Wine and Climate Change

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | dec. 2019

The picture nearby is of a label for Louis Martini's 1970 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. In the early 1970s and into the decade of the '80s, I collected wine labels. In those innocent days, before counterfeiters started soaking the labels off high-priced wines and repurposing them on bottles of low-priced crap, the glues were benign and I amassed a nice collection of labels from memorable bottles of wine that I, my lovely wife and friends, had enjoyed together. I was looking at my labels the other day and I noticed something in the upper left-hand corner of the label that made me think about climate change. The alcohol content of that wonderful 1970 wine was 12.5 percent. My new bride and I bought case after case of that Louis Martini wine, which sold in those days for about $5 a bottle, until the store ran out. The other thing weird about those days was buying it at the Jewel-Osco drug store, as there were no fine wine stores in Charleston, Illinois, at that time. But I digress. What made that wine so good was the special vineyard that Martini sourced for some of his grapes. The Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County produced such great grapes that they are now devoted to a single vineyard wine instead of being mixed in with other Cabernet from vineyards in Napa. Today, almost 50 years later, the Monte Rosso vineyard is producing a Louis Martini Cabernet whose alcohol measured 15.5 percent. The increase in ambient temperatures due to climate change has increased the sugars in the grapes and driven up the alcohol content in wines from this vineyard by three percent.

But this isn't the only change, cool-climate grapes like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are relocating north in the states and Europe and south in South America, Australia and New Zealand. In North America, vineyards have been established in the Okanagan Valley, the Fraser Valley and the Similkameen Valley in British Columbia. These wineries started up in the latter part of the 20th century around 1996 and specialize in cool-climate grape varieties. This area of BC is on the 50th parallel. In Australia, winemakers are moving to the island of Tasmania about 150 miles south of the Australian continent at parallel 42. This area of the Southern Ocean is known as the “Roaring Forties" for the fierce winds that circle around Antarctica in the 40th parallel. New Zealand consists of two islands and in 1970, all wine production was on the North (warmer) Island. Today wineries on the South Island have exploded. In South America, vintners have moved south of Chile to Patagonia, between parallel 40 and 50 in the foothills of the Andes Mountains where the climate is cool and dry. The weather is affected by three oceans: the Atlantic to the east, Pacific on the west and the Southern Antarctic Ocean below. Another area of Canada on the 44th parallel that has recently started making excellent Chardonnays and Pinot Noir is on the Ontario peninsula just west of Buffalo, New York, (known for its brutal winters). But the northern-most wine producing area is located in Norway.

Perched on a steep slope, overlooking the country's largest fiord in Slinde, Norway, (about 120KM NE of Bergen on the west coast of Norway), neat rows of vines are planted near towering pines. On the 61st parallel (the latitude of Anchorage, Alaska) Bjorn Bergum's vineyard is set to become the world's northernmost commercial winery, a testimony to how global warming is disrupting centuries-old traditions, landscapes and oenological preconceptions.

“There is no doubt," Mr. Bergum says. “Climate change has been good for us."

Further south, on the European continent, Florence Cathaird, proprietor of Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafite in Bordeaux sniffs, “Maybe its French arrogance, but I don't think they are at all at our level yet."

TheItalians are just as haughty when it comes to newcomers in the wine business. Alan Emil Manley ofCantina Bartolo Mascarello, the Piedmont producer of $2,000-a-bottle Barolo says, “It takes more than a few vintages to make a good wine." How very condescending of you, Alan!

When Mr. Bergum and his wife Haldis planted their first vines in 2014, neighbors thought they were crazy. Last year the temperature in Slinde climbed to 100 degrees F, actually burning some of his grapes but helping Bergum win a gold medal in a local wine tasting. He and other boreal winemakers aspire to become more than an oddity. Boreal refers to plants and animals that thrive above (or below in countries below the equator) the 50th parallel. Denmark and Sweden are also producing commercial-suited wines that have been awarded prizes in international competitions. Belgium and Britain are also experiencing a vinicultural renaissance with the Tattinger family, famous for Champagne production in France, buying up property for sparkling wine along the Dover coastline in Great Britain.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. During the Medieval Climate Optimum, a warm period from the 9th to 13th century, winemaking thrived in England, the Baltics and even in Greenland. The Maunder Minimum, a cold snap the lasted from 1645 to 1715 wiped out all wine production in England and ended all agriculture in Greenland. Many theories, from lack of sunspots to volcanic activity, have been postulated to explain this still controversial event.

As a manufacturing guy, I've always been interested in process, whether it's steelmaking and aluminum smelting, cheese making, furniture or vehicle production or any activity where a raw material is transformed into useful products. Winemaking is no different. It is a process that produces wine as a product, but it also produces a byproduct that has the full attention of many conscientious winemakers. Carbon Dioxide is the secondary product produced by fermentation and is the most concentrated of all industrial CO2 emissions. To say the least, wineries are at a frantic pace to minimize their carbon footprints. As we've seen from the effort to relocate wine grapes, they are the canary in the global warming coal mine. The Torres family of Spain and the Jackson family in California are setting the pace to reduce their carbon footprint and in the future to entirely eliminate it.

Spanish giant Torres has set targets to reduce CO2 emissions per bottle at its estates across Spain, Chile and the US, 30 percent by 2020, 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2045 as compared to 2008 levels based on the entire cycle from the vineyard to transport. Torres invests 11 percent of annual profits in renewable energy, electric cars, water conservation and biodiversity schemes, including the reforestation of 6,000 hectares in Chile. Conservation of forests is very important because the CO2 is stored as wood in the trunks of the trees. Estimates are that forests capture about 10 tons per acre of forest. This is a simple way that everybody could use to reduce CO2: plant a tree.

The Jackson Family Wines company owns 40 wineries in the US, France, Italy, Australia, Chile and South Africa including Arrowood, Copain, La Crema and Matanzas Creek. Katie Jackson, the daughter of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke (the company's founders) has led the effort to reduce their carbon footprint. Since 2008, the company has reduced its CO2 emissions by 33 percent and water consumption by 60 percent with the goal of reducing waste to zero. They have also addressed my personal bugaboo: heavier than necessary bottles, which have no effect on the wine and don't contribute a thing to the aging process. By reducing the weight of their bottles, they can ship more bottles per trailer and they have reduced emissions by four percent as well as saving $1,000,000 a year in shipping costs. The World Bulk Wine Association wants to take this idea even farther by shipping in large containers, like beer kegs, that can be used in restaurants and bars completely eliminating the bottle for large volume customers.

Torres and Jackson are among a select group of wine producers experimenting with carbon capture and reuse. Torres is currently trialing a smart energy system at its winery in Penedés, Spain, that recycles CO2 captured during the fermentation process and then converts it to methane for use as fuel for forklifts and other winery transports.

The University of California at Davis, which is widely recognized as the best place on the planet to learn about winemaking, has built the Sustainable Winery to demonstrate the idea of a zero-carbon winery. Its sophisticated energy system uses photovoltaic solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, controlling temperatures by efficient night air-cooling in summer and warm day heating in the winter. It is designed to capture rainwater for filtering and recycling at least 10 times around the system. The ambition is not just to be carbon neutral, but to become “carbon negative" by sequestering CO2 and exporting renewable energy.

I'm feeling better already. I think we'll have two bottles of wine with dinner tonight and plant a couple of oak trees next spring.

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