Ever since a massive heat wave hit Europe's vineyards in 2003, winegrowers there have been racing to fend off the effects of global warming. Yet even they were stunned by a report last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which predicted that by 2050— well within many of our lifetimes—most of the great wine regions of Europe will have totally lost their charms.
Call it "Grapocalypse Now." Is the future of wine really in jeopardy or is this all a bunch of needless doomsday scrambling?
"Nothing we've heard since publication has made us change our minds," says the paper's lead author, Dr. Lee Hannah, a senior scientist for climate change biology at Conservation International.
"The models we use predict mean climate changes, but bad weather spikes will make some years worse," he adds.
Under the scenario painted by Hannah and his colleagues, Europe's Mediterranean areas (the places where the best wines are now made) will be hardest hit: Tuscany, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley. "And the French regions are tied to growing certain varieties which they can't change," Hannah notes. "But non-Mediterranean France will do pretty well, as the suitability [for grape production] drop-off won't be as severe."
Northern Europe, including England, Baltic Germany, and even Scandinavia, may become prime wine producers in the decades ahead. Hannah's suitability maps also show dire consequences for parts of California and southern Australia.
Here's the bottom line on how all this will affect your favorite bottles:
Today's great red wines will get more alcoholic or sweeter—or both.
At present, Napa cabs are already on the edge of being overly alcoholic, too fruity and too sweet as grape sugar levels rise. Bordeaux once enjoyed the extra heat, as it used to have problems with grapes ripening, but hot, hot sun is now a problem.
The great white wines will lose some acidity and minerality.
Diurnal changes—warm days and cool nights—are essential to gradual ripening that gives grapes like chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc their structure, mineral tastes and crisp, acidic finish.
Naturally ultra-sweet wines might keep their quality, but their production volume may decline.
Harvest heat with less humidity may retard the needed botrytis infection that causes grapes in Sauternes and Tokaj to shrivel into succulent sweetness.
The great Champagnes will be less affected.
Due to their northern, inland location they are somewhat protected, although shorter growing seasons may affect fruit flavors.
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So which wines should you stock up on before it all changes? Here's a shopping list:
Red and white Bordeaux.
Start collecting reds from Pauillac and St. Éstephe, as these areas are the warmest in the Medoc and are most likely to develop elevated alcohols in coming vintages. But Right Bank reds from St. Émilion and Pomerol will be changing flavor profiles, too, as their merlot gets over-ripe more quickly than the Medoc's cabernet sauvignon, and some Right Bank châteaux are already switching their vineyards to less merlot and more cab franc and cab sauvignon. Buy whites from Pessac-Leognan.
Napa Valley cabs and chards.
Already many of the great cabs—Shafer, Robert Mondavi—are registering alcohols over 15%. As the saying goes: Get 'em while they're (not) hot.
Northern Rhône's syrah trophies.
Hermitage and Côte Rotie will get even more alcoholic, so put them on your holiday list this year.
Northern Italy reds.
Buy wines that are predominately based on the nebbiolo grape (such as barolos) or sangioveses (such as chiantis). Some super-Tuscan blends are still adjusting their grape mixes to lessen warming's effects.
Reds from Central Spain.
Toros are now hitting 16 percent alcohol, and Ribeiro del Duero won't be far behind, so snatch them up before they become mini-Ports.
South Australia's big reds.
Barossa and parts of McLaren Vale are especially vulnerable, so buy now if you like these wines or expect a wholly different flavor profile in the coming years.
Burgundies will be less affected, but the profile of both reds and whites will get bigger and fruitier. An irony is that Burgundy may soon have to add acid instead of sugar to its winemaking.
What's the worst thing that can happen? Even if the hot-weather march towards 2050 slows, and we have a few more "normal" vintages, then you will still have done a great job of building a better wine cellar.
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