- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

AY, France (AP) — Fruity merlot from Siberia? Not so fast, say vintners from Champagne to California.

As climate change threatens to alter the land on which vintners have relied, sometimes for centuries, established wine-growing regions around the world are deploying techniques old and new to adapt.

The goal: to stay competitive as climate conditions open up the prospect of wine from regions once deemed unsuitable for growing grapes, including Russia’s frozen but now thawing lands and rain-battered Britain.

In France’s southern Languedoc region, for example, once-sacred rules against irrigating vines are being relaxed, while growers in the U.S. are experimenting with genetically modified heat-resistant grapes.

That’s because by 2050, the world’s premier wine-friendly zones could shift as much as 180 miles toward the poles, said Gregory Jones, a climate geographer at Southern Oregon University.

In theory, that will make northern Europe or New Zealand more grape-friendly than Bordeaux or Australian valleys.

That has beverage conglomerates in the U.S., where wine is a $100-billion-a-year industry, scouting out vine plots that get more shade — contrary to age-old practices in both the northern and southern halves of the globe.

Meanwhile, sommeliers are readying for an array of new aromas as vintners vary varieties in response to warm weather.

“You are going to see people introduced to wines from weird countries, like Belgium,” said Jancis Robinson, wine connoisseur and co-author of the latest edition of the World Atlas of Wine.

“You will see a lot more wine from Germany, which can finally ripen its grapes, … and good Canadian reds,” she said.

Climate and market forecasts and studies of grape behavior suggest that during the next two generations — not a long time in the realm of wine — vintage Kent and Chinese or Canadian chablis could occupy as much supermarket shelf space as Bordeaux, Rioja and Napa’s finest.

In addition to creating new wine regions, the warming trend is changing established ones.

To keep their vines cool, Argentine producers are planting them closer to the Andean slopes and in Patagonia. In South Africa, wine makers have moved sauvignon blanc vines to higher altitudes and sought patches exposed to cooling sea breezes.

In Ay, where producers such as Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot nurture precious plots, harvesters hit fields in late August last year, the earliest since 1822, according to the Champagne Growers’ Committee, which sets harvest dates.

Leaving the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes on the vine any longer would have risked too much heat, too much alcohol and a strange new sweetness.

“Those who make wine have always been sensitive to climate,” said Pierre Cheval, whose Gatinois Champagne House, a small family winery in Ay, has seen plenty of industry ups and downs during 11 generations in business. “Temperatures, humidity, microclimates, all this is essential to the health and originality of the grape.”

He said smaller vintners face a tougher time adapting to climate change, because it takes several years to coax good wine from a new vine or to make a profit on new grape varieties.

But water is a concern to all vintners, large and small.

In arid Australia, wine makers who have long depended on irrigation have been parched by the country’s worst drought in a century. With government estimates predicting a sharp increase in dry spells in coming decades, industry analysts say, investment could shift from hot places such as Barossa Valley to the southern island of Tasmania.

In France’s sun-roasted Languedoc, where wine making dates to the fifth century B.C., the government relaxed irrigation rules to allow producers to slake the vines’ thirst.

In many vineyard areas of inland and southern Spain, viticulture soon could be unsustainable without irrigation. Farmers today grow vines in untrained bushes far apart to allow each a chance of surviving on scarce underground water.

Higher temperatures also mean grapes are more sugary, meaning more alcohol when fermented — too much, in fact.

“We have been assessing alcohol-reduction techniques, mechanical as well as through vineyard changes,” said Lorenzo Banos, of Casa de la Ermita winery in the Jumilla region on Spain’s southeast coast.

Scientists say climate change has brought heavier rain to some regions, which leads to more fungus outbreaks and attracts new pests. An Italian study suggests that an increase in intense rain threatens Tuscan wine quality.

Southern Europe’s loss, though, might prove England’s gain.

“The biggest problem with English wineries is keeping up in demand,” said Christopher White, general manager of Denbies Winery in Surrey, England. “Climate change is one of the biggest factors for the growth of the industry.”

“We haven’t been hit by a frost in six years,” he said. “The buds burst earlier, which gives a longer ripening period. … The volume is getting higher year after year and the industry is more on par with what happens on the Continent.”

English wineries traditionally planted German varieties, but now are moving toward varieties familiar in France such as bacchus, chardonnay and pinot noir.

China, too, stands to benefit. After a 60 percent expansion over five years, it now has more vineyard acreage than the U.S.

Also, milder climates are producing more consistent quality in wines, as in the Caucasus Mountains of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Russian researchers think valleys in southwestern Siberia could sustain marketable wine grapes.

Purists say something will be lost forever when the weather in Burgundy is too consistently hot to produce the early pinot noir that lends grand crus their sophistication. Differences in soil quality, composition, groundwater levels and the angle of sunlight mean Sussex can never replicate Saint-Emilion.

Champagne vintner Mr. Cheval isn’t ready to abandon his profession.

In a world of climate change, “even the English will be able to succeed in making champagne,” he said, before adding with a grin, “In… maybe 500 years.”

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