Grapes weathering change

Do we need to re-think the grape varieties we grow, in the face of climate change? For publication in the week of Monday 23 May 2016.

Calyptra’s managing director Jose Zarhi believes they’re working Chile’s highest Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, in the Alto Cachapoal Valley at 1,000 metres. Across the Andes in Argentina, the Bodega Catena Zapata Adrianna White Bones Chardonnay is made from fruit grown at an elevation of almost 1,500 metres.

Wine producers are springing up in all manner of places previously unexplored and considered unfit for winemaking: too humid, too dry, under too much risk of frost and hail, or unreliable from year to year. High quality sparkling is even being made in in Japan, of all places, like the award-winning Grace Wine Extra Brut from Yamanashi, which is 100 per cent Chardonnay. Vineyards are planted at an elevation of 700m in a mountainous region which enjoys the longest sunshine hours in the whole of Japan.

While such pioneering efforts in often extreme conditions can be viewed as the pursuit of supreme quality and elegance, they can also be seen as a response to climate change. When you see the inordinate success of English sparkling wines – just think about the image the country has to endure about its weather – and you note the number of Champagne houses investing there, it is clear that climate change is set to dramatically change the wine landscape.

A team of researchers from the University of Adelaide in South Australia have compiled the first-ever catalogue of the world’s grape varieties and where they’re growing. Kym Anderson, from the university’s School Of Economics, has said that such a catalogue is much needed within the wine industry. He says that while, in the wake of globalisation, wine producers need to learn how to exploit their geographical and varietal distinctiveness, they also need to be looking at varietals which perform well in climates similar to how they expect theirs to be a decade, or decades, from now.

According to this research, French varietals currently dominate world plantings, with Cabernet Sauvignon coming in at 6.3 per cent, and Merlot at 5.8 per cent of the world total. Of the 10 “most popular” grapes in the world, seven are French. But are French varietals, given that France’s wine regions can largely be defined as cool-climate, the best way ahead? It depends.

When the Zonin family began planting vines in 1999 in the Maremma region of Tuscany, they had in mind a Super-Tuscan style wine led by Cabernet Sauvignon with a supporting cast of Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot. What they discovered, explains vice president Francesco Zonin, is that the latter two fared much better in their vineyards – they are more suited to the climate, soil and ventilation in the area.

The Merlot has a tendency to ripen too much, suppressing floral and fresh fruit aromas; while in dry vintages the Cabernet grapes lack harmony. “This just goes to show that there aren’t varieties that are suitable for all regions, but rather there are perfect regions for certain grape varieties.”

Jim Gare, a London-based project manager with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), believes that it is time for countries currently working with French varieties to start looking at grapes that perform in the hot and dry regions of Italy, central Spain, and inland Portugal. Varieties such as the field blends on the parched terraces of the Douro Superior, and grapes such as Tempranillo and Monastrell in Spain. Monastrell is unique in the way this grape can withstand so much heat, or indeed needs optimal heat, while simultaneously being able to retain acidity.

Italy has 377 grape varieties, according to Ian D’Agata in his 2014 publication Native Wine Grapes of Italy, which is more than Spain, Greece and France combined. This suggests a world of opportunities for vineyard managers.

Gare adds that the New World has the capacity to blend grapes never blended before in their countries of origin. As an example, Argentinian producer Mai Tupungato blends the country’s beloved Malbec with 70 per cent Corvina, one of the mainstays of Amarone. The alcohol comes in at 14.5 per cent (low for Amarone) because high altitudes allow grapes to ripen more slowly. It is a deliciously rich wine with chocolate and coffee and soft, perfectly ripe tannins.

For “Hannibal”, Bouchard Finlayson, in the Walker Bay region of South Africa, blends Saingiovese (52 per cent) with Pinot Noir (17 per cent), Nebbiolo (15 per cent) with Mourvedre, Shiraz and Barbera. The blend might sound bizarre, but the resulting wine is full of elegant fruit with an intensity of acidity rare in South Africa.

It will be fascinating in future years to study how the world’s wine regions deal with the issue of climate change. We may need to move beyond the small band of French “international” grapes.

Words: 810

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