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Climate Change Effects Are Felt by the Wine Industry

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

You wouldn’t think a couple of degrees spread over a few decades would make much of a difference in a vineyard. But climate change – or whatever you want to call it – is wreaking havoc in vineyards across the world. And, it’s about to get worse.

Let’s go first to France, arguably the most revered wine growing country. Severe frost affected nearly 80 percent of the crop; summer heat spikes are accelerating maturation too quickly.

Merlot is headed for distinction because it is ripening too fast – the consequence of which is more alcohol but less acidity. The impact is so foreboding that seven new grape varieties, including sangiovese from Italy and assyrtiko from Greece, are being introduced in the Bordeaux AOC because they can survive in warmer temperatures.

More northerly regions have benefited by the warming climate. Alsace has reported recent droughts have protected grapes from the common mildew. And pinot noir, a challenged for Alsace winemakers, is doing better.

The same is true for Champagne, which has seen several vintage years. Champagne basks in wet, cool climates. But the higher temperatures – 2 degrees over 30 years -- have created a sweeter wine. Producers are no longer adding a dosage (additional sugar) and they are eliminating malolactic fermentation to hang on to natural acidity. Some producers report they are pulling more from their reserve wines from previous years to get the acidity they are looking for.

Champagne’s loss is England’s gain. As temperatures warm here, the Brits have found success in making sparkling wine. Once a borderline region for vineyards, areas like Kent, West Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset are producing fantastic sparkling wines. Land planted to grapes has quadrupled since 2000; there are now more than 160 wineries in England where the soils replicate the chalky soils revered in Champagne. Taittinger recently invested in English vineyards, so what does that tell you?

Burgundy, too, has had its climate challenges. Hail – not uncommon to the Cote de Beaune – has ruined several recent vintages.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers theorized that Burgundy and Bordeaux soon could be known for its mourvedre instead of its cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.

In the United States, California has been experiencing rising temperatures too. Riper grapes have led to increases in alcohol content. We spoke to several pinot noir winemakers who said they are no longer pulling canopy from the vineyards. Not only are they trying to protect the grapes from heat stroke, but most of them are picking at night. Cooler regions, such as Anderson Valley, and regions that benefit from fog off the Pacific Ocean, are prized for pinot noir.

The PNAS report showed that suitability for grapes is projected to decline in Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, Tuscany but improve in northern regions of North America and Europe as well as New Zealand.

Maybe your next best cabernet sauvignon will be coming from Canada.

Cote Mas

Jean-Claude Mas isn’t afraid of trying something new. The face behind Domaines Paul Mas, a large and innovative wine producer in southern France’s Languedoc region, Mas is always experimenting with new grape varieties. His vast holding of vineyards is planted to 45 different varieties, including experimental lots of montepuliciano.

Even his one-liter bottles don’t conform to the conventional 750-ml sizes we see on the shelves.

Although born in the heart of Languedoc, Mas spent several post-college years pursuing car and motorcycle rallies before returning to his roots and his real passion of making wine. His great grandfather was the first in the family to make wine in this region in the late 19th century. Jean-Paul has been at the helm of the family winery since 2000.

He relates his diversity of grape varieties to a Rubik’s cube. “I can create different styles from pleasurable to sophisticated,” he said.

The producer offers something for everyone in both grape variety and cost. But these Cote Mas wines represent some of the best values in southern France. We have said before – and now again – that the Languedoc-Roussillon region is not only a beautiful place to visit, but an undiscovered wine producing region.

Try these wines as we dig into summer:

  • Cote Mas Rosé Aurore Pays d’Oc IGP 2020 ($15). Grenache, syrah, cinsault and vermentino combine to deliver a mélange of red fruit aromas and rich strawberry flavors. Good acidity but a smoothness as well.

  • Cotes Mas Sauvignon Vermentino IGT Pays d’Oc 2019 ($15). This intriguing and unique blend of mostly sauvignon blanc and vermentino offers something different in white wine. Zesty with grapefruit and tropical fruit notes. Delicious is a word that comes to mind.

  • Cotes Mas Syrah Grenache IGT Pays d’Oc 2018 ($15). Luscious blackberry and black currants notes with a good dose of licorice. It’s a simple wine to enjoy with lighter fare or just by itself.

  • Cotes Mas also makes two tasty sparkling wines: a brut and a rose in its Cremant de Limoux line. Each costs $20 – another good value.

Wine Picks

  • Dutcher Crossing Family Reserve Merlot 2015 ($51). The extra bottle aging in this current release helps to smooth off the edges of a brilliant wine that refutes what naysayers claim about merlot. It is dense, chock full of varietal flavors and layered dark fruit, plus a dose of fine tannins.

  • Ladera Pillow Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($55). Yes, it’s a bit pricey, but it’s probably the best Russian River Valley chardonnay we have tasted this year. The texture is exquisite with lush tropical fruit a nd peach flavors, toasted oak and citrus, hazelnut aromas. The finish went on and on.

  • Ponga Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($14). This is unquestionably one of our best discoveries in the New Zealand sauvignon blanc market. We loved its lively acidity but mostly its oodles of grapefruit, white peach and tropical fruit notes. Nice mineral thread and alluring aromas.

  • Flora Springs Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($50). Fruit forward in style, this showy Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon exudes lush plum and black cherry flavors with hints of oak-inspired vanilla and dark chocolate.

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