Food, Wine and Climate Change

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(Harvard Business School Reference Material)

Wine and Food Products by Location

The importance of climate in vineyard management can not be over-stated. The entire European culinary and beverage marketing model establishes food/wine character BY LOCATION. This European developed idea to turn place-names into unique trademarks defining specific flavors and aromas has been the cornerstone of worldwide food and wine marketing for decades. The same thinking caused governments to establish laws and trademark protections for food and wine production. Wine laws arguably could be the most stringent. Here are a few of the most famous wine examples: American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the U.S., Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy. This concept also applies to specialty foods: Parmesan Reggiano cheese may only come from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna, IT, Roquefort cheese can only be made in Roquefort, FR, Prosciutto de Parma can only be made in Parma, IT, etc. If you have never tasted these original foods (and not imitations), you need to splurge a little and buy these imported products. The difference in flavor is astonishing.

Impact of Climate Change on Wine Production

The French terroir concept is the basis of this wine marketing by area idea and has been developing for hundreds of years in Europe. It is the primary driving factor behind the establishment of wine laws controlling vineyard and winemaking practices by location. The definition of Terroir:

Complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as soil, topography, and climate. – AND / OR – The characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.

(Oxford Dictionary)

Climate has a direct impact on the terroir idea defined above. It affects many choices for producers, ie. grape varietals to plant, when to harvest, control of crop size, how to water, conditioning/fertilizing of soil, etc. All of these affect wine character, flavors and aromas. So, what is coming for the wine and food industries due to climate change? Hang on… crystal ball is out, here we go…

Vineyards and Resulting Wine by Location

Common thinking has been that vineyards should be planted between the 30th and 50th parallels (latitude) around the globe, both northern and southern hemispheres. Cool climate reds like pinot noir often are best grown near the 45th parallel and warm climate reds like nero d’avola and shiraz near the 35th. Cool climate whites like riesling are often grown near the 50th parallel (ripening reliably compared to past) and warm climate like petit manseng near the 35th. Vineyard elevation can affect this range, but only minimally. The impact is not just temps, but also length and intensity of sunlight during the growing season.

The most consumed varietals in the world: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are best grown in a much narrower range: 40-45th parallel. Why is this important? What if the most famous cab sauv growing region in the world (Bordeaux, France) became too hot for premium cab sauv wine production? Would these producers accept: producing poor quality wine, over-manipulate the wine to change its character, or tear out cab sauv vines and plant warmer climate varietals like aglianico and petit sirah? French wine laws would fall apart with any of these options and as a result wine consumers might change their ideas about where the best wines in the world are produced.

Climate Impact on Commonly Grown Wine Grapes

When cab sauv is grown in cooler areas, the wine acquires vegetal flavors: green bellpepper and tomato are common. When chardonnay is grown in warmer climates, it becomes too fruity and loses it signature acidity. What would happen if Burgundy, France became too warm to grow quality pinot noir, or Napa, CA became too warm for cab sauv? The transition has already begun… I have been collecting and tasting wine since the 90’s and red burgundy has become fruitier and Napa reds have become flabbier. Many Napa producers have already begun manipulating their wines to adjust for the differences. One option is to harvest earlier, but then the pips (seeds) are not allowed to ripen and complex flavors are lost. In Napa, where the area’s signature cab sauv is very fruity, this option would change the whole character of the regions’ wine production.

Changes and Timelines

Climate change has been slowly accelerating, but still is not likely to have a serious impact on wine in my lifetime. Although, consider this thought: a wine vineyard requires 5-10 years to fully mature and begin producing premium fruit for wine production. This requires thinking in terms of decades, not years. The last 25 years of climate change has seen a noticeable difference in the character of wine in many regions. Not enough to change the wine industry substantially, but at this rate, what will another 25 years bring? Will vineyard managers have the vision to react in advance, when there is still time to save the current wine styles of today? Will the industry opt to tear-out current vineyards and replant warmer climate grape varietals, or decide to abandon warming vineyard sites for planting in cooler climate areas farther north? It is likely to be too expensive to abandon existing vineyard sites… so my crystal ball shows the younger generations of wine drinkers adapting to Petit Sirah and Petit Manseng…

This has been a very interesting topic. If others in the trade have different ideas regarding the impact of climate change on the industry, please drop me a note. I am always curious about new strategies… and no, please do not suggest adding citric acid to the final product, thank you…

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Marketing, Wine Tasting

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