There has been much talk about the concerns of global warming in the past decade, raising awareness and a call to action. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's movie and images, like the polar bears stranded by melting ice are convincing evidence for those who believe global warming exists, is human-caused and needs to be stopped. Others — led by the likes of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the majority of those in the energy-extraction industry — believe it is a hoax, a conspiracy.
Shorter winters, intense and weird springs and summer fires make the issue even more confusing. Aspen and Snowmass are said to be looking at becoming summer resorts as early as our grand children's twilight years.
The same fate seems to be facing some of the world's classic wine growing appellations. We have all heard that Germany may be the new Burgundy and England the next Champagne, as the line of cold, wet climate essential to grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay moves ever northward. Warmer regions like California's Napa Valley and Australia's Barossa Valley may be unable to produce quality vitis vinifera grapes at all, with sugar and ripeness levels happening earlier and earlier each growing season, and with droughts effecting or limiting overall vineyard health.
In lieu of speculation on our changing climates and their reflected changing growth patterns, the grape itself has a story to be told. Along with the rapid changes in viticulture and viniculture in the past 20 years — e.g., using improved methods to achieve maximum ripeness in grapes and richness in wine — the grapes themselves are changing.
Gregory V. Jones, a noted research climatologist with Southern Oregon University in Ashland who focuses on hydrological and agricultural effects of climate change, believes that while perception may be everything to humans, the small yet complex underlying environmental factors are telling us the truth. In an interview appearing in the on line wine journal Reign of Terroir, Jones comments that the numbers of climate change may not be all that startling to humans: "If you say to somebody temperatures have warmed 2 degrees over the last 20 years they'll say 'Well, that's great! I'm really enjoying it!' What they don't understand are the underlying things that happen to us within our environment, with things like insects and/or pests, and/or water availability, soil erosion, soil salinity, all that kind of stuff."
For instance, pests such as the spotted wing drosophilia and mealy bugs, which can cause ruin in vineyards from California to Oregon, may totally change their reproductive cycles or migration patterns with the slightest changes in average temperatures. And as history has shown, pests new to a region can have free reign over often genetically defenseless plants, those of which have not seen these pests before. Worst-case scenarios would have disease running rampant throughout vineyards.
As far as the grape itself, Jones takes on famous critic Robert Parker, the champion of wines that are ripe, rich, big and bold. While it is a widely held belief that the "Parker palate" drives winemakers to producing high alcohol, overripe wines, Jones argues flatly that thirty to forty years ago, the climate was so cool in Napa that you could not possibly make these types of wine. Jones adamantly states "You couldn't produce the same styles of wines in Napa that you produce today. Period. End of sentence. You just couldn't do it! The climate was too cool, you couldn't have extended hang time because the climate wouldn't let you. Period."
Methoxypyrozines are chemicals responsible for the "green" flavors we find in some wines. These flavors appear to tasters and in tasting notes as bell pepper, green bean or vegetal; and they often flavor the wines of cool climates like New Zealand and Northern France, or in wines from Chile, where canopy management standards are low. While methoxypyrozines in grapes have been able to be better managed through more rigorous vineyard control in the past 30 years, average temperatures have also risen, causing wines to become sweeter and stronger. Now the flavors of sweet cherry, blueberry and ripe plum define these high alcohol wines from Californian merlot to Argentinean malbec. In his work, Jones cites that as much as fifty percent of all high alcohol wines could be attributed not to conformity to a modern style, but rather to climate change.
What does this all mean for us now? We still have a choice of wine styles: If you like it a little leaner then choose a red from Bordeaux or the Loire Valley (Chinon), both venerable French regions known for cold, wet weather; or stick with sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or again from the Loire (Sancerre). If you like the climate-guided "Parker" styles, go for Mendoza, Argentina, Australia or California.
And better yet, help regulate your local wine region — walk or bike to the wine store. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at email@example.com