputations based around regional styles of wine over decades, sometimes centuries, it could be disastrous.
But while there is a growing body of scientific research to support Smart’s predictions, many winemakers are refusing to accept them, believing the claims are exaggerated, that the science on which projections are based fails to comprehend the complexities of viticulture and also underestimates their ability to adapt to changing weather patterns.
It was the Ancient Greeks who first introduced viniculture to Italy, France and Spain, in around 750 BC, but it took generations of winemakers to establish today’s well-known regional styles. The key to producing the best wine, they found, lay in identifying which varieties performed best in their particular environment.
Despite the range of climates in which grapes can thrive, each variety also requires particular conditions to achieve optimum ripeness, and it’s this principle that has contributed to the development of Europe’s distinctive regional wine styles. After centuries of experimentation, winemakers found that cabernet sauvignon was best suited to the Bordeaux region, for example, and chardonnay to Burgundy.
“The ideal climate will allow the vine to develop complexity and to absorb as much from the soil as it can without getting overripe,” explains Alun Griffiths, wine director of British fine wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd. “Which is why the best wines are made at the edges of viticultural possibility, where there is just enough sunshine to get them ripe.
“In other words, if you tried to make Bordeaux wines nearer the equator, where it’s a few degrees warmer, you’d have no trouble getting the grapes ripe, but you wouldn’t have the complexity and finesse that distinguish wines from that region. It’s an incredibly delicate balance.”
Just as meteorologists have detected these rising temperatures, winemakers have experienced changes first-hand. Areas once considered too cool for viticulture, such as England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, southern Tasmania and southern Chile—have also found their wines improving.
According to US climatologist Gregory Jones, a professor of geography at Southern Oregon University, this is a direct result of rising temperatures. His research shows that between 1950 and 1999, average growing season temperatures (AGSTs) in 27 wine regions around the world increased by an average of 1.3°C. So far, this has been a good thing: for every 1°C, vintage ratings by Sotheby’s and The Wine Enthusiast for the same period increased by 10–22 points. Jones attributes this to the influence of AGSTs. “Heat accumulated during the growing season enhances ripening,” he says, “so the higher the AGST, the better the grapes’ development.”
However, there can be too much of a good thing; too much heat means the grapes’ sugar levels are ready before other desirable elements, such as the colour, acid levels, tannins. This is why some winemakers in warmer areas—parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Australia, Argentina, California and South Africa—have increasingly faced overripeness and the possibility of unbalanced wines. In California’s Napa Valley, one of the world’s best regions for cabernet sauvignon, up to 55 per cent of winemakers are removing alcohol and adding acid to ensure freshness in their wines.
According to IPCC’s predictions, Jones says, changes in global average annual temperatures will mean that established wine regions may no longer be suitable for their traditional grape varieties; it may take a change of only 1°C for some areas to become quite unsuitable for their varieties.
The 27 wine regions he analysed will change, on average, by 2°C, and some considerably more.
In Bordeaux, he says, the temperatures will be close to the limits for the red varieties currently grown there and exceed those of the whites. In Rioja, temperatures would be too high for the Tempranillo grape, which dominates the region. “We’re talking about a place such as Burgundy being as warm as Avignon in the south of France, and producers not able to grow pinot noir there any more.”
Richard Smart warns that the implications of a 2°C change are without precedent. “Cabernets produced in Bordeaux, for example, will be like those made in the south of France at present, which doesn’t have anything like the same reputation.” If producers want to maintain quality, he says, they will have no choice but to change their style and find other varieties better adapted to the increased temperatures.
Jones’ work has certainly made a big splash in the media, but many winemakers dispute his observations and challenge his projections.
Château Pichon-Longueville’s Jean-René Matignon points out that producers already have to deal with significant variations in temperature at a very local level. “On a summer’s afternoon, if I go from Pichon to [Château] Latour, which is just across the road, it can be up to two degrees warmer in Latour because it is protected from the wind.” Besides, exposure to sunlight during the ripening period is more significant than temperature, as is a good temperature fluctuation between day and night.
