Winegrowers in the south of France felt the full effect of climate change this June when record 46°C temperatures scorched their vines, cutting their crop by half. Growers in the Languedoc region are working with the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) to find ways to adapt to a hotter, drier, more unpredictable climate in order to survive.
One of the ways the British media covers climate change is to treat it as a bit of banter in silly-season items on English wine. This summer’s heatwave was the pretext for an awful lot of these “and finally” moments, in which the tone is unfailingly flippant: never mind the melting Arctic, the shires will take over from Champagne!
Well, hoorah for that. Except, of course, the impact of climate changeon wine isn’t quite as straightforward as a few nice summers and guaranteed bumper vintages in Sussex. What the larky local-radio questions about Bordeaux-on-Thames tend to gloss over is that it won’t necessarily make the UK, or anywhere, a better place to grow wine. Erratic weather, floods, hurricanes, extreme, unseasonal frost and drought: none of these are friends of the winemaker.
Winemakers are attuned to the minutest changes in the weather – differences that they can, literally, taste in their wines. A line-up of past vintages offers a sensorial record of climatic patterns, and the message sent by those bottles has been troubling the world’s winemakers for years.
On one level, this is purely a question of quality and style. With grapes accumulating high levels of sugar (and therefore potential alcohol when they ferment) much sooner than they used to, as vintages get hotter – and way before the other elements, the tannins and the polyphenols that give wine its complex flavours, are ready – winemakers have a dilemma. They can either harvest much earlier, sacrificing complexity for acceptable alcohol levels, or produce wines with an undrinkable alcoholic force.
With each new record-breaking hot summer and earliest-ever vintage, the long-term viability of whole swathes of the wine world is called into question – grape varieties, the location of vineyards, access to dwindling supplies of water,the ability to produce wines in anything like the same style, quantity and quality. As the great Californian wine producer Randall Grahm put it matter of factly to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik earlier this year: “It’s everywhere. Burgundy may be fucked. The northern Rhône is partly fucked … the southern Rhône is fucked.”