Will wine survive the climate crisis?

The climate crisis should never cease to be big news, and it touches every aspect of our lives. In the world of wine, this discussion has crystallised around the question of grape choice. Historic cépages are often intrinsic to the character of a region’s wines, but how will they express themselves as the climate changes? Will we soon be tasting Syrah from Burgundy and Chardonnay from the Loire? We spoke to Jérémy Cukierman to ask what’s truly at stake in the vineyard as conditions continue to evolve.

Time to experiment

Many a fine wine grower likes to experiment with their methods, after all, ‘you won’t know if you never try’. The most accomplished wines often come from vintners who question their approach, continually seeking to better their practice, accepting failures and obstacles along the way. In the vineyard, such experiments might look like new pruning techniques, alternative growing, adding grass between the rows, or applying preparations. In the winery, they can change their vinification methods, macerating for shorter or longer time periods, altering temperature, and choosing different kinds of container.

This process of fine-tuning is usually worth the meticulous effort. And the choice of grapes to grow weighs heavier in these decisions of late. For example, Emilien Millot, son of Bernard Millot from the eponymous Burgundian domain, decided to plant a plot of Syrah vines just a stone’s throw away from Meursault. A highly surprising choice in this area, and one that’s part of his plan to prepare for the effects of warming. Emilien has no desire to find himself up against the wall in ten or twenty years without having tried to adapt. He cites the high heat of 2020 and 2022, explaining that some of his traditional Pinot Noir vines can’t stand the dry spells that hit more and more often. In the soils that drain well, the grapes tend to whither from lack of water, and the overcooked fruit develops stewed aromas, far from the freshness and finesse we expect from this variety.

Emilien chose to react, then, by planting a series of Syrah vines, a variety that he’s particularly fond of and one that we usually find further south. He hasn’t ruled out blending these grapes with other varieties to reintroduce the freshness he strives for, including in the hot vintages. And this isn’t the end of the experiment! Our vintner has ambitious plans for the Spring, when he hopes to plant some Biancu Gentile, a white Corsican variety that is bound to give interesting results. As for the rest of his reds, Emilien is interested in Barbera and Nebbiolo grapes, similar to Pinot Noir but much more resistant to heat, hence their region of choice in Italy.

Evolving through adaptation

Initiatives such as this one are only spreading, too, with wine makers trying to beat upcoming problems before they hit. But is it effective to change grape varieties? Journalist, author, lecturer, and Master of Wine, Jérémy Cukierman is a specialist in environmental and climate crisis questions within the wine industry, so we turned to him for some expertise on the matter.

According to Cukierman, this is by no means a new question. Certain climatologists had already predicted the end of certain grape varieties due to increased temperatures during the growing period. These temperatures have since been reached and surpassed, yet the vines in question live on, continuing to produce fine wines in the same region. This would suggest that vines are more resilient than we first thought, and our specialist reckons the priority should be adapting to the new climate reality. The first step in this is to select the right sort of plant material.

Whilst regions like Burgundy are home to unique vintages, this isn’t the case everywhere. In the southern Rhône, for example, there is already a diverse range of varieties grown in the vineyards, meaning that blends can be adapted more easily to keep a consistent balance.

When we raised the question of rising temperatures, Cukierman insisted that the balance of a wine doesn’t lie solely in its alcohol content, and once more that different techniques in the vineyard can limit the impact of climate conditions. It’s worth reminding that there are wine growers in countries far hotter than France who manage to craft high-quality, balanced fine wines, and that we should likely start looking to them for inspiration. Even within France itself, regions like the Roussillon have a climate quite unlike what we find in Bordeaux, Champagne, or Alsace, and their produce can be of excellent calibre.

Plus, it’s important to remember that the climate crisis isn’t just a question of rising temperatures; there is also much more variability in conditions. This means that there have also been some unusually cool vintages in recent years, such as the 2017 and 2021. Here, too, we saw how wine growers harvested early and adapted their vinification methods. Cukierman recounts how he recently tasted some fine, perfectly balanced Grenache cuvées with 15% alcohol. Every region and every grape variety has its own character, and numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Old varieties have also found their place in vineyard experiments, as records reveal all kinds of grapes that have been historically grown for wine; they’ve since fallen out of use, but not necessarily due to problems of quality. Our Master of Wine is optimistic about these ‘forgotten’ varieties being reintroduced into modern vineyards, as they offer new possibilities for vintners to adapt their methods. Similarly, backcrossing is another option, a genetic process whereby a hybrid is crossed with one of its parent vines. This would allow vintners to preserve the vine character of a variety whilst creating new varieties that are better adapted to the current climate.

Jérémy Cukierman also highlights massal selection as a forward-looking technique, one that involves identifying and propagating individual vines that best resist water stress and heat, those with lower potential alcohol levels, and those that retain a good level of acidity.

The reintroduction of ‘lost’ grape varieties is already well underway on some wine estates. Loïc Castet is one such vigneron, planting the Castet, Tarney Coulant, and Saint-Macaire varieties at his Bordeaux domain. Cukierman also cites Lladoner Pellut, a grape used in blends at the Roussillon’s renowned Mas Amiel. In the Rhône, too, Counoise has been brought back to life, an interesting grape that brings a touch of acidity to blends, displaying how an old grape variety can be used to temper the heat of a modern cuvée.

The future of our vineyards and viticultural adaptation are complex and fascinating subjects. There’s no miracle solution, but wine makers are already working with new approaches at every stage of production. Observing and experimenting are clearly at the heart of this future projection, and who could be better placed for such a transition than those who work on the ground?

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