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ProWein Specialist Article: Climate Change--Taste the Burn

You might think that the reality of climate change wouldn’t be news for the global wine industry, but in many countries around Planet Wine the last years saw extreme weather events that brought a new sense of urgency to winemakers’ struggle with the effects of warming climates. When 45.9°C was recorded in Gallangues-le-Montueux in the South of France on the 28th June 2019 and 42.6°C was recorded in Lingen/Germany on the 25th July 2019 these were major shocks. They broke the record set in France back in 2003 by 1.8°C and that in Germany from 2015 by fully 2.3°C.

In the first of those vintages many European wines tended towards opulence and some were too alcoholic, but the latter was an excellent vintage for many regions. And since the end the century there haven’t been any vintages in Europe with thin green wines, like there still were just a generation ago. So there’s no easy answer to the question if climate change so far has been good or bad for wine quality. The problem is that the situation of the last years creates a whole new challenge for winemakers.

Last July and early August photographs of scorched vine foliage in the Languedoc region of France and “sunburned” grapes in the Mosel Valley of Germany went viral on the Internet. For Italy the first shockingly warm growing season was 2017 when even in Tuscany temperatures reached 45°C, a situation that resulted in the grapes of some imported varieties like Merlot desiccating on the vine. These were all horror scenarios for the winemakers affected! Suddenly, winemakers realized the situation was changing faster than they had thought possible.

It was during the summer of 2003, the “summer of the century” in Western Europe, that the last climate change skeptics in the wine industry finally admitted global warming was real and needed to be dealt with. During the next couple of years a lot of thinking was done about how to adapt vineyard cultivation and winemaking techniques to a warming climate, and there was real action in many regions as a result. This meant shorter vine canopies and more shaded fruit in the vineyards, then earlier picking. For some winemakers like Steffen Christmann of Weingut Christmann in the Pfalz/Germany (Hall 14, Stand E60) this was also about changing wine style and moving his wines in a brighter and fresher direction. Other winemakers responded to warming conditions by experimenting with later-ripening, higher acidity varieties, such as the planting of the white Greek Assyrtiko grape by Jim Barry of Clare Valley/South Australia (Hall 9, Stand F69).

Then followed a number of vintages with difficult harvest conditions, most notably 2013 in regions as widely separated and different in climatic type as Bordeaux and Germany. Winemakers in both places and elsewhere often referred to them as “cool vintages”, although actually they were much warmer than the cool vintages of the late 20th century and the real problem was autumn rain delaying the ripening process and sometimes leading to rot.

This unconscious self-deception allowed the dangerous illusion to gain traction that there were still genuinely cool years and radical changes to vineyard and cellar techniques were only really necessary in “exceptional” warm years. Events like the massive spring frost damage in Burgundy in 2016 seemed to confirm that heat was not always the problem that most urgently demanded action. Then came 2018 and 2019 and that wake up call.

It’s worth taking a quick look at the weather stats for Geisenheim in the Rheingau, one of the classic “cool climate” regions of Germany and home to the nation’s leading wine university and blessed with an archive of weather statistics to see just how serious the new situation is. During the period 1961 – 1990 the average temperature during the growing season was 14.5°C and the warmest year during that period was 1976 with an average temperature during the growing season of 15.7°C. In 2003 that jumped to 16.5°C a figure topped in 2006 with 16.6°C. However, 2018 is in a whole new league with an average temperature during the growing season of 17.8°C! The heat summation for 2018 in Geisenheim was only a whisker below that of Barrosa Valley, South Australia in an average year, and Barossa is anything but a cool climate region. The last genuinely cool year in Germany, and many other parts of Western Europe, was 2010.

For Austria, like Italy, 2017 was the year that shocked many winemakers into renewed action. Toni Bodenstein of Weingut Prager in Weissenkirchen/Wachau (Hall 17) was one of the winemakers who made massive changes. „For the 2017 vintage I turned our grape processing and cellar methods upside down. We did whole cluster pressing instead of skin contact, then we left all the wines on the full lees until the end of April instead of racking them after New Year.“ Even with the Grüner Veltliner grape that tends to opulence in warm years Toni Bodenstein’s 2017s tasted lively.

No method for dealing with the problems of a warming climate increasing grape ripeness beyond the maximum for desirable flavors is more effective than replanting vineyards in the right way. We first encountered this 15 years ago in Napa Valley where Warren Winiarski, the then owner of Stags Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley/California (Hall 9) changed  row direction in many of his vineyards through 90°. That was possible because the row width was identical to the distance between the vines within the rows. The result was more elegant and fresher Cabernet Sauvignon red wines with more subtle aromas.

Mostly complete replanting is necessary to change row orientation and the price of that is high, also because it means losing the crop for at least 3 years. That hasn’t stopped Dr. Martin Tesch from Weingut Tesch in the Nahe/Germany (Hall 13, Stand F120) from undertaking one of the most radical replanting projects we have ever seen. In his Krone site he is progressively changing from the North-South row orientation designed to optimize the solar radiation on the vine canopy at high latitudes (here very close to 50° North) to an East-West orientation. “This way we throw the entire vineyard into the shade,” he explained. Some wine critics have suggested that the Riesling grape’s days in Germany are numbered as a result of the warming climate, but Tesch is convinced that through methods such as these, “Riesling still has a great future here.”

Of course, this is just one creative answer to a rapidly changing climate. Visitors to ProWein 2020, International Trade Fair for Wines and Spirits (March 15 – 17, 2020 in Düsseldorf, Germany) will encounter many others from right around Planet Wine.

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