By Oz Clarke / 14 Sep, 2022
Who do you ask to find out if Climate Change is happening? You could ask the millions of people in Pakistan who have lost their homes as floods of truly terrifying power have simply torn away any buildings which stood in their way. You could ask the cork tree farmers in Southern Portugal where there has been barely any rain since February, and the cork oaks are so stressed and water-starved that, for the first time in living memory, they can't harvest any cork this year.
You could ask the farmers in Italy's Po Valley, where the mighty river has shrivelled so acutely that the salt seas of the Adriatic are surging inland against the Po's feeble current, destroying the source of life-giving irrigation, and with it, their livelihood. You could ask the desperate farmers of India's North West gazing at the cracked mud of empty water courses and trying to cope with temperatures of 50°C – too hot, really, for humans to survive, far too hot for crops of food.
You could even ask the cheesemakers of Gruyere in Switzerland, who are so drought-struck their cows can't produce the milk needed to make their famous cheese. Or you could ask the vineyard owners and the winemakers.
Vineyards have been described as 'the canary in the coalmine' - meaning the grape vines are uniquely sensitive to any change in conditions and their crops of fruit show it clearly. Grape vines can adapt, grape vines can survive drought conditions even though they may not flourish. But how much increase in heat and how much loss of moisture can they take?
Measuring the warmth of oceans is a telling way to keep track of Global Warming. Except that the statistics are so bald and fearsome that they are difficult to take in. Try this one. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is the equivalent of every person on the planet running 100 microwaves day and night. Or this. The heat increase in the seas during the last 30 years is 4.5 times greater than in the preceding 30 years.
Or this. The increase in the Oceans' warmth in the last 25 years is equivalent to 3.6 billion Hiroshima Atom bomb explosions.
And warmer oceans don't just mean warmer vineyards. They also mean more vicious cyclones and hurricanes, more devastating hailstorms, more destructive Spring frosts, more flash floods and unseasonal deluges, more savage La Nina and El Nino weather patterns disrupting the Southern Hemisphere. More chaos.
Every one of these occurrences affects the vineyard. In Europe, vines career from feast to famine. 2015, 16, 18, 19, 20 and 22 saw vineyards either basking under warm, clear skies, or desperately trying to avoid grapes being literally roasted on the vine, or withered by mildews thriving in hot, humid conditions. 2017 and 2021 saw the sun retreating and frost, hail and deluge sweeping the continent: frosts reached places in Southern Europe that hadn't seen a frost for a hundred years.
And, despite all this, spectacular wines have been made. Indeed, if you look back 50 years, you might get 2 or 3 very good vintages in a decade, sometimes less, with the rest ordinary to bad. Genuinely bad. Now? Well, even really tricky years like 2013, 2017 and 2021 are far better than their equivalents 50 years ago. These are the worst of a decade, but they're loaded with drinkable wine. And as for the rest? Nowadays in a decade you'll get 7 good to thrilling vintages, not 3. The styles are totally different. Richer, riper. more voluptuous, much easier to drink young yet surprisingly slow to show any signs of decay.
But can things go on like this? Almost certainly not. We're just about holding on to a Golden Age of wine in our Classic Regions as styles change year by year, but the wines can still delight. Meanwhile, other parts of the world, long derided as unsuitable for decent vineyards or incapable of making drinkable wine, are soaking up the new warmth, the new dryness, the growing seasons at last long enough to turn healthy grapes into tasty wine. And in some places - into classic wine.
What's to be done? There are simple solutions and more complex ones.
Of course, you can pick your grapes earlier. The 2022 harvest started as early as July 25 in France, Italy and Spain. August harvests are now commonplace in Champagne, and also occur in Bordeaux and Burgundy. But early picking isn't a cure-all. The relentless heat and sun of years like 2022 builds up sugar levels very quickly. That creates potential alcohol - often too much. All the other physiological components in a grape which create flavour take longer to develop. If you leave the grapes to develop all their flavours, your sugar levels will be astronomical. Recently I've been tasting Burgundies at up to 16.3% alcohol, and Saint Emilion Bordeaux at not much less. They tasted nice, but did they taste like Burgundy or Bordeaux? No.
Can you move your vineyards? Sometimes. There aren't many cooler places to move to in Bordeaux. but in Burgundy there are a surprising number. The Grands Crus and Premier Crus vineyards are very much the minority, and were chosen in colder times because they historically ripened their grapes more quickly. But these sites occupy a thin sliver of land.
Yet just a few kilometres to the west of Burgundy's heartland, the Cote d'Or, an area called the Hautes Cotes - the High Slopes - is full of villages and vineyards no one has ever heard of and which have always been regarded as too cool. In a generation's time they may produce Burgundy's most satisfying reds and whites.
Can you plant different grape varieties? In the Southern Hemisphere and the New World - certainly. You can plant whatever you think might work. But in the Appellations of Europe it's not so easy. Grape varieties here are ruthlessly controlled. Yet all varieties need different amounts of heat to ripen.
Bordeaux has admitted this; it is barely replanting the too-quick-to-ripen Merlot, and has legislated to allow varieties from as far south as Spain and Portugal to be planted. Beaujolais, unofficially, has plantings of the white Marsanne and Roussanne from the southerly Rhone, as well as red Syrah. Many people say Burgundy should follow suit. Rumours abound of parcels of experimental Syrah hidden amongst the Pinot Noir. But nothing official. One friend of mine even swears there are two small plots of Malbec!
But the authorities haven't yet budged. They say that Pinot Noir, which requires less heat and sun to ripen than any other major red variety, can cope. How? Well, firstly, European vines are grafted onto rootstocks, usually chosen for their ability to speed ripening and maximize yield. But there are many rootstocks - unpopular till now, which retard ripening. These will come into their own.
And there are hundreds of clones of Pinot Noir. Most recent plantings have been of a generation called the 'Dijon Clones'. These were isolated at the local University to provide a Pinot plant which ripened earlier and generally gave more colour and sugar, and, often, a good flavour too. These are the clones which are now sometimes producing wines at 15-16% alcohol. Yet there are numerous other clones developed at Dijon which were left on the lab bench precisely because they were difficult to ripen. If Burgundy is going to remain a Pinot Noir Paradise, new rootstocks, new clones and new vineyard sites are going to be crucial. And they are all available.
And if all that fails - you can go higher - Chile and Argentina push higher up the Andes every year in search of cool conditions. Catalunya is planting in the Pyrenees. China is planting at Shangri-La high up in the Himalayas.
Or you can head closer to the Poles. Chile and Argentina are creeping southwards. South Africa and New Zealand wish they could. Australia is peppering Tasmania with vines. And in Europe? Well, Germany is showing what it can do with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And as for Champagne? Their most convincing quality rival is now just over the English Channel - in England.