Change May Be Coming to Your Favorite Wines
The ill effects of climate change on many of the great wine regions in the United States and Europe have only just begun to be felt.
Wildfires have torn through vineyards in Napa Valley in California and elsewhere in Oregon, and even vineyards that were spared have had to contend with smoke damaging their grapes. In France, years alternating between unusual heat and damaging frosts have changed how much and what types of wine are being made. In the normally cooler regions that grow the grapes to make Champagne, the annual harvest yield has swung wildly from half the normal amount to double. (The region is allowed to store wine from a boom year to blend with wine from a low year.)
But the rising temperatures have had other, unforeseen effects. Parts of the United Kingdom, a country not at all known for wine production, are now making sparkling wine — as they did back in Roman times.
For wine connoisseurs, that means changes in the types of wines they’ve long loved and where those wines are produced. The average consumer may not notice but the seemingly stable world of wine has become anything but.
“We’re seeing a broader selection of very interesting wines because of this warming,” said Dave Parker, founder and chief executive of the Benchmark Wine Group, a large retailer of vintage wines. “We’re seeing regions that historically were not that highly thought of now producing some excellent wines. The U.K., Oregon, New Zealand or Austria may have been marginal before but they’re producing great wines now. It’s kind of an exciting time if you’re a wine lover.”
The rising temperatures have certainly hurt some winemakers, but in some wine-growing areas the heat has been a boon for vineyards and the drinkers who covet their wine. Mr. Parker said growing conditions for sought-after vintages in Bordeaux used to come less frequently and sometimes only once every decade: 1945, 1947, 1961, 1982, 1996 and 2000. They were all very ripe vintages, because of the heat. But in the last decade, with temperatures rising in Bordeaux, wines from 2012, 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 are all sought after — and highly priced.
And then, there are the wines from previously overlooked regions.
“What I’d say is, currently, there hasn’t been a better time for wine collectors,” said Axel Heinz, the estate director of Ornellaia and Masseto, two of Italy’s premier wines. “The vintages and wine have become so much better. And for us, the changes over the past 20 years have put a focus on many growing regions that collectors weren’t interested in before, like Italian and Spanish wine.”
(Still, he said, his vineyards are not immune to the negative effects of climate change, with increased risk of spring frosts and hail.)
Yet for all the romance attached to making wine, it’s essentially farming. So while winemakers have been reaping the benefits of higher temperatures, the grape growers have had to adapt in ways that are going to affect prices as well as the types of grapes. (And of course, vineyards are sometimes integrated, so the grape growers and the winemakers are all part of the same operation.)
Like other wineries, Jackson Family Wines, one of the largest wine producers in the United States, has already begun to take steps to deal with climate change.
“If we plant a vineyard today, we’re asking, what will the vineyard look like in 2042, not 2022,” said Rick Tigner, the company’s chief executive. “We might have a bigger canopy to provide the grapes shade, or different varietals. All of those things cost money. Farming for the future is going to be more expensive in the short term, but those vines could last 30 years, not 20 years.”
The company has installed solar panels throughout its vineyards, but the energy need during the 12 weeks of harvest is so intense that it can’t put in enough panels to meet those peak needs. Separately, the vineyard is also looking at reducing the weight of its glass bottles. While glass stores wine well, and is recyclable, it requires a huge amount of energy to produce (since sand is being melted in furnaces to make glass).
Far Niente, which owns several brands including Nickel & Nickel and Dolce, opted to float almost half of its solar panels in an irrigation pond to save vineyard space. In doing so, the winery has covered all of its energy costs and is confident that as long as its aquifer holds up it can manage the increased heat, said Greg Allen, president and winemaker for Dolce.
While wildfires are a significant concern for wineries, so is water usage. Hamel Family Farms, in the Sonoma Valley, turned to dry farming as a way to eliminate the need for extensive irrigation. John Hamel, winemaker and managing director of wine growing, said the process involves cutting slits in the dry earth, allowing rain that does fall to be absorbed and held in the ground longer. It also makes the vines more resilient to temperature swings, he said.
For Hamel’s 124 acres, dry farming saves 2 million to 4 million gallons of water annually. But there’s a trade-off: The yield is lower, with only 2.5 tons of grapes per acre as opposed to five to six tons per acre with irrigation.
“The vines get used to this drought and are able to grow in this condition,” he said.
The impact of the different sustainability measures on the wines themselves is still unclear. The average wine drinker is likely not to notice the difference, said Christian Miller, research director for the Wine Market Council, a wine market research firm.
“Consumer perceptions of wine and styles lag the actual conditions,” he said. “It takes a while to undo the perception at a winery or at a regional level. You also have normal variance in weather, and wineries can take corrective action to maintain the taste profile.”
The one wild card is fire. A fire can shift the perception of an entire vintage, even when some vineyards in a region escape unharmed. “Avoid that vintage for Napa Valley because of smoke taint could be a blanket assumption that isn’t true for all vineyards,” Mr. Miller said. Given the higher temperatures, some growers are harvesting grapes weeks earlier than they used to, so they could have the harvest safely fermenting in sealed tanks.
The fires also threaten to upend the economic model of many boutique vineyards, which charge more for their wines. A high percentage of their sales, sometimes close to 70 percent or more, comes from people buying bottles at the vineyard and signing up for wine clubs that automatically ship them wine several times a year.
But as certain wine regions struggle to grow the varietals they’ve always grown, their customers could find themselves unable to drink the types of wines they’ve always loved.
A fire came within 100 feet of Medlock Ames, a vineyard in Healdsburg, Calif., in 2017. Two years later, a wildfire ripped through the vineyard. After surveying the damage, Ames Morison, Medlock’s winemaker, said he decided to plant different types of grapes. Malbec, the hearty Argentine grape, replaced the lighter white sauvignon blanc grape.
“It’s sad,” Mr. Morison said. “I’ll miss those wines. But sauvignon blanc grows better in cooler climates than we have.”
Similarly, Larkmead, in the Napa Valley, which grows Cabernet Sauvignon but also produces three blends, has created a research vineyard with nine types of grapes. The merlot it uses for its blends has become harder to grow.
“Our merlot blend is loved by everyone, but we’re having a conversation about discontinuing,” said Avery Heelan, winemaker at Larkmead. “We won’t have enough merlot to make that wine in the future. It’s 60 percent merlot now, but we’re going to have to shape-shift.”
Some of the grapes it is growing have historically thrived along the hotter Mediterranean growing regions in Spain and Italy. It’s also using Shiraz, the Australian grape. “The Australians have a leg up on us on understanding fire and smoke,” she said. “Without manipulating our style or quality, there is not a lot we can do. It’s Mother Nature.”
Initiatives to adapt to climate change and to produce wine more sustainably are being driven by vineyards, for sure, but they are really being pushed by the big wine buyers, including sommeliers in restaurants, wine distributors and retailers who can see how climate is changing wine. Consumers, Mr. Miller said, are playing less of a role since most drinkers aren’t going to know the difference, and the collectors who do are a small part of overall wine drinkers.
“The trade is more aware, and is trying to react to climate change, than the wine consumers themselves,” he said, noting that sustainably produced wines cost $1 to $4 more a bottle. “The impact of climate change is a moving average over a number of years,” he added, “and that’s why it’s going to have a slower impact on consumer behavior.”
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