Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Global warming and the dim fate of wine

Yes, there are far more serious things to be concerned about re: global warming than the fate of the wine industry, says Steven Kolpan — but it’s not nothing. Kolpan writes that we’re already seeing big and deleterious changes in wine-making from climate change. Excerpt:

In 20 to 30 years, Burgundy, France, will be too warm to plant its classic varietal, Pinot Noir, and should think about switching to Cabernet Sauvignon, because its climate will mirror today’s Bordeaux. So while there may still be “Burgundies” available to drink, the Burgundies we’ve always known will be no more. Bordeaux, which will mirror Valencia, Spain, has to think about planting Syrah and Grenache, now grown in the much-warmer Rhône region. (Currently, there is a government-approved program in Bordeaux for planting “experimental” grapes, including Syrah and Zinfandel, as well as the wine world’s favorite cash crop, Chardonnay, which really needs a cool climate to excel.) And everybody’s talking about buying vineyard land in southern England, usually considered too cool a region for anything but sparkling wines, but may become a leading wine region, along with Canada, in the world of global warming.
In California, the Napa Valley will become as warm as Modesto. Modesto will become as warm as Stockton. Stockton will become as warm as Bakersfield. Bakersfield is already as warm as Mexico. Barring genetic manipulation of grapes (of course, that research is already ongoing), much of California will become a wine wasteland, producing just-drinkable bulk wines in fancy bottles. Ramp up that marketing machine before it’s too late!
What to do? I would be the last person to advise anyone not to continue to enjoy wine, one of the astounding miracles of nature. But the next time you sip your favorite wine, maybe think about it a little differently. The message is clear: Wine is a precious product of nature, and its future is threatened. In your glass of pleasure there is also a microcosm of our shared environmental concerns, concerns that can no longer be ignored, no longer be denied.


You might say: OK, this is sad for winegrowers today, but this only means that opportunities will open up for regions that are now too cold or otherwise unsuited for growing wine grapes. From the point of view of the wine consumer, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is this. There’s something called terroir, which has to do with the way the composition of the soil in which the grapes are grown, combined with the local climatic conditions, work together to give wine from particular regions its own taste. Wine is not interchangeable. There’s a reason why a Burgundy tastes very different from a Bordeaux. Mostly it has to do with the grape (cabernet sauvignon dominates Bordeaux, pinot noir Burgundy). If they start growing cab in Burgundy, we’ll have a very different wine. Similarly, whatever wine is made in southern England or Canada may well be delicious wine, but we’ll have that only because we’ve had to give up another wine people have come to love. And, as Kolpan explains in an earlier piece, it will be a fundamentally different wine because the taste of a given wine depends on the kind of soil it’s grown in. Again, this might not be a big deal to you, but for people who love wine, and who understand it not merely as a flavorful liquid, but as an expression of place and culture, it’s pretty catastophic.
And, like Russell D. Moore has done with the dying of the fishing industry of the Gulf Coast, we should reflect on how the end of wine-growing in some regions will occasion traumatic cultural shifts. If you’ve never been to the wine-growing regions of northern California, you can’t imagine how the death of that industry would affect the local people and their culture. But that region has only really been defined by wine-making for 40 years or so; think about how far, far worse it will be for the ancient wine-growing regions of France, Italy and Spain, and the people who live there. These aren’t just grape vines under threat of death; these are communities and local cultures. At this point, I believe it’s unavoidable, and I hope there are delicious Canadian and English wines in my grandchildren’s future. But the demise of something so precious and fundamental to civilization should not pass away unnoticed and unmourned.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 12:09 pm

And there used to be successful vineyards in parts of England that can’t grow grapes now.
Climate changes. Sea levels rise and fall. For heaven’s sake, even the magnetic poles have reversed. Many times.
Nothing lasts forever.
I’m all in favor of minimizing negative effects on the environment, but there’s nothing sacred or even special about the current configuration of things, and the one thing that’s certain is that it will change.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Actually, England today grows more wine than it ever did at any point in its recorded history. Medieval England’s vineyards are an interesting matter of historical trivia but are not meaningful in a discussion of global warming.
You might say: OK, this is sad for winegrowers today, but this only means that opportunities will open up for regions that are now too cold or otherwise unsuited for growing wine grapes. From the point of view of the wine consumer, what’s the big deal?
You are right to dismiss this sort of magical thinking, Rod, and it is a shame it is so common in discussions of this topic. “If the climate changes, we’ll just to Activity A in Zone B.” Civilizational restructuring does not work that way, not that quickly. Forget wine–what about farming? If the climate patterns shift and the best areas for growing crops end up being right where we have our major population centers now, we’ll have to make do without crops (or without people). No change of three or five or whatever degrees will make it possible to grow cornstalks through asphalt.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm

