Nearly all great wine regions share a few common threads. Grapes destined for premium wines—$15-$25 and up—require ample heat to ripen the grapes, cool evenings to maintain acidity, and well-drained soils to ensure the vines aren’t too comfortable. The best of these Goldilocks zones, those with special terroirs, have become ubiquitous—Bordeaux, Burgundy, Mosel, Tuscany, Barrosa, Barolo, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the 21st century, winegrowers in every one of these regions feel the steady drum beat of climate change drawing closer. Some already hear it pounding in their vineyards today. Burgundian domaines held in the family for centuries have recently experienced heat waves never before seen, including both June and July heat waves in 2019 that scorched records. This furnace covered most of mainland Europe. The ongoing fires in Australia span nearly every winegrowing region in the country, from Adelaide Hills to Hunter Valley, and has spread fear of smoke taint for dozens of wineries.
What are the options for winegrowers in our warming climate? In the short-term, vineyard managers can leave more canopy to shade the grapes and hang larger crop loads to spread the rapid sugar development across more clusters. In the mid- to long-term, most regions will need to change the varietals they grow. Cool-climate Burgundy may be the new Loire or Northern Rhone, focused instead on Cabernet Franc or Syrah. Longstanding laws regulating varietals in specific regions, like Burgundy and Bordeaux, will need to change. These conversations are already happening in France and Italy. This past summer Bordeaux winemakers took important steps to allow seven new varietals, which would enable them to begin experimenting and planting for the rapidly-approaching future. Bordeaux blends could soon include Marselan and Touriga Nacional.
Alternatively, the future of wine looks up or up. Vineyards will make steady climbs up in latitude or elevation. English sparkling producers have existed for decades, but have always grown fruit on the margins. Many years failed to ripen clusters adequately, even for sparkling wine, which requires the least ripeness. The last handful of years, these English producers have garnered unprecedented attention. The climate there today resembles that of Champagne in the mid-20th century. And Champagne trembles, not at the competition, but at a history and tradition challenged by our heating world. Similar stories of climbing the latitude latter exist in Argentina, where the Patagonia region in the south has risen in renown by producing elegant Pinor Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. The high latitude there currently requires elevations around 1,000 feet, relatively low compared to Mendoza or Salta, which range from 3,000—10,000 feet. Patagonia has the terrain to go vertical over time, which our Grandchildren will likely witness.
Within the Old World, medium- to large-scale producers with the means are acting now. From the foothills of the Italian Alps spanning Piedmont to Alto Adige, to the Pyrenees borderland between Spain and France, higher elevations equal potential. Familia Torres, based in the Catalonia region which includes Priorat and Penedés, has purchased land to explore elevations ranging from 3,000—4,000 feet in the Pyrenees. Sustaining quality winemaking will require
exploration, and this exploration requires the financial wherewithal to plant new vineyards, market and then sell the wines from new, unknown regions. China cannot be left off the table, as well. While most wine lovers in the United States have yet to taste a Chinese Marselan, this will change, as regions like Ningxia have already shown great potential, and plantings are going in at 4,000 feet of elevation with room to go higher.
Traditional regions like Burgundy, Mosel, and Barolo have produced some stellar wines of late thanks to the more consistent warmth. In the short term, climate change holds this thin-thread of silver lining. These regions have historically walked the tightrope of ripeness, and this knife’s edge creates the thrilling Pinot Noirs, Rieslings, and Nebbiolos adored by many. The next decade will likely provide some more excellent, consistently ripe wines. It will also enable producers in regions like Burgundy’s Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, the highest land in Burgundy, to reach new audiences. Once a corner of Burgundy that too often produced thin wines, the warmer climate has benefited the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits’ relatively high elevation of 1000—1400 feet. These short-term benefits, however, provide only the slimmest glimmers of light against the darker horizon.
Wine lovers will have much to lament, as change will undoubtedly come to the famed growing regions of the world. Wineries and vineyards that captured the attention of Kings and Popes over millennia will change. Some may lose their relevance. Our brave new wine world will also, thankfully, reveal exciting new terroirs. The “new normal” will be far from usual, and wine, along with all other industries, will need to forge paths yet untrodden, while also working to provide solutions to mitigate catastrophe. There is no other choice.