New Wine Frontiers: How Climate Change is Developing Wine Regions

Posted by Brian Browning on

Climate change continues to be at the forefront of conversation around the world. Scientists and governments are working aggressively to understand how and why this is happening and ways humans can adjust to a warming global climate. In the wine world, this has been a major concern in how fruit will develop, evaporation of water, and even determining wine regions and boundaries. There are a few regions in the world that are developing some positive outcomes from the increase in global temperature. These are typically in more northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere such as England, Burgundy, Barolo, and the Mosel in Germany. Since the 19th century, the average temperature around the world as increased 1.62F according to NASA research. They have also determined that in the past thirty-five years, five of the warmest years fell between 2010 and 2016. This is generally considered to stem from the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the human population.  What does this mean for viticulture in these regions and how are producers adapting?

If you had told me ten years ago that England would be the new sparkling frontier, like many others, I would have scoffed. Recent investment from global sparkling giants such as Taittinger and Roederer Estate beg to differ. From Kent in the east to West Sussex, Dorset, and Cornwall, world class sparkling wine is being produced in the traditional method. Lean and highly concentrated with unique character, these wines would not be possible without the increase in temperature throughout the region. These regions lie above the 50th parallel, previously thought to be too north for quality viticulture. This, combined with ample moisture has created an ideal situation to produce the lean, austere, base wine needed for lees-aged, bottle-matured complex sparkling wines. Some producers to look for include Hattingley, Digby, and Chapel Down. The other great part? Most of these wines fall under $50 USD for NV, a strong value.

Burgundy has always been troubled by vintage variation stemming from catastrophic hail, debilitating frosts, excessive rains, and disease. Burgundy vintages can range from glorious to pestilence depending on these factors. There have been some very successful vintages as of late, and the increase in temperature is allowing for (slightly) more consistent vintages. 2015 was a warm vintage in Burgundy and allowed for the more northern regions such as Chablis to produce riper, juicier fruit which added complexity and texture to otherwise linear wines. This is not to say Burgundy has not suffered from some extremes, which many feel is produced by climate change. In 2016 (frost) and 2017 (hail) were rampant, reducing yields in some vineyards to low as 14 hl/ha, down dramatically from normal. Max yields amongst Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy are 35 hl/ha for reds and 40hl/ha for whites. The advantage to these smaller yields? Declassification. Many producers chose not to provide a Grand Cru, such as Domaine Romanee-Conti (DRC) in 2016 among the Echezeaux and Grand Echezeaux Cru. By moving this fruit into village wines, the quality of those wines increased, and more value was created in traditionally lesser wines.

Barolo is a cold, continental climate in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. Traditionally, this region struggles to provide warmth which prevents the Nebbiolo from ripening, providing highly acidic and aggressively tannic wines. Rain has also been a critical factor at harvest, often forcing producers to pick early to prevent losing yield. These factors contributed to sparsely successful vintages until about twenty years ago. More and more successful vintages came from warmer years, such as 2015 and 2017, and longer, drier autumns providing riper and more approachable fruit. The only possible downfall would be that contemporary vintages may not be as long lived as iconic vintages of the 20th century. On the other hand, we will be enjoying Barolo earlier in our lifetimes, which can’t be all bad. Notable producers with drinkable recent vintages include Paolo Scavino (2015), Luciano Sandrone (2010), and Vietti (2015).

Germany’s Mosel region has been producing stellar Rieslings for centuries, known globally as lean, piercingly acidic, taught and perfectly structured wines in great vintages. Utilizing elevation and aspect to maximize sunlight and proximity to water to regulate moisture and temperature are hallmarks of the Mosel. 1990 was a stellar vintage overall but then the region struggled throughout the next decade until 2000. In the vintages since 2000, the majority scored well over 94 points and produced some amazing quality wines. This is due to more consistent warmth and more intense sunlight which has warmed the surrounding rivers, a critical influence in the ambient temperature in the Mosel. This slight temperature uptick allows these wines to retain their trademark acidity and increase concentration and weight through ripeness derived from increased sugar production. The wines of this region gain complexity and depth with age. The increase in botrytis, a beneficial fungus produced by humidity, contributes weight and texture as well as complex aromas and the ability to produce more sweet wines from Spatlese to Trockenbeerneauslese (TBA), some of the most expensive and sought-after wines of the world.

Climate change is happening, there is obvious and consistent evidence all over the world’s wine regions. Although some of these regions can benefit currently from increased temperatures and sunlight intensity, this can adversely affect warmer regions in coming generations. By moving regions north, utilizing elevation, and adapting wine styles to climate change, producers and winemakers can manipulate these changes to continue to produce stellar wines. For how long has yet to be determined.


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