THE BLOG

Sustainable Lessons from the Vineyard

Sep 06, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Another risk of global warming: befuddlement before the wine list. It's taken you years to sort through the distinctions between Argentine, Italian and Californian wines. You feel like you might finally be ready to hold court against the combative advice of the French sommelier. You thought you knew what vintages to trust, what terroirs would be peppery or sweet, what grape types would produce deep, rich reds, and which would make light citrus-flavored whites. But with global temperatures steadily climbing, everything you thought you knew about viticulture might change.

Within the last fifty years subtle temperature increases have altered the harvests at vineyards across traditional wine producing regions. Winoanorak.com examines the findings of Dr. Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University and his colleagues who analyzed 50 years of climate data from 27 wine regions. The group compared their findings with Sotheby's 100-point vintage ratings, "looking for any trends in wine quality and growing season temperatures." The group also projected temperature changes over the next 50 years, using an atmosphere-ocean general circulation model.

Dr. Jones noted that regions from Southern coast of Europe like French Languedoc and Italian Chianti to vineyards in South Africa and central California will experience a temperature change of about 2 degrees centigrade -- which will seriously alter the grape-ripening time frame.
Historically, vineyards were planted in regions where grapes were likely to ripen: sun-drenched, warm hills and fields. But with consistently increasing temperatures, grapes mature much more quickly than they used to, making it difficult for wine farmers to achieve the proper acidity balance needed to create a wine more complex than sugary Welch's grape juice.

Despite the mounting dismay among winemakers on more temperate strips of land, successful vineyards have emerged in traditionally cooler areas like England and Northern California. The changing temperatures have altered what regions can produce certain types of wine. According to The Washington Post, winemakers have begun to ponder what emergent regions will produce favored wines when their traditional vineyards no longer can: "[Will] the next Napa Valley be Sonoma's Russian River Valley, now known for chardonnay and pinot noir, or perhaps the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia? Or some sunny mountainside in Colorado with no history of viticulture? Will Burgundy become the new Bordeaux and Germany's Mosel the new Burgundy?"

But there's only so far north the viticulturists can go before their vines drown in a pool of melted polar ice cap. Is there a way to prevent the endangered wines like Burgundy and Barolo? There may be no way to reverse the damage, but sustainable farming practices can help stop continued alterations. According to viticulturist Cliff Ohmart in his article, "Climate Change and Viticulture," wine producers must be especially careful about following basic methods of sustainable growing. He offers this advice, "conserve water, grow cover crops in and around the vineyard which sequesters carbon, till the soil as little as possible which reduces soil respiration and release of CO2, if pesticides are used choose ones with little or no volatile organic compound components (e.g. no emulsifiable concentrates), and drive equipment through the vineyard as little as possible to consume less fuel."

But even if every vineyard worldwide strictly followed Ohmart's suggestions, the efforts towards sustainable wine farming might simply be too little, too late. Unless the rest of the world pitches in to help the environment at large, a select group of farmers are not going to save the old vintages we love so well.

The issue may seem remote, but saving the vineyards begins in your own backyard. Ohmart's suggestions are easily applied to our own lives and by treating the spaces we inhabit as small vineyards in need of some TLC, we can all be part of the future of wine.

To paraphrase Ohmart's advice: take shorter showers and don't leave the water running when you brush your teeth; grow more plants around your home to help keep heating and cooling costs down and to reduce pollution; don't mow your lawn as often; garden with organic fertilizer instead of noxious chemicals and don't drive your car unless you have to. These practices should no longer seem like the idiosyncrasies of a few zealous environmentalists. If we are going to expect contemporary viticulturists to practice sustainable farming, then we must follow these same measures where we can -- especially if we are wine lovers. Spread the word on these efforts and you might someday enjoy a bottle of 2050 Stag's Leap Cab, currently at risk of extinction.