He also disputes Jones’ conclusion that higher temperatures are the principal reason for the improvement in quality in recent years, putting much of that down to viticulture. “Winemakers know much more about the management of the vineyard than we did 10 or 15 years ago.” In fact, all the winemakers and some of the climatologists to whom we spoke agreed that temperature projections on their own tell us little about the future viability of traditional wine-growing areas.
According to Hans Schultz, professor of viticulture at the Geisenheim Research Institute in Germany, little is known about the ability of grape varieties to cope in warmer temperatures. “All of the research so far only speculates on the upper limits of these varieties,” he says. “So we can easily make assumptions about where it would be possible to grow cabernet sauvignon in new areas. But we don’t [yet] know whether it would still be suitable in Bordeaux.”
Many are also skeptical about Jones’ solution of shifting classic wine styles into areas once considered too cool. The sheer complexity of the climatic influences in winemaking means that it’s unlikely that anyone can produce Bordeaux-style wines in northern France, or Champagne in England. Says Olivier Brun of Mumm, Perrier-Jouet: “It’s easy to look around the world and find regions where the temperature and even the soil might be suitable. But there are a huge number of other variables that influence the local climate and affect the evolution of the grapes and the style of the wine.”
For instance, Champagne’s vines are planted on slopes, which means that the grapes are affected by the way the air circulates around them, while in Bordeaux, where the vines are planted on plains, there is no such effect. Bordeaux also receives 50 per cent more rainfall than Champagne.
“Southern England may be able to produce some very good sparkling wines in future,” says Brun, “but, because of its relative humidity, it could never reproduce the style of Champagne. And for the same reason you will never be able to produce the Bordeaux style in the Loire or Champagne.”
One of the few producers to have taken more serious adaptation measures is the Torres family, one of Spain’s biggest and best-known winemakers, which has planted vines in the cooler areas of northern Catalunia near the foothills of the Pyrenees. But few winemakers are willing—or in the position—to take such drastic action. Why would they? For those who have built up a reputation based on the relationship between their vines and their terroir, replanting new varieties or moving their vineyards to cooler regions would effectively mean starting from scratch. Besides, many are enjoying some of their best vintages ever.
Some aren’t yet convinced that the recent increases in temperature are part of a permanent trend, particularly as 2007 produced the coolest summer in Europe since the early 1990s. Even those who acknowledge the reality of global warming believe they’ll cope. “I’m not convinced that climate change is going to end production in Bordeaux or Champagne,” says Brun. “If you look at the past, we’ve had some years with enormous levels of sugar and we still produced good quality wine.”
If temperatures do continue to rise, many producers believe they have or will develop the viticultural techniques to ensure their continued success. Ernst Loosen, who took over his father’s riesling vineyards in the Rhine and Mosel valleys in Germany in 1988, has also been making wine on the US west coast in the Columbia Valley, Washington State, since 1999. The experience, he says, has taught him how to use viticultural techniques to grow a cool-climate variety in a hotter climate.
“I have no doubt that when it comes down to it, the wine-makers who have the most skill in the vineyard are still going to be able to make good quality wine,” he says.
Perhaps the most significant steps towards adaptation will be those taken by regulating bodies in Europe, which are now talking about following the lead of French regulators who, in late 2006, reversed hundreds of years of tradition by allowing farmers to irrigate their vines.
It is clear that most European producers would prefer to experiment in the vineyard than relocate it, but Jones cautions against tradition for tradition’s sake. “We can’t afford to be sentimental,” he says. “There is a social construct that we have today that makes people think we’re steadfast and that Burgundy will always be Burgundy and so on. But we have to adapt and work with the opportunities that arise. Who knows—we may find that in 30 years, the Puget Sound in Washington State is producing better pinot noirs than Burgundy!”