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Eat & Drink » Wine

Warm Wine



I’ve written here in the past about proper or preferred serving and storage temperatures for wine. This ain’t about that. Today, we’re dealing with an even more serious problem: Global warming.

Despite a few meatheads in Washington, D.C., virtually every reputable scientist on the planet knows that global warming is the real deal. And now, a study published in the Proceeds of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the effects of global warming and climate change will create substantial repercussions in the United States’ premium wine industry and wine production. I wouldn’t start hoarding those California Cabs just yet, but I don’t know that I’d buy a vineyard south of Seattle either.

Utah State University researcher Michael A. White'along with a group of colleagues'published a paper earlier this month entitled Extreme heat reduces and shifts United States premium wine production in the 21st century. In it, the researchers predict that more than 80 percent of this country’s premium wine grape-growing areas could be gone by the end of this century, due to increased temperatures and warming climates. Without going into a lot of technical detail, White and his pals used a “high-resolution regional climate model” which, when applied to U.S. wine grape-growing regions, suggests that in the future, grape and wine production “will likely be restricted to a narrow West Coast region and the Northwest and Northeast.” That’s good news for folks in the Willamette and Hudson Valleys; not so good for Santa Barbara.

The study is based on an underlying thesis which makes sense to me. Three typical climatic conditions are required to grow grapes for wine'balanced grapes with varietal consistency, that is. The first is adequate heat accumulation. The second is a low risk of severe frost damage. The third is the absence of extreme heat. The highest quality wines come from grapes where these three environmental factors are in balance over time.

The first two factors'adequate heat and a low risk of severe frost'would seem to be moot in a discussion about global warming. There should be plenty of “adequate” heat and not much chance of extreme frost, right? But the third important factor in White’s study'the absence of extreme heat'well, that’s another story. Using historical climate records and a regional climate model, the researchers found that changes in the mean [average] climate between the late 1900s and early 2000s caused “only minor” reductions in grape production. But researchers conclude that changes in extreme temperatures might have a “more extreme effect on biological and agricultural systems than changes in mean climate.” According to Purdue’s Noah Diffenbaugh, “One big lesson is that the daily temperature changes are very important.” It’s not just about changes in average temperatures.

When the scientists’ model included the effects of extreme temperatures and extreme heat during the growing season, 81 percent of the regions in the U.S. marginally suitable for grape growing were wiped out. And the areas capable of producing “the highest-quality and highest-priced wines declined by more than 50 percent.” According to the study, wine production in places like Sonoma, Napa and Santa Barbara County of California would be “virtually eliminated by the late 21st century,” leaving only narrow coastal bands and higher altitude grape-growing areas like the Sierra Nevada suitable for growing wine grapes. That’s got to have a few folks in California’s $2.9 billion wine industry reaching for shots of tequila.

Like I said, I wouldn’t start cellaring California wines for the long term just yet. However, you might want to develop a palate for warm climate, Mediterranean-style wines'because, sadly, that seems to be where we’re headed.