TASTING NOTES: Diary of a Wine Critic
Wednesday, February 10, 2016 at 1:06PM
Johnson- Bell will also be presenting a paper to the global water resources Panel of the Royal Anthropological Institute of the British Museum's 2016 Anthroplogy, Weather and Climate Change Conference in May.
See more: https://www.therai.org.uk/conferences/anthropology-weather-and-climate-change-2016
Monday, January 18, 2016 at 6:39PM
L.J. Johnson-Bell will be presenting her paper: Water into Wine: Irrigation in Viticulture to the 2016 World Conference on Climate Change, 24-26 October, in Valencia, Spain. Johnson-Bell is the CEO and Founder of TWACCI, the Wine and Climate Change Institute (Oxford, England).
Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 5:25PM
Climatologists love the wine industry. They love the record keeping and the harvest reports. They love the plethora of references found in classic literature. They love the tomes of wine tasting notes. More particularly, they love grapes. Grapes are considered an “indicator crop”. It is a researcher’s dream: constant, reliable and meticulously detailed record keeping. Even my humble, personal research brought me to wine producers who have compiled harvest records that date back 150 years and more, in many cases. All of this provides a wealth of information. “Because wines are constantly being tasted and rated for quality, wine grapes are a particularly good indicator of changes that are probably affecting other crops in the same areas.” (Gregory Jones, Southern Oregon University). Those wine grapes grown in their European indigenous climates are the “control group” against which all others, from other climates, are measured. They are the yardstick of quality. Don’t forget: wine is grapes and grapes are fruit and fruit is farming. Wine production is glorified gardening – the same golden principles apply. The greatest wine maker I ever met (in my view) once told me that he considers himself a “farmer”, nothing more.
In his article, “Climate Change and Wine”, Gregory Jones refers to the grape as the agricultural “canary in the coal mine” in reference to the impact that climate change will have in wine production. He writes: “Climate is a pervasive factor in the success of all agricultural systems, influencing whether a crop is suitable to a given region, largely controlling crop production and quality, and ultimately driving economic sustainability. Climate’s influence on agribusiness is never more evident than with viticulture and wine production, where climate is arguably the most critical aspect in ripening fruit to optimum characteristics to produce a given wine style. He continues:
“History has shown that wine production occurs in relatively narrow geographical and climatic ranges. In addition, wine grapes have relatively large cultivar differences in climate suitability, further limiting some wine grapes to even smaller areas that are appropriate for their cultivation. These narrow niches for optimum quality and production put the cultivation of wine grapes at greater risk from both short-term climate variability and long-term climate changes than other more broad acre crops. In general, the overall wine style that a region produces is a result of the baseline climate, while climate variability determines vintage quality differences. Climatic changes, which influence both variability and average conditions, therefore have the potential to bring about changes in wine styles.”
Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 4:56PM
It's not because Chardonnay CAN be grown everywhere that it SHOULD be grown everywhere ...
Throughout my career, my experiences in the vineyards have confirmed my belief that because the vitis vinifera is indigenous to Central Asia and the Mediterranean basin, that any attempt to grow it outside of its home habitat would produce an inferior product. It is a cool-climate plant and has no business in a valley floor in Napa or Maipo. I have always contended that whilst variations of a theme of Chardonnay (for example) should be accepted, for me, all non-indigenous, or non-Burgundian versions were not only “different”, but “inferior”. A rather conservative view that is not always appreciated. But, would you rather eat an apple grown in Florida, or in Washington state? That said, if I follow that thread to its logical conclusion, I would then have to pretty much discount all wine regions west of the Black Sea. Because, in a properly historical context, France is “New World”. So I thought about it some more.
We are happy to say that Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are “indigenous” to Bordeaux. But they are not. They were brought there. I once overheard a very heated discussion between two colleagues at a wine judging event in Bergamo, Italy. We were tasting only Merlots from the surrounding region. The debate was concerning whether or not Merlot was “indigenous” or “traditional” to the region, having been planted there over 150 years ago. The winner of the debate (if such a debate can be won) argued that 150 years constitutes “traditional” and anything much older, as “indigenous”. But as climates changed, and as humans travelled towards Europe, they took the wine grape with them and cultivated it in their new homes … in Greece, in Italy, in France. The wine grapes acclimated and adapted. Which means that vitis vinifera should do the same in the New World. So I thought about it some more.
