Not to minimize, or take away from the tragedy currently unfolding in Napa/Sonoma… our prayers go out to the families who are dealing with such terrible loss.
It is difficult to discuss causes this early, but I think all of us can easily recognize these fires are being worsened by very dry conditions. I have been talking to folks in the industry for months about the unseasonably hot and dry growing season this year and its impact, well before these fires added a horrible punctuation mark to the conversation. This should put the topic of climate change front and center in the minds of those in the wine industry – not just in the U.S., but globally…
The long-term impact of global warming should have the largest effect on vineyard varietal selection. In the next 20 years will we see Napa/Sonoma start replanting vineyards to warm climate varietals? Will the vineyards start to look more like the Southern Rhone? In 20 years will Oregon/Washington State become the new Napa?
The short-term impact will be on harvest timing/strategies and winemaking. Before the fires, I saw a few CA winemakers chatting on Facebook about how the unusually hot harvest in 2017 might cause them to adjust their approach from past years. It will likely be the estate wineries that can be flexible and creative enough to weather this transition well (pun?).
Let’s start with a very important basic presumption: balanced wines are preferred and desirable. Napa moving to easy drinking Lodi Zinfandel style wines just doesn’t seem like an option to me. I have spoken to several winemakers over the past five years that are already experimenting with interesting techniques… These conversations have led me to realize that the steady trend toward more single vineyard wines and estate wineries is happening for many reasons beyond marketing strategies. Winemakers are reaching the conclusion that more control over the growing process is vital to the production of premium quality wines. These techniques may have a more far-reaching impact though: as options to minimize the effect of a warming climate…
How Can the Industry Adjust to Climate Change Now?
I am sure there are much smarter people out there with more training and great ideas on this topic, but this thought occurred to me recently…
Multiple Harvest Windows?
This strategy is basically, separating a vineyard into blocks and varying the harvest timing… requiring multiple harvest passes at different times in one vineyard. I can’t tell you how many other winemakers have told me this is a gimmicky, trendy technique and is a waste of time and money. I have tried to see the negative viewpoint, but the final consideration always comes back to the supporting science.
Before a winemaker can consider this alternative strategy, he/she has to either: be working for an estate winery, or have influence and control over the grower. I have talked to several winemakers/winegrowers who split harvest timing across several days/weeks to handle individual vineyard blocks separately. This can take advantage of rustic elements present in the fruit from earlier harvest vs. more advanced flavors/phenolic development from later harvest. Although, if the nights are not at least cool during Fall harvest season, good acidity levels will still be difficult to achieve. Earlier harvest can also control sugar in the must (fruit) and subsequent alcohol content in the wine. Some are taking this thinking a step further and investing in the equipment and resources to perform small-batch fermentation of each separately harvested block… to add complexity and balance via blending. In a world where Fall is becoming warmer, an interesting investigation might be whether earlier harvest in one block could help offset the impact of a more traditionally timed harvest in another?
Popular Wine Grape Varieties and Vineyard Location
The Bordeaux grape varieties that comprise the majority of red wine currently sold in the world (Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec & Carmenere), do not produce classic wine styles when grown in warmer climates. That doesn’t mean there aren’t varietals grown in warm climates that don’t produce structured, balanced wines… Syrah, Grenache, Aglianico, Tannat, Tempranillo (to name a few)… but to go down this path, the majority of the world’s vineyards ( from 35th to 45th parallels) would have to be replanted AND the world would have to be re-educated on which varietals to drink.
When grown in a warm climate, the most common wine grape varieties in the world, tend to produce simple, easier drinking wines that do not pair well with food. Regardless of the necessities driven by global warming, it is unlikely that consumers will accept new styles of wine simply because current vineyards are not planted in cooler climates.
Forest Fires, Vineyard Fires & Climate Change
There will never be a good approach to bringing these pieces together. Vineyards need to be starved of water and nutrients in a carefully controlled process to concentrate flavors and produce complex premium wines. Vineyards cannot be over-watered, which means they will always be “dry” by definition. As global warming continues, it will be critical to clear an open space around vineyards, so scrub and forest cannot easily transfer fire conditions by proximity. I can’t tell you how many vineyards in the mountains around Napa and Sonoma are nestled in and completely surrounded by forest. What makes for a beautiful setting, may cause a fire risk that is no longer acceptable. Any change along these lines could dramatically change the picturesque nature of wine country (California?) moving forward.
Change is a disruptor we all have difficulty contending with in many areas of our lives. It is likely wineries and wine enthusiasts alike will have to change expectations in coming years.