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The Wine Show: episode twelve – climate change

The Wine Show: episode twelve – climate change

by Amelia Singer 22 July 2016

Amelia Singer sheds light on the issues facing winemakers as climate change begins to affect harvests and temperatures, especially in countries such as Australia.

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During the past week the issue of climate change seems especially pertinent. On her first day as UK Prime Minister, Theresa May controversially merged The Department for Energy and Climate Change with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This act has been met with a certain amount of criticism from those who view it as Britain abandoning the fight against pollution and climate change. That as yet remains to be seen; however in other parts of the world they do not have that luxury. Climate change is having a drastic effect on their daily lives and will inevitably only get worse. It is not a distant phenomenon and direct, tangible action needs to happen now.

Shoot back to why I was in Australia in my granny jumper. Only ten percent of Australia is ‘habitable’ – for both plants and people! This already limits the amount and kinds of wines that can be produced in the country. Due to climate change, seventy percent of mainland Australia is expected to become less suitable for grapes by 2050. The most affected kinds of wines are Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. If Australian wine producers aren’t careful Barossa Shiraz could become a vinous relic.

Tasmania’s cooler shores provide an ideal short term solution. Due to its southerly latitude and the strong influence of the surrounding ocean, it is one of only a very few wine producing regions in Australia that enjoys a genuinely cool climate. This is important, because it allows grapes to ripen relatively slowly over a longer period than in warmer, more continental regions. This slower ripening, in turn, results in fruit that has more intense flavours, more acidity and better balance. There is no risk of unbalanced, alcoholic fruit bombs here! A further result of Tasmania’s cool climate is that it particularly suits some grape varieties and wine styles. The high acidity that can be cultivated in the grapes is ideal for classical sparkling wine, elegant Pinot Noir and beautifully aromatic varietals like Riesling. I still remember the time I managed to fool some friends with a bottle of bubbles which they thought was vintage Champagne but was actually a vintage Tazzy wine! And it was under £20. Double fist pump!

Taming the terroir

In this episode, over oysters and an especially elegant glass of Tasmanian Pinot Noir, I spoke with Ross Brown about the trials and triumphs of conquering Tasmanian terroir. Ross is the CEO of Brown Bothers which owns a leading Victorian winery that was set up in 1889. In 2010 he purchased vineyard and winery assets in Tasmania in a deal worth $32.5 million (£18.6 million). This is the first investment Brown Brothers has made outside its home state of Victoria and Ross clearly communicates the key reason was due to climate change.

It was a bold move. Ross was the first wine producer to take such action. Tasmania’s dramatic, undulating landscape is so raw and authentic. It is the inspiration of Romantic poets, not so much wine makers. It is not always the easiest to manage, especially as there are a number of different microclimates to navigate. One year a site will work fantastically; the next year those same soils could be completely sodden and bogged down from an especially harsh winter.

Walking around some of Ross’s Pinot Noir vines, it was amazing to see just how close they are to the sea. It was a valiant gamble that paid off! I would have thought the sea salt would have a damaging effect on the roots of the vine. But the refreshing minerality, fruity tang and balance in his wines come from the vines being precariously close to the water.

However, finding a new region is just a short term solution. Ross admitted to me that there are already grape shortages in Tasmania. What happens once producers have used up all the cool climate areas like Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula? This climate is also not conducive for growing opulent Shirazes and Cabernets which first put Australia on the wine world map. How can Australia continue to create robust, spicy, full-bodied varieties that still have balance and structure?

One answer is technology. I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Tyernan, who developed the Vineyard of the Future at Adelaide University. He explained to me the various tangible signs of climate change already occurring, such as harvests happening a month earlier in order to maintain balance in the grapes. Even the University’s summer holidays for their students of viticulture has had to change around these new harvest cycles.

Although I am not very tech savvy (understatement), it was fascinating testing out various gadgets such as spectrometers and vine canopy apps. These technological tools were part of a whole tool box of viticultural management options which Steven and his university team have devised. From the data collected by these machines, innovative viticultural strategies can be put in place that are low cost, time efficient and precise in responding to climatic and disease pressures.

Ross Brown
Ross Brown was the first winemaker to start production in Tasmania
Climate change
Climate change is having a positive impact in some winemaking areas and a negative impact in others

Closer to home

The rise in global temperatures has seen the European wine industry enjoy a boom in recent years with better quality grapes being harvested but this may well be a transient phenomenon. In western Europe, the best wines are produced in hot summers when end of season droughts are followed by heavy spring rains. But climate change is causing harvest time to be pushed further and further back as hot spells last longer and longer. This means crops are more likely to die or be damaged. The study by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that from 1980 onwards, the harvest was an average of two weeks later in France compared to the 400-year average.

Some could argue that the present temperature fluctuation has lead to greater consistency and more intense fruit concentration in regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux. However who knows how long this will continue and if these immediately enjoyable qualities are what makes an age worthy, world renowned vintage. In Champagne there are such fears over acidity levels not being obtained in their grapes that certain houses are investing in English vineyards. The most recent being Taittinger investing in a formal apple orchard in Kent!

However, moving to cooler climates such as England or Tasmania cannot be the only solution. Even in England our harvest dates are on average a week earlier in the last ten years than they were in the 1990s. These fluctuating weather cycles leave the vines exposed to frost earlier on the year and do not allow a long, fulfilling ripening process.

In order for wine makers anywhere to get the most out of the terroir and create good quality wines there needs to be an increase in knowledge, professionalism and determination to understand and get to grips with the changeable weather patterns and their terroir. More and more wineries are engaging in ‘sustainable’ practices; a term commonly invoked by farmers and vintners to encompass steps they are taking to assure their businesses become and remain environmentally, economically and socially viable.Hopefully technology can aid and provide more ‘sustainable’ solutions using apps, tools and even robotics. It is early days but I am hopeful that my children will be able to enjoy the same timeless wine regions as I do, as well as be able to have access to incredible wines from what are now seen as cutting-edge wine producing countries and regions. Hopefully we can make climate change work for us.

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The Wine Show: episode twelve – climate change


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