This is what I came up with. If vitis vinifera adapted so well in Europe, it was because its climate was so similar to that of its original home. Also, it was given a very long time to settle in. Which means that my stance still holds water. Sending the wine grape off to warmer and drier climates than to which it was accustomed, without so much as a bottle of sunscreen, and telling it to move-in, unpack and to immediately prepare a fresh, elegant and sophisticated 5-star meal in a new kitchen is ludicrous. And if that kitchen has no running water, has a cupboard full of tin cans and is equipped with only a microwave, then it is nigh impossible. That’s the analogy. I like to think of it another way, too. A traditional species imposes itself upon a new climate, whilst an indigenous one, flourishes in the natural conditions of its home environment. A being should not have to “force” itself to survive in a climate. If you have to live in a place where water is fed via canals, in an air-conditioned house, drive an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned mall to buy imported, vacuum-packed vegetables or vegetables grown under poly-tunnels or reliant upon irrigation, fertilisation and extreme mechanisation, then, isn’t something wrong?
So I will go on record as saying that perhaps we should have foreseen that some of the struggling New World wine regions would have their vitis vinifera visit end in tears, as welcoming as hosts as they were. But now, even my “perfect model” of Chardonnay, back in its “home” in Chablis, is lacking its luster. Home isn’t as hospitable as it once was. Its climate, too, is changing. The Burgundian model ever-increasingly resembles the warmer-climate models. And wine producers all over Italy and France are harking back to other grape varieties that used to be grown in their region, varieties even more indigenous to the internationally –known varieties of today. Bordeaux used to legally grow Carmenere, for example. And with its Merlot plantings increasingly becoming unviable, many producers are upping their doses of Petit Verdot in the recipe, or adding Carmenere. Is it time to change, or move?
Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 5:32PM
ORNELLAIA – FROM ALBERTINELLI TO ARMLEDERBy Linda Johnson-Bell
Tuscany’s Ornellaia makes a Splash at Swiss benefit auction….
Well into his 70s, Marchese Ferninando Frescobaldi is still an attractive man. So much so, that his second wife jealously hovers about as he skilfully plies his well-honed charm before his adoring congregation of fans. We are in Basel, at the Fondation Beyeler in the grounds of the Villa Berower, for the unveiling of the iconic Tuscan wine, Ornellaia’s 7th annual Vendemmia d’Artista. This year, the Swiss artist, John Armleder, was commissioned to interpret the Ornellaia 2012 vintage by creating a piece of artwork to adorn a limited number of special-edition bottles to be auctioned by Sotheby’s for the benefit of the Beyeler. This glittering annual event celebrates the intimate relationship between wine and art, and cements the Frescobaldi family’s continuing commitment to support and recognise the great artists of their time.
This ancient Florentine family has always known how to marry their passion for public works, art and wine. Experts in all things beautiful, the family funded the original wooden Santa Trinita bridge in 1252 and later, were instrumental in the construction of the Santo Spirito, with Stoldo Frescobaldi positioning himself as an operaio, one of the committee members responsible for collecting and distributing the building funds. The family sponsored the cappella maggiore, and as patrons, were able to procure an additional unbuilt chapel. Members of the family were painted by Michelangelo, and they also supported Donatello and Michelozzi, all of whom became clients and bought their wines – or bartered them for their works.
Today’s Marchese initiated the Vendemmia d’Artista project in 2009, with the intention of creating a modern interpretation of his family’s long association with artists. Although it was the Château Mouton Rothschild in 1945 that originally came up with the idea of having an artist design each vintage’s label, the Frescobaldis take it a step further. Proceeds from past auctions have gone to the Witney Museum in New York and the Royal Opera Foundation in London – hardly entities “in need,” you might say, but each recipient provides to Frescobaldi their plan for the funds: new acquisitions, funding artists, etc. This year’s exclusive auction offered 9 lots, which included 9 of the special-edition bottles which, with the help of Sotheby’s Senior Director Stephen Mould, raised 202,700 Euros.
