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What climate change means for the wine industry

The warmer weather may benefit English vineyards, but winemakers from Bordeaux to California are struggling. Here are six wines rising to the challenge.

Wildfires in California, USA - 10 Oct 2017Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stuart Palley/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock (9131672b) The Atlas Fire burns east of Woodley Canyon Rd near vineyards late Tuesday evening in Napa County Wildfires in California, USA - 10 Oct 2017 The Atlas Fire burns in Napa and Solano Counties Monday evening. The fire was 3% contained and had burned 25,000 acres. Multiple structures were destroyed as crews battled strong winds and tinder dry vegetation after multiple fires burned in the area.
 Wildfires near a vineyard in California in 2017: ‘This is urgent, serious business in a part of the world where wildfires have destroyed thousands of acres of vineyards.’ Photograph: Palle/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

One of the ways the British media covers climate change is to treat it as a bit of banter in silly-season items on English wine. This summer’s heatwave was the pretext for an awful lot of these “and finally” moments, in which the tone is unfailingly flippant: never mind the melting Arctic, the shires will take over from Champagne!

Well, hoorah for that. Except, of course, the impact of climate changeon wine isn’t quite as straightforward as a few nice summers and guaranteed bumper vintages in Sussex. What the larky local-radio questions about Bordeaux-on-Thames tend to gloss over is that itwon’t necessarily make the UK, or anywhere, a better place to grow wine. Erratic weather, floods, hurricanes, extreme, unseasonal frost and drought: none of these are friends of the winemaker.

Winemakers are attuned to the minutest changes in the weather – differences that they can, literally, taste in their wines. A line-up of past vintages offers a sensorial record of climatic patterns, and the message sent by those bottles has been troubling the world’s winemakers for years.

On one level, this is purely a question of quality and style. With grapes accumulating high levels of sugar (and therefore potential alcohol when they ferment) much sooner than they used to, as vintages get hotter – and way before the other elements, the tannins and the polyphenols that give wine its complex flavours, are ready – winemakers have a dilemma. They can either harvest much earlier, sacrificing complexity for acceptable alcohol levels, or produce wines with an undrinkable alcoholic force.

With each new record-breaking hot summer and earliest-ever vintage, the long-term viability of whole swathes of the wine world is called into question – grape varieties, the location of vineyards, access to dwindling supplies of water,the ability to produce wines in anything like the same style, quantity and quality. As the great Californian wine producer Randall Grahm put it matter of factly to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik earlier this year: “It’s everywhere. Burgundy may be fucked. The northern Rhône is partly fucked … the southern Rhône is fucked.”

Grahm’s ambitious latest project is near Santa Cruz, an attempt to breed a new grape variety that can cope with the current Californian climate, one capable of being dry farmed (without irrigation) and to withstand heat. This is urgent, serious business in a part of the world where wildfires have destroyed thousands of acres of vineyards, and taken many lives and livelihoods, in the past two years – and where nobody is treating climate change as a funny sign-off on the news.

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