- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Wine and Global Warming: An Inconvenient Truth
“A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of stars.“
- Richard P. Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 1
Why does Chardonnay produced from grapes grown in the Hudson Valley taste different from Chardonnay that hails from the Napa Valley, and why does that Chardonnay taste different from a Chardonnay whose home is in Burgundy, France? You can ask the same question about any wine produced anywhere on earth, and the answer will always boil down to two basics: soil and climate.
Sure, any skilled winemaker can elaborate a wine with a bag of tricks – new oak barrels, malolactic fermentation (changing harsh green acids to smooth, creamy ones), controlling alcohol, tannin, and acidity levels in the finished wine – up or down – and use advanced technology to make oak chips taste like the real thing (the creamy vanilla flavors imparted by an expensive small barrel), and “microxygenate” a red wine; introduce small amounts of oxygen – the element that ages wine - before bottling, so that a young wine tastes like a mature wine within three years instead of ten. I could proffer a laundry list of high-tech approaches to winemaking – including computerized robot wineries - that would stun most wine lovers.
But ask anyone in the world who spends his or her life in the wine business and all of them would agree that great wine is made in the vineyard, not the winery. Just as in cooking, if you start with near-perfect, in-season, local ingredients and then employ the most basic skills in the kitchen, you are likely to create a delicious meal. If, on the other hand, you start with inferior ingredients – vegetables out of season, fish and meat that are really only borderline-fresh, the most talented chef in the world will produce a mediocre meal. The irony is that when you cook with great ingredients, you have to use restraint in the kitchen to highlight the flavors, textures, aromas, and colors of the food – kind of non-interventionist cooking. Alternately, when you cook with mediocre ingredients you have to work so hard to mask the flavors that the finished dish, while perhaps a great creative statement, just doesn’t taste that good. The same is true in winemaking.
When it comes to quality wines, the familiar words “winemaker” and “winemaking” are insufficient. In fact, there is no word for “winemaker” in France, Italy, Spain, or Portugal, among other countries. We should think of these artisans as “winegrowers,” whose activity is “winegrowing.” Why? Because the fact is that when you produce fine wines, the traditional role of winemaker is tossed out the window. The person who ends up making fine wine spends at least as much time in the vineyards as he or she does in the winery, making sure that the grapes – the lifeblood of any wine – are healthy, and picked only under the most ideal conditions. At the same time, the winegrower must respect the soil that gives life to the vine and understands that the climate (or more accurately, the climates, as vineyards have their own microclimates), a quality criterion that is beyond the control of the winegrower, must cooperate each year in order to create a great vintage.
Employing best practices in the vineyard is a universal constant if the winegrower wants to produce a memorable wine, and is a given as part of the wine life cycle. But those practices will differ based on what the French call terroir, a term that is truly ineffable but refers to climate and sun exposure in the vineyard, even to the traditions of the winegrower, but most importantly to the soil. As the famous French vigneron (winegrower), Jacques Seysses, proprietor of Domaine Dujac, said when asked what were the most important quality issues that allowed him to produce such exquisite red Burgundy wines (100% Pinot Noir), he answered that “There are three very important things that make our wines great. They are the soil, the soil, and the soil.”
Jacques Seysses’ statement was more like the answer to a Zen koan, a metaphorical slap across the face meant to enlighten us. Of course, he was right. Domaine Dujac, located in the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy, produces extraordinary Pinot Noir, but so does Domaine Drouhin, located in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Look at a map: Oregon is on the same latitude as Burgundy; the climate is similar. Keep looking: Long Island is on the same latitude as Bordeaux. Both regions are strongly influenced by the currents and immediate proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, and both produce classic examples of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Pinot Noir from Oregon. Cabernet from Bordeaux, Cabernet from Long Island. Why do these wines taste so extraordinarily different when they’re made from the same grape types? Extreme differences in soils, small differences in climate.
The irony about the best soils for growing grapes for wine is this: the rockiest soils, the least fertile soils, the soils that cannot support so many other crops are often the best soils for wine. Rocky soils rich in limestone, as in Burgundy, or soils filled with fine gravel (Bordeaux), or soils built from the animal and plant life of receding oceans and alluvial fans (the Napa Valley), or soils comprised largely of glacial deposits (the Hudson Valley), all are near-ideal for growing wine grapes. These soils drain easily, don’t hold water at the roots of the vine, and so don’t create conditions that will dilute flavors.