When Armleder tasted the 2012 Ornallaia for the first time, he was immediately “taken by surprise,” thrown into a pool of unexpected pleasure, a trance….and so he called the wine “L’Incanto” (the enchantment) and created “Splash,” an opulent glass sculpture that cradles and caresses the neck of the bottle. A stunning piece of fluid creativity, it transports us into Armelder’s dream. You must have a taste of your own.
As beautiful as the artist’s creation, the true star of the evening was the Ornellaia, one of the most famous Super Tuscans ever produced. What is a Super Tuscan? A Tuscan wine using a majority of international grapes as opposed to Sangiovese – the indigenous grape of the Chianti region. Tired of their clownish caricature of the 1970s, and the antiquated and restrictive appellation rules, Chianti Classico producers re-invented themselves in the 80s. Partly because the poor quality Chianti was making fools of them, but also because they saw what the New World producers, especially in Napa, were doing with the international (Bordeaux) varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The market was exploding with these bold, oaky, fruit-driven, high-alcohol New World monsters, and the Old World felt left behind. The Chianti Classico of old was issued mainly from the indigenous Sangiovese and Canaiolo Nero grapes, but were also 30% or more of the white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia. A disastrous recipe. So quality-driven, and commercially-minded, Chianti Classico producers, started planting the “international” varieties which, when added to Sangiovese, greatly improved it. It also gave them a wine with which they could compete against the French and the Americans on the international market.
However, the Chianti Classico authorities did not permit these grapes for the DOC or DOCG quality designation. In response, the producers sold their wines as Vino da Tavola, or IGT, the lower quality designations with more lax laws, and thus, the “Super Tuscan” was born. They also started planting further south where land was cheaper and not constrained by appellation law. So the Bordeaux-blend Super Tuscans ended up creating what they were trying to escape: a DOC, created in Bolgheri in 1994. The Super Tuscans, whilst huge hits on the international scene, lost their Italian identity. Today’s producers are trying to go back to a more restrained, Tuscan style of wine and some are returning to Sangiovese in their blends, but a new and improved version of the grape. They are using high-quality, low-yield Sangiovese clones to produce wines that are terroir-driven and that taste of Tuscany.
Straddling both the Old and New Worlds in terms of style, Ornellaia is grown in Bolgheri, on the southern Tuscan coast of Maremma. The wines are cooled by the coastal breezes and given structure by the alluvial and volcanic soils. The wines served on the night were indeed, enchanting. The Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia 2013 (70% Sauvignon blanc, Viognier, Verdicchio, Vermentino) was fresh and lively with great acidity and structure, and a perfect accompaniment to the sautéed Swiss chard on asparagus salad with a warm hazelnut sabayon. Then came a creamy veal tartar with a sour cream dip on roasted mushroom and endive salad, which we had with Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia 2007 (Bolgheri DOC), a Bordeaux bland of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.
Slightly marked by oak and alcohol on the nose, it developed into a vibrant, dense and intensely appealing wine. For the main course of beef tenderloin, we were spoiled with two vintages of the flagship wine, Ornellaia, in 2003 and 2013. The 2012 (56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot) is rich, fruity and spicy and slightly slumbering at the moment, as it matures, readying itself for its next explosion of power. The 2003 was an intensely classic Ornellaia vintage – all power and vibrancy with plenty of concentration of extracts to carry it for years to come. Their 2009 Ornus dell’Ornellaia stole the show (100% Petit Manseng). This unctuous, late-harvest wine was served with an assortment of divine puddings and then followed by the Eligo dell’Ornellaia Grappa Reserva. You must have a taste of perfect luxury of your own….
