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Global warming and wine


Climate change in France threatens to force radical changes on some of the world’s premier winemaking regions.

Greg Horton April 20th, 2011

France’s oldest wine regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone — are famous for producing wines of great subtlety, complexity and balance.

According to a report from France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), climate change in the form of global warming is threatening to force changes in the way France has always made wine.

“The pessimistic scenario shows that Bordeaux’s climate, by 2050, will no longer favor Cabernet and Merlot,” said Jean-Pascal Goutouly, a researcher at INRA, in the report.

France is divided into four major grape-growing climates, and each region is dependent upon a particular climate to grow the designated grapes. Bordeaux focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet France, Petit Verdot and Malbec for its red wines. Higher average temperatures, one of the results of climate change, would lead to substantially different sugar levels in the grapes, thereby changing the necessary balance of sugar, acid and tannin.

Allan Whetstone, wine manager at Byron’s Liquor Warehouse, 2322 N. Broadway, said he is not prepared to call it a problem yet. “The changes might prove to be cyclical,” he said. “I’m not anti-global warming. It’s certain humans have an impact on climate change, but these changes could be part of a 20,000- to 40,000-year cycle.”

Whetstone said the changes do threaten to change the style of the wines, but so far quality hasn’t been impacted. “French wine has historically been soil driven, herbaceous and focused on minerality and balance. Warmer weather will mean more fruit-forward, more modern, more American-style wines, and it will blur the identity of the wines from a particular region, but this isn’t just about Mother Nature.”

According to Whetstone, Bordeaux wines from the 1970s typically featured alcohol content in the 11-11.5 percent range. Many of those same wines are now at 14-14.5 percent. Why?

“It’s an attempt to garner bigger scores from the press,” he said. “Richer, riper wines do better with the press, and the French have begun to create wines that appeal to the press. It may be that we’re starting to see less scoreconscious winemaking now, but for the past several years, the press has wielded tremendous influence on the style of wines being made.”

Whether the style is changing due to French ears tuned to the market or to climate change, one thing is certain: Less acid and more fruit mean shorter life spans for wine. Acid is critical to wine’s longevity, and French wines have long been rightly famous for their ability to age for decades.

“The changes aren’t just affecting Bordeaux,” said Clayton Bahr, a wine representative for Putnam Wines. “If the climate change stays on the current track, it will change all the grape-growing regions in France.” Putnam Wines is the broker for Kermit Lynch, one of the largest French portfolios in the world. Bahr made a trip to France last year and heard for himself what winemakers were saying.

“I don’t know if they’re joking or only half-joking, but they were saying Burgundy might be planting Syrah in five to 10 years,” Bahr said. “Burgundy needs a cooler climate to achieve the balance of acid and sugar in their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and rising temperatures threaten to upset that balance by increasing sugar. This problem is forcing all of Europe to think about the future.”

Climate change would also force France to change many of their laws, as the regions are allowed to grow only certain grapes. Bahr doesn’t foresee a problem with that.

“They’ll change the laws if they have to,” he said. “France cares deeply about their wines. They will make the necessary changes.”

Philippe Bardet, a winemaker from Bordeaux agrees. He told Agence France-Presse, “If climate change comes quickly, it will be difficult. If it comes slowly, we will adapt.”

 
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