The rich, fertile soils of say, California’s Central Valley are too productive, too rich, too vigorous, and produce too many grapes. Low yields (normally less than three tons of fruit per acre) are what is required to create truly fine wines. Unlike commodity fruit and vegetable production, perfect wine grapes are all about quality – low yields of small berries with a high skin to pulp ratio to create ripe tannins in fine wines - not quantity – high yields of bulbous, heavily irrigated, waterlogged grapes that should end up on our table, not in our glass.
And there is also irony surrounding the climates of the classic winegrowing regions of the world. While it is true that the vine needs the warmth provided by sunshine to ripen properly, the best wines are made from grapes grown “on the margin,” that is in cooler regions where it’s just barely warm enough to ripen the fruit. The reason? Cool climate conditions grant the grapes a healthy dose of acidity, the refreshing, citrus-or-green fruit-sour flavors that make a wine interesting, even compelling. It is that refreshing acidity that makes our mouth water, and encourages us to have another bite of food, another sip of wine.
Wine grapes that grow in warmer climates obviously have no trouble ripening, but their lack of acidity can translate into a flat, flabby uninteresting wine. Also, in hot climates where the grapes border on or jump over the precipice to become over-ripe, the finished wine might be an alcohol bomb, because high amounts of sugar caused by over-ripeness translates into high amounts of alcohol during fermentation of the grape juice. These wines are in-your-face aggressive wines, very popular these days. But try drinking a second glass of an Australian Shiraz or Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, each clocking in at more than 14.5% alcohol, without getting dizzy, sleepy, or stupid (Note: Today I tasted a delicious 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol: 12% (!), which is unheard of in any Napa Cabs since about 1990).
Soil is a finite resource, and Nature just isn’t making any new earth anytime soon (it took tens of millions of years to create our current terra firma). In order to preserve our soils, land management has become a global public policy issue. Countries that are members of the European Union must agree to a policy that does not allow the creation of any new vineyards. For example, if a winegrower in Spain wants to plant a vineyard, that vineyard must be planted on ground that is already a vineyard, or was a vineyard in the past. Even in the Napa Valley, a place that has become a monoculture for wine grapes, there is a moratorium on the creation of new wineries, but not new vineyards, at least not yet. The current price of vineyard land in Napa – roughly $250,000 per planted acre - is probably thought to be its own self-regulating mechanism. In the Hudson Valley, especially the “Lower Valley,” an inconvenient truth is that much of our best farm land, including soils suited to grape growing, has become residential land, housing an increasingly large population that wants to live within striking distance of New York City (my own house, located just outside of Woodstock and built in the late 1950s, sits on a former farm). Our beautiful countryside has changed character in less than a generation: rural to exurbia to creeping suburbia. Of course, prime land prices have skyrocketed into the stratosphere. Today, if someone wanted to plant a new vineyard in the Lower Hudson Valley, he or she would be assured of making a small fortune, because they would have to start with a large fortune.
Still, the wine world is currently riding the crest of a very popular and profitable wave. And as of 2010, the United States is the #1 consumer of wine, the most important wine market on the planet, eclipsing the traditional wine cultures of Europe. The world stage is set for the continuing and expanded production of premium wines, some driven by consumer demand (e.g., [yellow tail]™), some driven by terroir (e.g., Domaine Dujac). It’s a rosy picture for both wine producer and wine consumer, except for one over-riding, inevitable, and now basically inalterable imperative: global warming.
Like most of us, part of me believes that the current and future castastrophic events caused by global warming are far more serious than whether or not we are able to drink the world’s best wines. But a closer reading of the situation reveals that wine grapes are a reliable bellwether – the canary in the coal mine – for all crops, for all farming. Wine grapes are uniquely sensitive to climatic shifts, and even now global warming is impacting the wines we drink on an everyday basis.
Why are wines from warm growing areas so high in alcohol? Well, consumers have learned to enjoy these punchdrunk wines, but for those who prefer their wines lighter and subtler, the choices are becoming fewer and fewer. Rising alcohol levels in both white and red wines are approaching a situation that is virtually uncontrollable, except by technology. Would it surprise you to know that many of the wines you enjoy are cut with water before bottling to reduce alcohol? Did you know that the “dry” Cabernet you like so much has enough residual sugar in it so that 20 years ago that same wine would have been considered technically “sweet”? Sugar levels in grapes are going through the roof, and that means alcohol and residual sugar are at all-time highs in many wines. Sure, the wines are dramatic, but try pairing them with lighter foods and see how poorly that drama plays out.
