Climate Change and Wine

Climate Change and Wine

Every aspect of wine's journey is impacted by climate change. For the sake of good wine, consumers, farmers, and winemakers have to change as well.

Climate and Wine

When we speak of climate and wine, we're speaking of the weather patterns-temperature, wind flow, sun exposure, water availability, etc. during growing season. Growing season is typically from spring through early fall/late summer.

Race to Ripen

Wine's journey begins in the earth. Grapevines flower to produce bunches of grapes. These grapes ripen and are picked during harvest season to create wine.

Winemakers determine when to pick the grapes based on their ripeness. Ripened grapes are tested for components such as sugar, acid, and tannin levels to give winemakers a sense of what kind of wine the grapes will make. 

Often, the timeline from flowering plant to ripened grape is pretty consistent. But with rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, grapes are ripening faster. Winemakers are forced to pick grapes earlier to avoid overripeness. Overripe grapes can lead to wines that are too sweet, fragile, and more likely to rot. 

Colder regions are experiencing a temporary benefit from the warmer climate. Their grapes are ripening into plumper, juicier fruits and producing better wines. This victory is likely to be short lived and come with its share of problems. Not all grapes can stand the heat. Some grapes are better suited for cooler climates and may not perform as well in the heat. And the grapes that can stand the heat may not have vines that can survive the long winters of cooler regions. 

To accommodate climate change, wineries are picking grapes sooner. Bordeaux's vineyards started harvest season about a month ahead of schedule. While Bordeaux expects a delicious 2022 vintage due to particularly juicy grapes, there's no telling what will happen with the following years' harvests. Temperatures are rising and droughts are becoming more common. Farmers are, understandably, concerned.

Smoke Taint

Speaking of more heat and less water, climate change has led to more fires that are harder to control. 

Fires lead to smoke. Smoke leads to smoke taint. Smoke taint is the result of smoke from fires contaminating vineyards. Not only can the debris lead to "dirty" grapes, phenols contaminate grapes and lead to unpleasant aromas such as ashtray or burning plants.

The aromas smoke taint causes are only expressed after fermentation. As of now, most winemakers don't have an accessible, affordable way of assessing the impact of fire and smoke until after they've gone through the wine making process. The process is, of course, expensive, laborious, and a highly coordinated effort. By the time smoke taint is detected, the product will likely still have to go to market. 

As a result, insurance companies are now covering smoke taint in insurance policies. This is a new and ongoing development to keep an eye on.

In California, the 2017 and 2020 fires did a number on vineyards. Some vineyards were lucky - the fires evaded their property and they only experienced smoke taint. 

Other vineyards were luckier still. They picked their grapes before the fires. In fact many Napa and Sonoma Valley grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were picked well before the fires (in part thanks to early ripening from heat waves in late summer). With that being said, only a conversation with the producer or diligent research can tell you this insider information, so many wine drinkers prefer to not drink 2017 California wines from the Napa region.

My two cents - 1. 90% of Napa’s cabs were picked before the October 8th fires. 2. The casual drinker is unlikely to detect smoke taint in most wines. So, go ahead and enjoy your 2017 Cali cab. But if you find a 2016, a very good vintage, splurge a bit ;) 

A Solution?

Unfortunately there aren't enough paper straws or Teslas in the world to stop climate change. 

Farmers and winemakers are changing their methods. Everyone is watching weather patterns, adjusting their practices, and investing in tools that better shield vines, filter grape juice, and irrigate the land.

As consumers, we may have to adjust to a bit more smoky wine. Or we may have to develop a palate for more acidic wine as grapes are picked earlier in the season. Or maybe we start to prefer juicier, sweeter wines as grapes ripen faster than the pace of picking.

Whatever the solution is, innovation and life's incredible ability to adapt will take over. After all, we're trying to grow grapes on Mars! I don't see any reason why we can't figure out a way to continue enjoying wine in the midst of changing global climates.

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