There’s a worryingly valedictory tone to many of the conversations I have with winemakers these days. Time and again, I’m told that it’s impossible, in many if not most years, to make the wines in the style they used to make. Crop-destroying weather events that were considered extreme just a decade ago are now to be expected. Each year that passes brings them closer to the point where they will no longer be able to make wine in their vineyards at all.
The cause, of course, is something that even stubborn self-styled skeptics in the UK found difficult to deny as they wilted in the 40-degree heat this summer: the climate crisis. It is already the most significant influence on winemaking, vine-growing and wine style around the world, but its effects will only be more damaging as and when (can we even say “if” with any confidence any more?) average temperature rise to more than 1.5C above the pre-industrial level by the end of the 2030s as many models expect.
In just the past two years, we’ve had vast wildfires caused by drought and extreme heat laying waste to thousands of hectares of vineyard (and homes and wineries) in Australia, California and much of Mediterranean Europe.
This year’s most high-profile European wildfire swept through pine forest in the Gironde in south-west France, threatening historic vineyards in Bordeaux’s Graves and Sauternes districts. In the end, the flames never quite made it into the vineyards, and, according to the Bordeaux wine trade body, the CIVB, even the very real risk of smoke taint, the unwelcome smoky taste brought to wine by ripening grapes caught in clouds of smoke, was avoided, thanks to the direction of the wind.
Wildfires are only the most dramatically visible of the effects of the climate crisis. In 2021, for example, which was for many in Europe a considerably cooler growing season, the livelihood-threatening weather event for many vignerons was a savage late spring frost, a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in recent years, and which, in the Loire and Burgundy among other French regions, reduce crops by as much as 80%. Then you have the devastating (and deadly) floods that wiped out vineyards in Germany’s Ahr Valley last summerthe droughts that have reduced yields across Europe this year, the increased incidence of the winegrower’s crop-wrecking old enemy, hail…
Is there any room for hope? Well, you can at least find some inspiring attempts to avoid fatalism. Winegrowers have been doing what they can, whether that’s planting grapes that are better suited to warmer growing conditions (such as the Portuguese pair touriga nacional and alvarinho now allowed in the mix in small quantities in Bordeaux); finding cooler sites at higher altitudes or closer to the sea (or, in the case of Channel-hopping Champagne producers, further north); pruning later and picking sooner; or protecting and nurturing older vines, which seem to cope with drought and heat much better than their younger siblings.
Wine drinkers may lament the seemingly irreversible stylistic changes in some of their favorite drinks, which tend to boil down to an absence of the old freshness and finesse and an excess of alcohol. They can still find most of the kind of thing they’re looking for if they’re prepared to seek out formerly marginal vineyard areas rendered reliably commercial by global warming – or look for rare cooler vintages in their old staple regions.
How long even those options will be available is a question that can’t help but feel trivial in the context of the consequences of unchecked global heating. But if a winemaker’s place in the grand scheme of things is small, they have a detailed understanding of what changes in the climate really mean on the ground.
Six wines from a warming world
Dourthe No.1 Sauvignon Blanc
Bordeaux, France 2021 (from £8.50, thewinesociety.com)
After a series of warm, sunny vintages, the cooler and in many ways very difficult 2021 was seen by some in Bordeaux as a nostalgic return to an older “classical” style that is in danger of dying out. Whites, such as this wonderfully brisk, citrussy and grassily fragrant sauvignon blanc, came out particularly well.
Tuffon Hall Bacchus
Essex 2020 (£14.99, Waitrose)
While I dislike the tendency in so much reporting of the 21st-century English wine boom to treat it as some kind of climate crisis consolation prize, it’s true that elegantly herbal, gooseberry-tangy whites such as these are increasingly viable alternatives to Loire sauvignon.
Tamar Ridge Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir
Tasmania, Australia 2019 (£15, everyday.booths.co.uk)
The considerably cooler climate in Tasmania has made it increasingly attractive for mainland Aussie producers grappling with ever-hotter summers. The island is becoming one of the world’s best places to grow chardonnay and – as in this succulent, spicy strawberry-and-cherry scented red – pinot noir.
Sierra de Toloño Rioja Alavesa
Rioja, Spain 2019 (£15.95, leaandsandeman.co.uk)
One of the most exciting new-wave producers in Rioja. Sara Bravo of Sierra de Toloño’s recipe for keeping balance and freshness in a rapidly warming world relies on old vines planted much higher than the Rioja norm at 650m above sea level, creating a wonderfully fluent, bright, black-fruited red.
Gabbas Lillové Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia, Italy 2019 (£18, robersonwine.com)
Grenache (aka garnacha in Spain, and cannonau in Sardinia) is a Mediterranean red grape variety that thrives in hot, sunny and dry conditions. Qualities that have inevitably made it a fashionable choice for growers, with this example showing off its perfumed, red-fruited side and a savory twist of paprika and rosemary.
Domaine de la Noblaie Le Temps des Cérises
Chinon, Loire, France 2020 (£15, hhandc.co.uk)
The Loire used to be thought of as the northern limit of reliable red wine production. These days, however, its crisp, crunchy, cabernet franc red wines are a refreshing refuge for fans of old-style claret who feel their favorite wine is too-often too ripe, alcoholic and overblown.