Friday, August 21, 2015 at 1:50PM
In a world running out of resources, “local” has to take on a nobler mantel – the one it wore in the past, not its present trendy persona in the guise of over-priced village markets. The by-gone value of “making-do” needs to be wholly resurrected and transformed into the new form of luxury. It has to be acceptable to make do with what we have at hand – one of our classic, forgotten mores. Making-do was something our parents did during the wars – a term coined in the midst of rations and famine. There are low, rumbling noises on this theme currently being revived in popular culture: TV programmes about creating a home from foraged and recyclable materials; “up-cycling” furniture; growing our own food, a resurgence in home-baking. The movement is afoot, but sadly, it may also fall into the hands of the trendies and “right-minded” do-gooders as opposed to simply slotting into our mainstream thoughts and behaviours. Making-do is what we have to do to survive a new war, a war against our greedy, spoilt, post-industrial-aged natures as we feel the restraints imposed upon our earth by Mother Nature.
There is one industry that once personified the principle of locality, strayed from it and now needs to embrace it again – to revamp it and make it viable once again: the wine industry. Climate change is forcing many classic regions to cease viticulture and others to adapt, by planting other varieties and in cooler places, and eventually, many will have to grow different crops entirely. What would happen if we all went back to drinking our indigenous beverages and stopped growing wine grapes where they are not meant be grown and then transporting them all over the world? Does everybody really need to be able to drink a Penfold’s Grange? No. And they would be all the better without it.
Wine has always had two personalities: a humble, home-made, down- the- road personality, and its luxury side. The ancient Romans had their “house” wines as well as their grands crus. And wine exporting and importing is hardly new. But where before we had the majority of winemakers producing wine for a local clientele, today we have the majority of wine producers expecting to reach an international market and endeavour to do so at the expense of local market structure and good wine-making practices. A hair-stylist or a baker, living in Meursault, should be able to afford and to enjoy the great wines being grown in their village and not to see it shipped off to wine agents around the globe to end up onto the restaurant tables of those who cannot even pronounce the appellation name.
Wine internationalism, both in its style and in its distribution, is the greatest threat to the wine industry today and along with climate change, will herald its demise. When Hungarian wine producers push the marketing of their chardonnay (with oak chips) to the detriment of their indigenous varieties because they want to prove to the Americans that they can make an oaky chardonnay, too, then, what is the point? I actually sent a producer into rapture when I said that his newly-released chardonnay tasted as though it were from Napa and not Hungary. He did not get the irony and jumped for joy.
When the Tuscans forsook their indigenous Sangiovese to favour the more well-known Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for their Super Tuscans, so to court the juvenile palates of the American critics and thus forging an international style, what is the point?
When wines are 14 % alcohol and even much higher, either by design or by Nature’s hand, and all varietal character is erased so that they all taste the same, what is the point?
When the Dutch Water Footprint Network calculates that it takes 29 gallons of water (including irrigation, rainfall and winery usage) to produce a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (this is disputed by California winemakers, of course, saying that their much higher grape yields have not been factored in), making wine production one of the most water-thirsty crops, and it is not even food, then what is the point?
And when a 2014 study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production Environmental entitled “Impacts of consumption of Australian red wine in the UK” informs us that the UK consumes almost 5% of the world's wine production, that Australian wines account for around 17% of total take-home purchases and that this means that a 0.75 l bottle of wine requires, for example, 21 MJ of primary energy, 363 litres of water and generates 1.25 kg of CO2 eq., then what is the point? Especially when we should be supporting the English wine trade – whose climate does not require irrigation and whose proximity does not require extensive shipping?
If a region cannot sustain viticulture without having to manipulate and adapt its environment unrecognisably, there is no point. Grow something else. Drink something else. This will one day not be a choice we will have. The past will be our future. And I’ll welcome it in with a tequila …
Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 2:31PM
This is a huge topic. Ultimately, all practices in the vineyard will eventually play a part in the taste of the final wine, but none so much as the practice of irrigation. There is a huge debate about this between the Old and New Worlds, naturally. The Old World camp has always said that irrigation dilutes the wine and that better fruit relies upon rainfall – but they had the climate that allowed them to say that. The New World producers have always said “if a tomato needs water, you water it. Grapes are the same” – but then, they have the climate that forces them say that. The crux of the argument is that once we grow a fruit in its non-indigenous environment, and have to radically manipulate its new home in order to accommodate it, then we have irreparably altered the fruit’s taste and composition. Stuff starts growing where it does, unaided by man, for a reason.