In Spain we have the word “terruño” or “terrunyo” with the same sense as the french “terroir”. A famous awarded spanish cooker from Catalunya recently posted abouth the importance of “terruño” in his profession and how the new fashion molecular cooking is destroying all this. He writes from a progressive liberal point, so nothing to do with crunchyness:
For me wines from southern spain have been always to sweet, now it is fashionable to drink strong wines from central/north spain, Toro and Ribera Duero, which are changing due to climate change I suppose. In the long run they will have to use more technology to avoid lack of acidity, which is anti-ecological.
I disagree with local culture being threatened by the climate change, since the wine industry, at least what I know of it in wine regions of Toro, Duero and Rioja have spread to MONOCULTURE, while in the past they grew wine just for local production and exported just minimum for the kings and rich people. Agriculture in Spain, is profitable for exporting in the form of monoculture of grapes, strawberries, oranges, olives etc. It means only the very few owners get rich, they employ temporary immigrants from north africa and eastern europe while the villages get empty little by little.

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Dave Bodine

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:59 pm

The Germans were great wine drinkers before the “little ice age” made growing grapes a dicey proposition…so they and the Czechs got really, really good at making beer.
C’mon. Are we ever going to hear the end of this nonsense? Venus and Mars are getting warmer at the same speed we are…does that suggest a cause?
Anyway, since absolutely nothing predicted by the warming zealots has actually happened, I would suggest buying into a French winery. Good times no doubt are ahead.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm

TTT said “Actually, England today grows more wine than it ever did at any point in its recorded history.”
That’s irrelevant. The point is not quantity, but location. Obviously modern vineyards produce more than Medieval vineyards.
The point is that the climate has changed and will change whether we like it or not, sentimental attachments to French wine notwithstanding.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 1:14 pm

The disruption that climate change would cause to the global wine industry may well be a problem. There are lots of knowledgable growers and makers in France with a deep understanding of the grapes cultivated in their regions. So if those regions become inhospitable and new regions all of a sudden become viable, then its not assured or smooth for the winemaking talent to relocate. This is an issue.
But terroir is, IMHO, mostly a sham. A marketing angle pushed by growers in restricted European (mostly French) regions. You could maybe convince me that 1% of wine drinkers – the tiny fraction with exceptional experience with wine and a genetically super-sensitivie palate – could tell the difference between wine grown in soil A vs. wine grown in soil B. But differences in the inherent characteristics of the grapes and (and this is way under-appreciated by wine enthusiasts) the technical skill of the grower and winemaker, account for most of the differences between wines. Find me a region with similar temperature, rainfall and soil pH to Burgundy and relocate experienced Burgundy growers and winemakers and they could be making wine virtually indistinguishable from Burgundy very quickly.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I think insofar as people complain about these sorts of laments, it’s because they think that the loss of (as I recall) Bangladesh, with its 160 million people, also seems like something worth lamenting and also represents a change in and loss of culture, but that you’re more likely to see the oenophile’s lament in the media. The complaint is really just a placeholder or note; people understand that everyone has different priorities.

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Michael Kelley

posted June 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I will have to take comfort in my already excellent local (Washington state) wineries benefiting from the warmer climate. You find your solace where you can.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Climate change means the creation of new wine regions and new blends, so it’s wine glass half empty/half full proposition. Look at the birth of wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, Chile, South Africa, Argentina. They’ve grown because we’ve broken out of the France/Germany/Italy mindset and realized good wine can be grown in other places.
While this means that Texas may never have good wine (despite having a wine region), global weather changes (or change or evolution) could mean New York’s wines may improve or we will get wine regions in Estonia or Zimbabwe or England.

