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The Effect of Weather Changes on the Wine Industry

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GrapevineThe end of weather as we know it is on the horizon and we’re all slowly going to drown or starve or move to Mars.

Or maybe not.

There are varying, diametrically opposed viewpoints on our purported demise. Several are science-based, others seemingly ideological-based.

Regardless of one’s viewpoint, documented changes are underfoot in the wine industry.

In the vineyard, climate is one of the most influential factors affecting grape production, characteristics and quality. The early Romans understood this and planting patterns did not materially change in the ensuing millennia. Cabernet Sauvignon fares best in warmer climates; this is where you will generally find them planted. Pinot Noir thrives in cooler climates; look to the Burgundy region of France for the best expressions.

If there are major changes in these conditions, the characteristics of the end product – the glass of wine you and I consume – will likely change, upsetting centuries of local traditions and economics. 

Much is riding on the potential long-term effects of climate change. But how does one determine the veracity of climate change claims?

There are two primary means: scientific studies and anecdotal experiences.

Scientific studies have shown that the planet is warming. Not analogous to a slow, constantly rising curve on a chart or graph, but more so in protracted periods of high and low swings, more of a saw-tooth graph whose extreme points reach new highs and lows with each changing pattern.

Is this a permanent trend or a multiple-century weather cycle? Science informs us there have previously been multi-century weather patterns of polarized heat and cold temperatures. Which is the current trend we are experiencing? Should we wait for time to tell? Should we defer action to future generations?

Anecdotal experiences provide first-hand evidence. Vineyard owners across the globe have been reporting the need to harvest their crops earlier than ever before in their lifetimes. Not every year, but a trend is clear. And not in significant numbers of days or weeks, but rather a few days or weeks each year.

One study analyzed centuries-old vineyard records kept by winemaking monks in France. The very detailed records showed stable harvest dates from the 14th century onward for several centuries. Over the most recent quarter-century, however, harvest dates have been trending earlier, in increasing frequency, as recorded temperatures rise.

Enterprising British winemakers analyzed warming patterns several years ago, decided to take advantage of this new phenomenon, and successfully planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in previously unsustainable geographic areas. Today, British sparkling wines produced from these grapes are receiving worldwide accolades.

What does the future hold for the wine industry and the agriculture industry in general?

Overall, we must not lose sight of what has enabled man to overcome past calamities and natural disasters throughout history: resistance and ingenuity.

Battling climate change in the vineyards will test man’s adaptability. Short of succumbing, man’s determination will seek viable options. Here are several:

Different grape varietals may be planted that thrive in a locale’s changed climate. The Bordeaux region has recently been permitted to grow grapes other than those strictly regulated for centuries. The newly-introduced grapes are considered more viable in the changing climate of the region.

But what of the supplanted grapes? Will grapes formerly grown in cooler climates head toward more extreme latitudes – or perhaps extinction?

As man invents and develops advanced technology, the threat of climate change will become a top priority in the wine producing arena. Scientists working in genomics at the University of California, Davis are researching the genetic makeup of individual grape varietals to unlock the attributes of genes associated with climate resistance, flavor, aroma and hardiness. First up: Cabernet Sauvignon’s 19 chromosomes. The ultimate goal is to enhance DNA traits to better adapt to changes in future growing conditions.

Some might say if we can’t rely on the accuracy of a meteorologist’s short-term prognostications, why should we rely on the long-term accuracy of a climatologist – or a winemaker? In the face of long-term evidence and the potential consequences, do we have a choice during our lifetimes?

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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