Irrigation is a wide term, encompassing a variety of practices according to the amount of water used and the frequency with which the water is applied: from flood, or furrow irrigation, to spray irrigation, and to drip, or trickle irrigation…and them from first day of the growing season and throughout to harvest, or once a week, or once a day, or continuously … Unirrigated vines are forced to dig down deep to find moisture and they pick up nutrients through the soil formations as they do this. Irrigated vines often miss out on vital nutrients because their root systems remain on the surface, where the moisture is. So, the produces make it even easier for them – they add fertilizers to the water in the drip irrigation system (called “fertigation”!). So the vines are fed and watered without even having to get out of bed – literally. All that they need is home-delivered directly to them. They are lazy. And like lazy, spoiled children, they will not grow up into very interesting adults, will they?
With heat erasing varietal character and soil influences, and irrigation diluting it, good wine, forget fine wine, doesn’t stand a chance. Irrigation also is the most damaging and wasteful viticultural practice. Although Carmel Kileline MW points out in her dissertation that “while 99% of the water used in wine-making is used for irrigation rather than in the winery, grapes are still a relatively modest user of water. In Riverland (Australia), 290 litres of water are used per 750ml bottle fo wine. Rice, by contrast, requires 2,380 litres per kg, and cotton, 5,020 per lg pf cloth”. But this is a faulty argument: being the best of the worst is nothing to be proud of - and wine is not a necessity food crop. So, perhaps some wine producers don’t feel enormously guilty. But, irrigation remains our biggest dilemma, both in terms of effecting wine’s quality and taste, and in terms of conservations practices. Does a dry region keep increasing its irrigation until they run out of water? At what point should a region change crops or consider other agricultural uses? More frighteningly, over irrigation depletes a soil and renders it unable to grow anything …. This is what we are experiencing in Australia to a devastating degree.
Growing grapes is growing fruit. The basic gardening principles and fruit-farming provide the needed guidance. Any good gardener will tell you that over-watering, either through rain or irrigation, dilutes fruit flavour and increases yield. This is the first thing one is taught in “wine school”. It is part of the Wine 101 curriculum, and it is embedded in the European psyche. It is illegal to irrigate in Europe, and for good reason: you can taste the difference. They didn’t just make up the rule because they felt like it. If they thought irrigation was best for the vines, or that there was an easier, less expensive way to water their vines, they would have done it. What’s interesting is now that they are experiencing heat and drought in New World proportions, they suddenly are saying, “well, a bit of drip-irrigation here and there won’t hurt”.
But it can. Remember, irrigation allows the vine to be lazy; the roots stay in the top 40 centimetres of soil and don't seek out the water or nutrients in the sub-soils and sub-solum. As Dr. Emmanuel Bourguignon states: “Permanent irrigation leads to a shallow root system. You get a really big mat of fine roots in the first 40 to 50 centimetres of soil. The most fertile horizon in the soil is in that first 40 centimetres because that is where you have the organic matter. If your roots stay in that horizon you will end up with some slight vigour problems.”
This increased vigour, or vegetative growth, creates a large canopy, which is particularly problematic in sunny climates because “you end up getting massive photosynthesis – you just end up with a high level of sugar and your alcohol potential is high," says Bourguignon. "So you dilute the terroir, but you tend to increase the varietal character. You can have a good canopy and make a good varietal wine.” Think of a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc and its loud, cartoon-like varietal profile: it screams “I am Sauvignon blanc”. This is exactly the result to which Dr. Bourguigon is referring. There is nothing wrong with that if that is the result you want - if you are “making an entry-level fruity wine, but you can forget about minerality and sense of place.” But if you want to be unique, irrigation will make that very difficult.
