Grapevines have a reputation as delicate, gossamer butterfly plants that struggle to survive with each gentle shift in the breeze, but really … they’re the cockroaches of the plant kingdom. That essential hardiness has never been more convenient, as extreme weather challenges even the most talented and resourceful farmers of every stripe in parched, frozen, sunburnt and/or flooded fields.
“Grapes have a built-in insurance plan with their three-bud system,” Altamont Winery’s vintner Michael DiCrescenzo, says. “Each compound bud on the vine actually has three buds within it. The first two are more susceptible to early frost and weather, but the third bud – while it doesn’t bear fruit – is hardier. So even in a terrible season, the plant will survive.”
Their toughness goes deep. “Grapevines are some of the hardiest plants out there,” Michael says. “They have deep root systems and they’re creepers, so they’ll find a way to draw whatever nutrients can be found from soil.” Altamont Winery, in upstate New York, grows 23 varieties of grapes on 13 acres from Pinot Noir, to Edelweiss, to St. Pepin, spanning the gamut from classic vitis vinifera to offbeat New York hybrids, another built-in insurance plan that covers all weather possibilities and helps ensure that at least some of their grape harvest will thrive, no matter what the weather brings.
Climate change threatens to push some of the world’s most celebrated wine regions – Napa Valley, Burgundy – off of their long-held thrones, as less known or beloved regions, like New York, are finding a whole new level of acclaim.
Winemakers, given the wild weather ride they’ve had recently can be forgiven for abandoning chit-chat about the fussiness of grapes and the manner in which the shale-inflected soil their vineyard sits on imparts refined salinity and structure to their wines in favor of bottom-lining it: in the end, wines will emerge from 2016’s temporal tumult.
Global weather trends in recent months have the wine industry attempting to wrap its collective mind around the implications extreme weather could have on this year’s harvest – and the decades ahead. Climate change threatens to push some of the world’s most celebrated wine regions – Napa Valley, Burgundy – off of their long-held thrones, as less known or beloved regions, like New York, are finding a whole new level of acclaim.
As any drinker will tell you – there’s a world of difference in a wine’s drinkability factor between grapes that have blossomed in the field, and grapes that have merely managed to live.
Wölffer Estate Vineyard, on the North Fork, for example, has been renowned for its wine, especially its Chardonnay, rosé and Merlot, but the estate has found the last decade to be an especially auspicious time for their products and the reception they’ve received. Wölffer’s winemaker, Roman Roth, acknowledges that climate change has contributed to their recent success, and says that they have and will continue to tweak the varietals grown to accommodate an ever-warmer climate.
“Five of our last six vintages have been fantastic, and three of them were absolute dreams,” Roman says. “You can’t ask for more than that. But even though the climate has created ideal growing conditions for us here, we know that the possibility of a hurricane, or extreme cold or heat is possible, so we never cut corners. And because it’s generally warmer and more humid in August, for example, we started planting more Trebbiano a few years ago, and we will continue to expand that because it’s so well-adapted here. We will also plant more Cab Franc, but not more Merlot right now because it’s too subject to frost.”
Climate change – whether it’s caused by human activity, the mysterious cycles of the earth, or both – is happening. Atmospheric CO2 levels are on the rise and global temperatures have increased 1.4° F (0.8° C) since 1880, according to NASA. And the rate is increasing. The last two decades of the 20th century were the hottest on record for 400 years. This February demolished records, with NASA data showing an average global surface temperature 1.35° C above the average temperature between 1951-1980. The previous record was set in January.
The Northern Hemisphere was 2.76° C warmer than the 1951-1980 baseline, surging past the long-accepted goal of keeping warming less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temps, a.k.a., the “magic” temporal number.
Maintaining the magic 2 degrees is especially important for winemakers, who likely have enough tools in their arsenal to combat the issues that arise from that manageable blip, but would have to reconsider the grape varietals under vine if it swings much more than that. In New York so far this year, the average temperature clocked in at -2.3 °C, compared to the normal -5°C.
Most vitis vinifera wine grapes are grown between 12° C and 22° C, but some varietals, like Pinot Noir, can only grow between 14° C and 16° C. That doesn’t leave much room for error, and it has slowly changed practices in the field and beyond. Since the 1960s for example, harvesting has begun earlier around the world, from South Africa to Napa to Australia.
Still, winemakers like Mark Wagner, the founder of and winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing in the Finger Lakes, say that New York growers with “good cultural practices in the vineyard” will be able to produce wines without more than the usual headache.
Some researchers estimate that wine production in prime areas of Europe will be slashed by 85% and even the notoriously conservative Bordeaux wine board has asked the AOC for permission to grow new grape varietals that they are currently barred from cultivating.
