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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 changingtoo 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 ....


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