(Source: Rebecca Gibb, One of the world's leading soil experts tells wine producers to turn off their irrigation, February 5, 2013. Note: Dr. Bourguignon and his family have worked with clients all over the world, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, Domaine Huet in the Loire, Vega Sicilia in Spain and Harlan Estate in the United States)
Another huge problem presented by irrigation is the increase of the soil’s salinity, which harms the grapes. In Europe, where the soils’ (terroir) are King, and the so much a part of the wine’s composition, changing its very composition will change the taste of its fruit. Salt build-up is such a problem in some southern Australian vineyards, vineyards that have had to rely upon heavy irrigation since their inception, that the winemakers have had to abandon them. Another example of how manipulating the environment eventually catches up with you. Ideally, irrigation would perfectly mimic the effect of rainfall, with a heavy “deluge” in winter or early spring, as long as the soil is not so parched and compact that it cannot store or hold the water adequately. This is often the case when the rest of the season is not humid enough and any moisture in the soil is evaporated. So, such “copy cat” actions would simply mean that the water sits on the top of the soil and causes problems.
In his article, The Dangers of Soil Salinity, Tim Teichgraeber examines the problem of salinity in the US. He quotes biochemistry professor Grant Cramer, of the University of Nevada, Reno: "Anywhere you have arid climates, you're going to accumulate salt in the soil. Australia has significant salinity problems, and I would imagine some of the North African grape growing areas have significant salinity issues too. It's a worldwide problem. Certainly the San Joaquin Valley would also have problems." Teichgraeber explains that when salt levels get high enough in the vine, the leaves start to display "leaf burn" or browning, as they do with some other vine afflictions like Pierce's disease. Another salt accumulation problem is caused by the way salts change the structure of the soil itself, and the effect that has on plants. Salt also changes the way the roots grow. “Salts are more than just the sodium chloride you might use to garnish your margarita or make your strip steak really pop. They're a whole class of ionic compounds made up of positively charged cations and negatively charged anions that are neutral when combined. Among the potentially phytotoxic salt components are sodium, chloride and boron, all of which can cause crippling decreases in vine vigor or even vine death at elevated levels.”
So perversely, the best way to cope with soils with high salinity is to flush them out with huge doses of fresh rainwater. But if these places had enough fresh rainwater with which to flush out and drench their soils, they wouldn’t need to be irrigating in the first place. I know that I am over-generalising a bit here, but when you look at this with some perspective …
Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 1:36PM
ADAPTATION AND MITIGATION TECHNIQUES CURRENTLY EMPLOYED IN THE VINEYARDS:
- Use a carbon merchant for tree-planting (a fee is paid to plant the amount of trees needed to take out of the air the same amount of CO2 as is emitted by winery)
- Using less glass in bottles to reduce weight and shipping costs
- Reduce use of herbicides and fetilizers
- Abandon glass and use plastic PET bottles or Tetrapak
- Using photovoltaic and solar panels to generate energy and hot water
- The introduction of wind farms
- Complete energy-efficiency audits
- Winery and warehouse lighting refit – replace incandescent bulbs with fluorescent
- Replacing old machinery with more energy-efficient models
- Increased tank insulation
- Create and use own bio-diesel or ethanol in vehicles and farm equipment
- Turn animal wastes in methane gas, with a methane digester, for heating
- Water-management in general
- Store and use rain-water for irrigation
- Ship wine in bulk and have it bottled at the destination: re-use bottles
- Hand-harvest rather than machine-harvest
- Ensure new buildings are carbon-neutral and retro-fit where possible
- Employ gravity-fed operations,
- Engage in organic and biodynamic farming
- Increase planting density – better land use
- Reduce tillage and machine harvesting
- Soil stabilization
- Canopy management and pruning
- Trellis modification to ensure aeration
- Use screening for shade (expensive)
- Spot spraying and use of pheromones for pest mating disruption
- Northern Hemisphere can try to adjust slope exposition to northern-facing and not southern
- Change or ignore local appellation laws
- Plant warmer-climate grape varieties
- Reduce irrigation (to mitigate)
- Increase irrigation (to adapt)
- Select clones that withstand temperature and drought
Thursday, May 14, 2015 at 11:37AM
VINTAGE VARIATION ... Enough is Enough
Variable weather is good, extremes are bad. There is clearly a lot of emphasis on hotter vintages, but, in truth, what seems to be happening is that there are more extreme cycles of weather within the larger cycle of an overall warming. Harvest variations used to be the guarantee of wines with character and personality, but too much climatic variation means too much unpredictability and ruined crops. As NASA’s Bill Patzert asks: “What is the amount of risk we can tolerate?” Harvest variations are the hallmark of Europe’s fine wine regions. The challenge to work with or to overcome Mother Nature, is the “point” of the entire viticultural exercise. A great winemaker is one who can navigate the vagaries. The New World wine regions were pooh-poohed for being lazy: Wine-growing in a constantly sunny climate is considered easy work—too easy—and the wines reflect that.