In March of 2006, the first conference of wine and global warming was held in Barcelona, Spain, and the information shared by climate scientists and winegrowers was sobering. Spain and Portugal are already suffering the impact of global warming to the point where winegrowers either cannot grow their classic grape varietals because they shrivel in the intense heat, or they have had to invest millions of euros to move their vineyards to higher ground where the vines can enjoy the air conditioning provided by the cool currents wafting through hills and mountainsides. Winegrowers testified that they cannot control the sugars in their grapes and are making wines that don’t come close to expressing true varietal character (the typical taste profiles of Syrah or Chardonnay, for example), much less a sense of place, the terroir of the vine.
The predictions by conference participants for the future of winegrowing, and by extension, agriculture, were uniformly dire. French, Spanish, Australian, and American climate change specialists painted an ugly picture of the world to come: Castilla-LaMancha in Central Spain, which has now endured its third straight year of drought is fast becoming a desert, and will not be able to sustain life, much less grapes, possibly within 20 years; oceanic events will have greater impact on soils than greenhouse emissions as changes in climate will concentrate rainfall, creating flood conditions followed by drought conditions, necessitating sophisticated irrigation systems – now illegal in Europe’s finest wine regions - in order to keep grape quality and flavor complexity high - taxing regions already hard-pressed for water; an increase of just 1ºC will deplete worldwide water resources by at least 15% by 2030; a rise of 2.5ºC will mean a further 17% depletion by 2060 (clearly, water will become the new oil, and might be distributed just as unfairly; in Europe, the average increase is higher than 2ºC, in Portugal, it’s more than 4.5ºC); add to this the increasing salinity of fresh water resources, and irrigation will require expensive tech-heavy solutions; at least 2% of the gross national product of developed nations and 5% of the GNC of undeveloped nations will have to be dedicated to staving off the impact of global warming.
The bad news continues. Dr. Richard Smart of Australia notes that predatory insects, such as the Asian Lady Beetle, that spread plant diseases and traditionally need warm climates to thrive are now common in the vineyards of Germany, Austria, and northern France, not to mention Canada, Italy, and the United States. He also notes that Bordeaux, which is the ancestral home of classic Cabernet Sauvignon, has the same warm climatic conditions as parts of South Australia (home to high-alcohol, jammy Cabs). Incidentally, four billion liters of water are used each year in the Australian wine industry. Consider that Australia is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world (after Italy, France, Spain, and the United States), and you begin to see a massive problem with the impact of climate change on global water resources.
In 20 to 30 years, Burgundy, France will be too warm to plant its classic prized varietal, Pinot Noir, and should think about switching to Cabernet Sauvignon, because its climate will mirror today’s Bordeaux. Bordeaux, which will mirror Valencia, Spain has to think about planting Syrah and Grenache, now grown in the much-warmer Rhone region. And everybody’s talking about buying vineyard land in southern England, usually considered too cool a region for anything but sparkling wines, but may become a leading wine region, along with Canada, in the world of global warming.
In California, the Napa Valley will become as warm as Modesto. Modesto will become as warm as Stockton. Stockton will become as warm as Bakersfield. Barring genetic manipulation of grapes (of course, that research is already ongoing), much of California will become a wine wasteland, producing just-drinkable bulk wines in fancy bottles (Ramp up that marketing machine before it’s too late!).
What to do? I would be the last person to advise anyone not to continue to enjoy wine, one of the astounding miracles of nature. But the next time you sip your favorite wine, maybe think about it a little differently. The message is clear: wine is a precious product of nature, and its future is threatened. In your glass of pleasure there is also a microcosm of our shared environmental concerns, concerns that can no longer be ignored, no longer be denied.
Global warming and wine: an inconvenient truth that has yet to resonate with much of the global wine industry, much less wine consumers. Like so much of the science of climate change that has been made public, our government has chosen to ignore the facts, keeping its head in the sand. And now it’s too late for our generation. If the United States ratified the Kyoto Protocol tomorrow, the impact on the environment would not be felt for 150 years (but don’t we need to think about our grandchildren and their children?)
Perhaps Dr. Greg Jones, a winegrower who is also a climatologist at Southern Oregon University, posited the challenge best, when he said at the Barcelona conference, "Governments don't always have a solution for our problems...and Hollywood won't make a movie about gradual climate change."