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The Man From K Street

posted June 3, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I know Rod thinks the science is as settled on “terroir” as it is on anthropogenic global warm–, er, sorry, climate change, but please dear comboxers, it is not. There is a strong case to be made that “terroir” is a load of old cobblers, dreamt up by French wine marketing cartels, and credulously adopted by wine snobs the world over.
When it comes to growing anything, let alone vines, there’s still a lot of pseudoscience out there. Dowsers do better business now than ever before, and try asking respectable agronomists about “biodynamic” farming. But people want to believe in terroir. As the great winemaker of Burgundy, Eric Texier, once famously said, “the worst thing to happen to winemaking was enology.” Thus the true scholars of places like UC-Davis have to worry about things like professional reputation and peer review, and so they have to write up things in terms that offend the wine cognoscenti (you know, the ones that back in school were verbally deft but weren’t so good at math)–boring, mechanistic talk of flavor compounds, tannins, alcohol, phenols…so unromantic. Let’s talk about the mystical imputation of soil quality instead!
At best, terroir is a social construct, with a soil’s effects on a wine’s characterization detected, determined, judged and ultimately marketed by those who decide it’s there. It’s very existence is defined and bounded by the people who interpret it and have it serve their ends.
In the end analysis, all wine criticism is a social construct of sorts. Some interesting articles have been written examining professional writing about wine from the 19th century, pre-Phylloxera. The Victorians loved wine, but they never described anything like “peach aromas” or “hints of pepper and blackberry jam”. They thought wine tasted like, um, wine. But they could still make keen, sophisticated critical judgments of it, within their particular social construct.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 2:50 pm

There is a strong case to be made that “terroir” is a load of old cobblers, dreamt up by French wine marketing cartels, and credulously adopted by wine snobs the world over…. Let’s talk about the mystical imputation of soil quality instead!
Soil composition has a big impact on the flavors produced by food crops. Think of onions as one example. Vidalia onions are sweet enough that you can bite into them like an apple. If you planted the same onions in most other places, it would still be sweet but less so and with more heat. That is because the soil in the Georgia region where Vidalia onions grow has a very low sulfur content.
You can find similar flavor differences in lots of other produce. Try tasting Ruby Red grapefruits from both Texas and Florida side-by-side. They are the same variety, but there is a distinct difference in flavor.
Terroir isn’t just some French invention to scam people (though it would be hilarious if it were). Soil composition really does matter.

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Robert c

posted June 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm

I agree Rich. Soil does matter. Onions and grapefruit not withstanding but coffee, tea, cognac, and even Sherry with Albariza ‘soil’ well proven as the best for growing Palomino, come readily to mind. Most of the region of Burgundy was defined by Cistercians or Benedictine monks over centuries of observation.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I must confess that I often find wine culture to be opaque (to me) at best, and bemusing at worst (I’m one of those people who couldn’t distinguish good wine from bad wine if you asked me, let alone distinguishing Cabernet from Bordeaux). That said, I trust that Rod knows what he’s talking about, and I’m glad for any allies in the fight against accelerating climate change.
Everyone agrees that soil does matter- what the Man from K street is arguing, I think, is that there’s no evidence that small differences in soil composition can result in the purported subtle distinctions of flavour between all the French wines.

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Bob and Doug McKenzie

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Take off, ya hosers. We say bring on global warming and Canadian wine, eh. Instead of the Great White North, we can be the White Grape North, and make Chardonneh by the 24-can case, eh.

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Robert C

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:26 pm

“there’s no evidence that small differences in soil composition can result in the purported subtle distinctions of flavour between all the French wines.”
That’s quite nonsensical. The origins of the appellation system itself disproves that.

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Broken Yogi

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Being rather skeptical of the AGW hypothesis, I think we have to remember that while the climate always changes, the effects are the same regardless of the cause. Natural warming or cooling is just as disruptive to agriculture as man-made warming, and there’s a long history of the effects this has created. WIth that in mind, let’s worry about something that all but certain: that sometime in the realtively near future, maybe within the next 500 years, the present holocene is likely to come to an end, and the next ice age will begin, and probably quite dramatically. Past ice ages have come on within just a few decades. And that’s really going to mess with our wines, not to mention all our food crops.
My best bet, however, is that based on the natural cycles of ocean currents and solar radiation, we’re probably heading into a cooling period for the next few decades. CO2 will hardly have any effect on this. Scientists will try to forget their enthusiasm for this form of catastrophism, and try to come up with some new scare. You don’t make headlines by predicting natural changes. Perhaps they’ll see the cooling trend as the beginning of the next ice age, and we’ll have all kinds of “warm the planet” campaigns to listen to.

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posted June 4, 2010 at 12:23 am

Much French wine will be improved by warmer weather, even if vintners would be loath to admit it while the microphone was on.

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Jeremy L.

posted June 4, 2010 at 12:38 am

Canada already has some great wine, of course those areas could be hurt just like others in the world, which would be a shame.

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