But now, all is changing; too much is too much. Confirms Gregory Jones, "While 2010 was the warmest year on record for the northern hemisphere, more worrisome is the increasing climate variability—record cold winters followed by record hot summers, droughts and fire season giving way to extreme rainfall and flooding.” Indeed, wine producers are experiencing extremes, not only in one country, say, a north/south divide, but even in one region, and during one growing season. For example, producers are suffering extreme hail and snow in the spring, which destroys half the crop. Then, just as they think that they have recovered from that, along comes an extreme heat wave or drought before and during the harvest period that reduces what was left of the crop.
The United States has always had extreme weather, continues Patzert. “We look back on our weather history. It’s been punishing: floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, great forest fires . . . Is global warming happening? No doubt about it. We’re living in a warmer world, we’re living in a melting world, sea levels are rising. We’re seeing more frequent, more intense, and longer lasting heat waves. As far as hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, floods, and drought, the evidence is definitely not in.”
At first, the previously much cooler and wetter climate regions, where it has always been difficult to mature white grapes, much less red ones, will flourish and enjoy a relative period of stability. But then as the hotter peaks create shorter, hotter maturation periods, raising sugar levels and lowering acidity, they will decline into non-quality. In Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the climate has become so warm that ripening fruit is not an issue. In Bordeaux, where chaptalisation was a routine practice in order to ensure ripeness and to get the sugar levels up, now, even without chaptalisation the wines are shooting up to 17%. Retaining acidity and developing flavour (that’s flavour from the fruit and the soil, not from the selected yeasts used in fermentation, from over-extraction, or from new oak barriques) is now the primary goal.
Winemakers can no longer keep up ....
Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at 6:35PM
The Secret Is Out
As recently as five years ago, if I were on a press trip and I or one of my colleagues brought up the topic of climate change, our questions were ignored and glossed over. But during my most recent vineyard visits, it has been the winemakers who bring the topic up. This could be simply because they no longer have any choice. The evidence is so physically visible. We are walking among shriveled vines and parched soils. The screaming headlines after the 2012 harvests alerted us to the fact that Europe is experiencing its worst grape harvest in fifty years. But for those of us who have been judging wines and visiting vineyards for twenty years (and more), this is not news. NASA reports that the year 2012 was the ninth warmest in their analysis of global temperatures that stretches back to 1880. In itself, that sounds fairly unremarkable, they remark. But as climate scientists note, what’s important is the long-term trend. The 10 hottest years in the 132-year record have all occurred since 1998, and 9 of the 10 have occurred since 2002.
“What matters is, this decade is warmer than the last decade, and that decade was warmer than the decade before,” says Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The planet is warming.” This is manifested in the fact that, for example, Bordeaux’s alcohol content has been creeping higher and higher for years now, due both to a desire to emulate the high-alcoholic (heat-induced) Napa wines so beloved by the American wine critics, and to having fallen victim to Mother Nature’s unwittingly ironic plan to do it for them.
The New World wine regions of California, Australia, New Zealand, and South America have already been experiencing problems for much longer. These countries do not have indigenous grape varieties. The Vitis vinifera species was brought to them via the Europeans. Purists are perfectly entitled to argue that trying to grow grapes in a non-indigenous climate and soil was always going to end in tears. Australia is losing vineyards to extreme drought and rain conditions and has been producing hot, heavy, over-extracted brews for decades. Even allowing for natural variability, when paired with climate change, climate records get broken (Karl Braganza, A Land of More Extreme Droughts and Flooding Rains?, 2012).