“I’ve lived through too many seasons to try to predict what will happen in a coming season,” Mark says. “But I will tell you this. We will look at the weather as a moving target and continue to implement changes in the vineyard that, while expensive, are critical to our continued success. One of the biggest issues we’ve seen in recent years is the increase in extreme storms where the rain comes all at once.”
Grapevines swimming in water for too long will produce grapes with less complex, duller flavors. To combat that, he “ensures erosion is limited with side farming,” Mark says. “Plus we have installed an artificial drainage system underground to pull excess moisture away in every new vineyard we build and we’ve gone in and improved drainage in our existing vineyards where there are issues. It’s extremely expensive, but like all other vineyard management systems, it pays for itself if you can save the harvest.”
Mark estimates that roughly 20-30 acres of the 100+ acres have new pattern drainage systems for the summer. But what about the winter? He’s used wind machines to combat the cold-wind patterns of the polar vortex, and both he and Mike have occasionally (reluctantly) employed the practice of building fires in the vineyard to protect already budded plants from a late frost. But it is risky and can actually pull more cold weather into the vineyard, depending on the weather pattern and cloud cover. A severe and prolonged cold snap below zero in the winter can cause a die-off.
“This year wasn’t too bad, we had one severe dip that did some bud damage,” Mark said. “But I’d say it’s below what we’d normally consider average.”
Despite the inherent romance of wine and the artistry necessary to produce a superior product, grapes are still a commodity crop, Mike says. “About 50% is what happens in the vineyard, and 50% is what happens in the bottling facility.” Winemakers, if not farmers themselves, are working in tandem with their farmers on a daily basis, and while successful growers and makers try to plan for the future, they’re still loathe to invest in new, untried varietals that may do better in a warmer world, because experience and history tell them that the only thing they can truly count on in the field, is unpredictability.
Right now, New York winemakers are most concerned about an early bud, because as Mike says, “that just increases the period of risk for the grapes. And if we get a late overnight frost in May, which happens up here, we could lose a lot of grapes.”
And so far, the weather this late winter has been lovely for Upstate New York residents, but scary for the winemakers.
“Once temperatures are above freezing for two-four weeks, you’re going to start seeing bud break,” Mike says. “Worst case scenario, buds break in early April and we get a freeze after that. It’s too early to tell if that will happen – but it could – so we’re out in the vineyard pruning, but leaving about 50% more than we normally would so that if there is die-off, we’ll have more plant material to work with.”
And if there isn’t a big overnight freeze, Mike will go back and prune again. Which takes time (and time equals money), but as with Mark’s approach to pricey vineyard-draining and weather-tempering tools, it’ll pay if it saves the grapes.
Warmer temps and longer growing seasons in England have made it home to more than 600 wineries, Sweden’s wine industry is booming and British Columbia is becoming a hotspot for Chardonnay.
Climate change will not have the same impact everywhere. We’ve all seen the grotesquely fascinating “Will Your City Be Underwater Maps?” that project 3.7 million U.S. residents in 2,150 coastal areas could see their homes destroyed by climate change-induced storms and rising waters.
The same dire forecasts are being sounded for the world’s premier regions of wine production; namely, Bordeaux and Rhone in France, Tuscany in Italy, the Napa Valley and Sonoma in California and Chile. As of 2050, the thinking goes, they will R.I.P. or have to change radically – some researchers estimate that wine production in prime areas of Europe will be slashed by 85% and even the notoriously conservative Bordeaux wine board has asked the AOC for permission to grow new grape varietals that they are currently barred from cultivating.
Meanwhile, warmer temps and longer growing seasons in England have made it home to more than 600 wineries, Sweden’s wine industry is booming and British Columbia is becoming a hotspot for Chardonnay (the region’s balmier temps are giving it an edge in balanced acidity, compared with previously lauded Chardonnay growing zones, where the searing heat delivers overly sweet booze bombs). New York – home to the nation’s oldest winery, Brotherhood – is enjoying some much deserved (long-time coming) critical and commercial success for its wine.
And although growers may be able to take on cultivars typically only grown in warmer climates, they’ll still have topographical challenges.
Currently, there are about 31,800 acres of land devoted to wine grapes in New York, while California has 580,000 acres. While there are about 8.6 million acres of agricultural land available in New York (that could be shifted as growing staple crops like apples in New York becomes tougher to grow effectively), the mineral content of the soil, slope of the land, drainage, arability, etc., may not make it ideally suited for a vineyard.
Growers and winemakers, many of whom are inherently conservative in nature and are unwilling to be the first fool in the neighborhood to bet the farm on a risky new varietal, aren’t quite ready to completely replant their vineyards yet. It’s too early to know if the cycle of unpredictability will continue, worsen or stabilize. The one thing we can all safely bet on though: in 10 years, we won’t be drinking the same thing from the same places.
If climate change continues apace, New York State, slightly warmer and with a longer grower season, may become the hottest place to create and drink the beloved European wine varietals usually associated with – you guessed it – Europe and California.