New York Wine & GrapeNews
The Grapes Don’t Lie
The Grapes Don’t Lie
The fossil fuel industry, that one guy at work, and your Uncle Larry can say whatever they want about climate change impacts, but the grapes don’t lie. Climate change is causing physiological changes in grape vines, increasing pest and disease pressure, changing the characteristics of wines (flavors), and is expected to result in the redrawing of the world wine map within my lifetime.
Fine wine grapes are fussy. They need narrow temperature ranges for optimal flavor development and ripening. That is why regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux and other areas with optimum microclimates have been so noteworthy. It also explains why my ancestors started planting grapes along the hillsides of Keuka Lake in the 1830’s. They sought out the microclimate created by the lake’s moderating effect on air temperatures and airflows along the surrounding terrain.
Experts are quick to point out that, due to the sensitivity of grapes (particularly vinifera), increases in local temperatures due to climate change could spell disaster in wine regions that are already bordering on too warm for premium wine production. While the precision of a given climate model or the accuracy of a certain prediction can be debated, there is no doubt that the impacts of climate change are already being felt – and tasted – by the winemakers of the world today. Warmer nights in parts of France have resulted in reduced acid levels – which results in “flatter” wines. Winemakers in parts of Germany have seen warming trends that help with ripening and increasing sugar content. But this warmer air also holds more moisture, and botrytis mold (dubbed “noble rot” because it develops late in the growing season giving late harvest wines complex desirable flavors of raisin, honey, and dried apricot) is starting to develop in the vineyards earlier in the season leading to sour rot (self explanatory and bad). And they are losing their famed Eisweines, which require very cold temperatures.
In New York, scientists have been recording grape bloom dates for about 50 years and budbreak (when tender new buds emerge from the vine) for about 35 years. With the generally warming winters, budbreak dates have moved about 10 days earlier over the last half-century on average, while bloom moved about eight days earlier. That may sound all fine and good, but we’re also experiencing more erratic and extreme (hot, cold, wet, dry) weather. Vines come out of their deep winter dormancy and become active when the weather warms and, historically, the threat of winter had passed. But the new reality of early warming and unpredictable cold snaps can hammer newly-emerged buds, which only need to die once to create crops losses of 100% for that year’s harvest.
Climate change is affecting different wine regions, grapes, and wines in different ways. While some regions are likely to decline, others expect benefits, but all will experience more erratic and extreme weather – if they aren’t already. The vintners of the world are not taking this lying down. They are of course adapting. Modifying everything from trellis systems, to grape varieties, to yeasts used, to moving to new cooler and less flood prone regions. Here at Hunt Country Vineyards, we’re doing things like tying canes for each vine to wires on the ground in the late fall and covering them with hay to help protect the vines from polar air periodically being pushed farther south by the changing atmospheric dynamics. Because we’re here to stay.
Our family roots are sunk deep in the land here in the Finger Lakes, so our response is to do everything possible to address the root problems. By investing in less polluting energy systems that result in cleaner air and water. By using compost, mulch, cover crops and biochar to return excess carbon dioxide in the air back to the soil where it enhances soil health and vineyard resilience. And by stewarding the farm as a complete ecosystem made up of woodlands and streams and wildlife of all kinds, not just as isolated blocks of grapes.
Maybe you don’t even drink wine, but I’m guessing that you eat. The changing climate is impacting food crops as well, not just premium wine grapes. The proof of climate change is on the table right in front of us and we all need to do more about it.
Suzanne Hunt is part of the Hunt family of Hunt Country Vineyards (HuntWines.com) in Branchport, NY and she is the President of Hunt Green LLC (HuntGreenLLC.com), an environmental innovation, policy and business consulting firm.
Acknowledgements: Dr. Alan Lakso and Dr. Greg Jones for their decades of study and deep expertise in climate impacts on grapes and wine, Chief Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, and to Mary-Howell Martens, who said that “the grapes don’t lie” when describing her past work at Cornell.