Heat is on for the world of wine

18 May, 2007

Should the wine industry be concerned about climate change? I've just got back from a seminar in Bordeaux entitled Global Warming: New Oenological Challenges, where a group of high-powered academics certainly scared the hell out of me.

Their none-too-cheery predictions for the world's major wine regions include significantly increased temperatures, shorter growing seasons, higher alcohol levels, unpredictable climates (drought, rain, hail) and a greater incidence of vineyard pests and diseases.

Not quite the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but close.

There are still some people out there - many of them close to George Bush or with a vested industrial interest - who deny that global warming is a fact or, as Al Gore puts it in his persuasive recent documentary, "an inconvenient truth". Gore points out that, while dramatic climate change has occurred before, we are living through something that is potentially far more catastrophic.

More to the point, at least some (and possibly a great deal) of what is occurring is our fault. As Gore puts it: "We are experiencing a ­collision between our civilisation and the earth."

Temperature increase

The climate scientist Gregory Jones, of Southern Oregon University, has already shown that temperatures have increased by an average of 1.3°C in the world's leading wine regions over the past 50 years and is predicting a further increase of 2°C by 2050, with even greater hikes in certain places (notably Australia, the Iberian Peninsula, southern France, California and Washington).

At the Lallemand conference, Jean-Pierre Gaudillère, of INRA in Bordeaux, said that, if current trends continue, Reims could be as hot as Valencia is now by the end of the 21st century and, rainfall permitting, parts of Ireland could be ­viticulturally viable.

What are wine producers doing about global warming? The answer is: not enough.

I've been encouraged by the carbon-neutral stance of a handful of wineries (Parducci in California, Cullen in Australia and Grove Mill in New Zealand are the three I'm aware of).

These companies have taken steps to offset their carbon emissions (remember that carbon dioxide is produced during fermentation) with credits from sources such as wind energy, water recycling, tree planting, recycled packaging materials and the use of bio-diesel fuel in company vehicles.

The wine industry is a comparatively small contributor to global warming, especially when you look at pollution from coal-fired generators in, say, China, deforestation in Brazil or automobile use in the States, but it's good to see these wineries taking a lead.

Such a stance ought to be the rule, not the exception.

And what about representative bodies and national governments? Every major wine-producing country should be thinking about climate change now, not in 20, 30 or 50 years' time.

As far as I'm aware, very few of them have started to plan for the future, although Pancho Campo, of the The Wine Academy in Spain, says that various Spanish DOs are looking at varieties, such as Petit Verdot, Blaufränkisch and ­Graciano, which have high levels of natural acidity and may have a greater role to play.

Tough times ahead

Wine producers are going to face difficult times over the next 100 years (just look at the impact of drought on the 2007 harvest in Australia or the problems Burgundy faced in 2003 for a glimpse of the future), but there are ways to lessen the impact of climate change in the bottle.

The first will be to start considering new varieties: Tempranillo in Bordeaux? Syrah in the Pfalz? Petit Verdot in Rioja? Zinfandel in the Barossa Valley? Riesling in England?

The second will be investigating new areas (or cooler areas within existing ones) to examine the mitigating effect of altitude and/or exposure.

And the third will be the increased use of technology, be it reverse osmosis, spinning cones or yeasts that produce wines with lower levels of ethanol.

If anyone can come up with such a yeast strain, and scientists are working on it, it may well produce more carbon dioxide, hence contributing to global warming.

These things are never simple ...

Sarko could be the man for the job when it comes to balancing supply and demand in France

If the defaced posters of Nicolas Sarkozy in my village in the Languedoc are anything to go by - a set of horns and a pair of fangs had been added, making him out to be a combination of devil and bloodsucker - then the new French president is not especially popular with French vignerons.

But take a closer look at the breakdown of which regions voted for which candidate and the picture is not quite as simple. Alsace, parts of the Languedoc, all of the Roussillon, Burgundy and (as you might expect) Champagne all voted for "Sarko", while Paris, most of the south west and centre were behind the Socialist candidate, Ségolene Royal. Overall, Sarkozy took the rural vote.

Sarkozy's election is as good a time as any to take some tough decisions about the French wine sector, too much of which is producing stuff that has little or no market. Sarkozy is a controversial politician, but if he can begin to engineer a rebalancing of supply and demand France will thank him in the long run.

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All across England and Wales, vineyards are being harvested. Down winding country lanes come armies of welly-wearing conscripts wielding secateurs and buckets, ready to reap the rewards of our vines. Happily they come, their cheeks ruddy with pride. Half an hour later they’re crawling over muddy clods with lacerated hands, drenched in claggy juice and cold sweat, as if ploughing through an endurance race.

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