Edward Deitch is an award-winning wine columnist based in the United States. He created and wrote a weekly column for eight years on MSNBC.com and in 2010 launched a wine blog, www.vint-ed.com. He also serves on tasting panels for Wine & Spirits Magazine. The opinions expressed are his own.
By Edward Deitch
NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The wine industry may be among the very few in which a leading figure will smile broadly when asked about climate change and declare, “I love it.”
Egon Müller, owner of the famed Scharzhof estate in Germany’s Saar Valley, made the comment at Riesling Rendezvous, a conference in Bellevue, Washington.
Müller is elated because growers in cooler-climate regions like the Saar often struggle to achieve ripeness in their grapes, and warmer temperatures are helping.
But what happens when it gets too warm, as scientists predict, for some grape varieties to grow optimally in some regions?
If Egon Müller doesn’t seem concerned about the possibility, two climate scientists who spoke at the conference certainly are.
Dr. Greg Jones, of Southern Oregon University, said he understands Müller’s sentiment, shortsighted as it may be.
“If you look at most of the places growing grapes worldwide, many of them have been right at the cool-limit margins and so a little bit of warming has made them more suitable,” Jones said.
He added that the real problem will start in places where grapes are already growing at the upper limit of their suitable climates.
“I have looked at wine regions all over the world and I can tell you I don’t see any of them getting colder,” he explained.
Among other things, the warming trend has resulted in longer growing seasons and warmer dormant periods, reduced frost damage (although when frost does occur it is causing greater damage to vines), and earlier phenology, or events in the growth cycle.
“The plant is telling us it’s living in a different environment,” Jones said.
His colleague, Professor Hans Schultz, of Germany’s University of Applied Sciences in Wiesbaden-Geisenheim, said sugar levels in grapes are getting higher and acid levels are decreasing, which does not bode well for the balanced wines that every winemaker strives for.
The scientists point out that temperatures have risen 2.5 to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years and could rise by the same amount over the next several decades or so. They say the biggest impact will come when temperatures exceed the optimum range for growing various grape varieties.
This means that over time wine-growing regions will shift north toward cooler climates in the Northern Hemisphere and further south in Southern Hemisphere.
Jones wonders whether over the next 40 years of so, warming will make California’s Napa Valley a better place to grow table grapes than the cabernet sauvignon and other red varieties for which it is famous, and whether Germany’s Rhine Valley will become more suitable for syrah, a powerful red that thrives in warmer climates, than for the delicate riesling grown there now.
Even if such scenarios prove to be true, it won’t be as simple as planting new grape varieties. Jones points to France’s Burgundy and wonders whether it will remain the classic home for pinot noir.
“And if it’s not climatically the best place for pinot noir then what happens when it grows syrah or merlot? Will the government allow that to happen? Will the culture of the region accept that? And then will the marketplace - a whole new generation of wine drinkers - will they accept a different wine style from a given region?” he asked.
Although they focus on wine, the scientists expressed the same frustrations as others studying climate change.
“It’s not something that people are really concerned with,” Jones said. “Climate change, unfortunately, is a very long-term issue. If you don’t feel it and see it immediately, you might not really care. And that’s part of the problem.”
For those who appreciate great wine as we know it, the biggest incentive to take climate change seriously may be right in the glass.