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Climate Change Is Coming for Your Favorite Wine

Changing weather patterns are already impacting your favorite pinot noir — just ask your sommelier

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Wine grapes in Alto Adige, Italy
Wine grapes in Alto Adige, Italy
Helmuth Rier/Getty Images

Last week Donald Trump announced he would be pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, the first-ever multi-national effort to curb the effects of climate change that was first adopted in 2015. The agreement’s chief goal is to urge countries to pursue ways — from limiting emissions to investing in clean energy — to prevent the global temperature from rising further than it already has.

It has already become clear that climate change will negatively impact the world’s ability to grow and produce food. But hearty wheat and corn have not been effected as drastically as sensitive crops like wine grapes. Vintners across the world have been feeling both small and catastrophic changes in the global climate far more acutely than other farmers. To get a sense of the regions that have already been affected, regions or varietals that experts are most concerned about, and what climate change means to the wine industry right now, we reached out to wine professionals for their take:

Carson Demmond, sommelier, wine writer:

All regions would be impacted. California less so, because it’s always had a relatively high number of annual sunlight hours, and because it grows a wide variety of different grapes — sort of a way to hedge its bets. But what climate change has done so far is make it easier for areas of marginal climate (northern regions, like Germany or extreme southern, like Central Otago, New Zealand) to ripen grapes and has made it a little too easy in previously ideal growing zones... leading to very ripe styles (read: high alcohol) or much earlier pick times to preserve balance. (We’ve seen this already in California.)

All the hail we’ve seen in Chablis over the last few vintages means many producers have lost over half their harvest. That means less of those wines are available in the market, and it puts the growers in a financially unstable position.

Climate change could also affect the grape varieties that are able to grow in some areas, which would eventually challenge what is currently accepted by France’s version of the USDA, the INAO, an organization charged with regulating French agricultural products. For example, to be labeled Burgundy, red wine produced in that region must be made from pinot noir grapes. But what happens when climate change makes it impossible to grow pinot noir grapes in that region?

Jeremy Seysses, owner, winemaker at Domaine Dujac in Morey-Saint-Denis, Burgundy, France:

Climate change is tricky. While these are questions we ask ourselves, we’re not seeing any one set of weather patterns. One year we’re picking super early and beating our record, the next year we have an exceptional frost. We’re seeing very erratic patterns, which makes it hard to understand what is going on.

The frost thing we had last year, it’s become an annual thing. I don’t know what we’ll be able to do with that. Right now, we’re a little lost.

In California, there are records of picking early, and this can work. In other regions, in Europe, viticulture has gone through mildew and Phylloxera and has adapted and continued to produce. So I think adaptations are possible, but for our region (Burgundy), what this means, we do not yet know.

The thing that would be harder to face, globally, would be droughts like what we see in Australia and California. Regions that are seeing hail storms and snow storms increase; we hope this is not normal now. That would be very hard to deal with, even with adaptations.

Jeremy Mustakas, beverage director at abcV, NYC:

I worry about the wines of Alto Adige, the beautiful region of Northern Italy that borders Austria. Alto Adige is home to one of the most amazing climates for winemaking. The Dolomites and Southern alps help protect against extreme temperatures to the North, while warm air currents from Lake Garda and the Mediterranean help moderate their cool-climate vineyards.

The diverse region is home to some of my favorite reds, like Schiava and Lagrein, but its mineral-driven, brilliantly structured whites are most at risk from the effects of climate change. Grapes like Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau, and Kerner are effected by even the slightest changes in temperature and precipitation, leading to earlier harvests, and in some cases, diminished yields.

Many of the biodynamic wines that are featured on our list at abcV help represent a cultural shift in the world of viticulture, where adaptation strategies and new approaches in winemaking must be used to fight the impacts of climate change.

Aldo Sohm, Master Sommelier at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar and Le Bernardin, NYC:

When we talk about global warming in wine making, what we’ve seen in last decade is erratic changes, extreme heat waves and extreme thunderstorms, and extreme cooling down — and hailstones in Burgundy. The only year in Burgundy they got relief was in 2015, but then Chablis got a big dump. Winters [in France] have became very mild. This year Chablis was hit with spring frost which damaged up to 95 percent of its vines, resulting in an almost complete production loss. Because of these mild winters, bud break is much earlier. Then, in May usually there’s a cold period when the young buds freeze and that destroys everything.

Certain wines are developing an enormous amount of sugar as a result of new patterns, and they’re becoming very alcohol-driven wines, with 15 to 16 percent alcohol — far higher than normal.

Ultimately the consequence is the prices will go up on quality wines. We’ve seen this already with Burgundy. [The winemakers in this region are] trying to buy grapes from other areas, that’s how desperate their situation is. Burgundy prices will continue to go up, but the sad news is that despite these high prices winemakers are barely able to survive. Some people think, ‘Oh if the buds break in May, too bad, they have to send everyone home to cut their losses.’ But no, actually the work on a vineyard is not done. They need to maintain the vines throughout the year whether or not there is a harvest. It is very expensive work.

Bordeaux right now is suffering from very warm vintages where wines are reaching 15 to 16 percent alcohol, higher than normal. [These producers are] looking into other techniques, looking into biodynamic farming. Producers in Italy are doing the same. I just spoke to Gaja in Piemonte. This [158-year-old producer] is now experimenting with biodynamic techniques as a way to adapt to climate problems. The issue is now how do you make very serious wines when you cannot plan for the future? It will become impossible.

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