But now, as the Cabernet-colored heart of our fine wine regions in Europe is finally hit, the issue has become mainstream and is no longer the preserve of the eccentric or scholarly few. The world is paying attention. It was acknowledged in the French press as early (or as late!) as 2003 that an unprecedented summer heat wave devastated the European wine production, which hit a ten-year low in crop yields. France suffered a loss of billions of euros. While the warming of the climate of Bordeaux, and other “then” cool-climate regions, in the second half of the twentieth century was welcomed for allowing more consistently ripe harvests and maturation, now the changes have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction and the effects are anything but favorable.
Winemakers warned that the increasing number of hot days during floraison (the fruit’s flowering season) speeds grape ripening, but not necessarily its maturation. These are two different things. This means a longer growing season and earlier harvest, which correlates with lower yields and poorer-quality grapes. Usually, low yields are considered a sign of wine quality; keeping yields down is a practice quality winemakers employ. Low yields are a good thing when they are a product of perfect climate conditions and expert vineyard practices. But when yields are rendered low due to extreme heat, drought, disease, rain, or hail, the fruit can be distressed or over-concentrated. This translates into unbalanced wines, wines whose longevity is compromised - that are not worth cellaring. But as the modern consumer no longer buys wine to cellar but for immediate comsumption, longevity is a quality only sought after by the wine investors, for whom wine is a commodity.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at 5:49PM
Watching a Wine Die on the Vine
I am standing under the shade of an olive tree that still clings to its sweetly pungent, oozing fruit. Sweaty grape-pickers frantically race up and down the sloping hill before me. I am in the scorching heat of Emilia-Romagna; Italy’s famed “fertile crescent”—its food basket. But the land beneath the vines is compacted and dry. Dust devils swirl between the gnarled roots. I am in the way and feel helpless. There is much shouting, and a busy hum with an undertone of worry. The owner looks tense and agitated.
The grapes need harvesting. Subito. But he has a dilemma. If they cannot get the grapes in fast enough, by hand, before the vines shut down from the heat, or the grapes burn, they will have to machine-harvest. He is against this. It bruises the grapes and in this heat, they would oxidise in a very short time. Plus, with all of the bits the machine collects in addition to the grapes, triage back in the winery would be that much more labour-intensive. Still, better to machineharvest than to let them die on the vine. But his planting density in many of his older parcels won’t allow the space for a machine harvester - and even if he wanted one, there aren’t any more available, as his neighbours are all experiencing the same panic.
His calculations tell him that his yields are already down by 20 percent and it looks as though it is going to get worse. The heat means that hisred varieties have matured at the same time, as opposed to in a staggered fashion, and he doesn't have the manpower to hand-harvest all the parcels. They can’t seem to get the picked grapes into the winery fast enough before they are affected by the heat. He knows that many of his larger neighbours have invested in huge refrigerated trucks they park at the end of the rows so that the harvested grapes stay cool. He does not have this luxury. There are all sorts of practices he has had to consider in the past few years of drought and heat. Last year he had to resort to lightly irrigating some of the more vulnerable parcels for the first time in the history of his family's 500 years of winemaking. His list of compromises is growing, and it does not sit easily with him.
I can see him weighing the pros and cons in his head, his struggle with the gamble he is being forced to take . . . the added expenses . . . the possibility of changing his wine’s identity forever. The taste of this wine that he has known since a boy hangs in the balance. I know that I am witnessing the involuntary abandonment of centuries of traditional and quality wine-making methods.
There are winemakers who hold onto “traditional” winemaking methods for too long and for the wrong reasons. Then, there are the sort of winemakers who buy every new machine and adopt every new method, devoting themselves to maximum output with maximum marketing, dressing their wineries up as chemistry labs, forgetting that they are farmers, really.
But this winemaker is one of those who sit in the middle, wisely judging where it is logical to adapt and how to judicially apply new or different methods. A winemaker who puts the wine quality first. This temperate, Mediterranean climate has afforded him this liberty. Now, with the increasing heat, every year, he is facing new problems and being forced to adopt methods that have already been embraced by the hotter New World wine regions from their inception, as their climates had not given them the choice. Now he fears that his wine, a wine that has been bred to speak of its unique terroir and to express its varietal character, will be suppressed, and forced to join the mass voice of the ubiquitous, international choir.
Lauren Johnson-Bell, The Wine Lady