Jamie Goode: Will climate chaos kill Burgundy?

By , 3 October 2022

Frost prevention in Chablis.

I prefer the term climate chaos to climate change. Change seems to understate the magnitude of what the planet is facing. Chaos better describes the unpredictability of the way that weather patterns seem to be so hugely messed up of late. It adds a sense of urgency to discussions about what we should do in response. And for viticulture we seem to be facing a crisis.

The planet’s ecology is largely determined by weather patterns. Climate is the average weather that a location experiences and there will be differences from year to year. These differences need to be within certain bounds, though, if plants and animals are able to cope with them. Plants tend to be the most sensitive, because they are usually fixed in one place. They are environmental computers that are able to calculate changes in climate and then respond appropriately to them. In temperate climates they have a period of dormancy over winter, and then begin growing in the spring, before entering dormancy again. This cycle is calculated to fit in with certain climatic boundaries: if the extremes are outside of the boundaries the plant can deal with, it will no longer grow in that place and another, better adapted plant will take its place. But it gets to a point where no plant can adapt to variations that are too extreme.

The grape vine is highly sensitive to climate. While some varieties are more sensitive than others, all varieties have a climate where they perform to their peak, and the bands are pretty narrow. It’s remarkable to think that the 2000 or so grape varieties grown round the world are all of one species, yet are capable of making such different wines. While many new world regions grow lots of different varieties, before too long they realize that with their climate or climates (some regions are more diverse than others in this respect), there are certain varieties that best suit them. The old world regions have spent a lot longer working out exactly what suits best, and they have recognized their talents and narrowed down their varieties. That careful matching of variety to place, however, depends on a relatively consistent climate: something we can no longer take for granted.

If climate chaos was as simple of global warming, there’d be the possibility of reworking varieties and moving vineyards from warmer sites to cooler sites where this is possible. We are seeing this happening in response to a definite warming trend across the globe’s wine regions. There have been a few winners: the UK now has 4000 hectares of vines, something unthinkable 30 years ago, and Germany’s wine regions, which were perhaps a bit too cool in  many vintages, are thriving. There have been more losers, unfortunately. And some of the losses have been the result of the new unpredictability in climate. It’s always been difficult farming grapes, with unpredictable rainfall events, hail, frost and increased disease pressure, as well as drought. But it has become more difficult of late. Heat spikes previously unthinkable have caused damage in recent years; forest fires have impacted grape quality in many regions; and in Mediterranean-climate regions – including South Africa – aridity has become a particular problem.

It’s very hard to do anything about hailstorms, of which there seem to be more of later, and it’s expensive and not completely 100% effective to counter frost. Warmer starts to the season have led to earlier budding, and a much longer frost season in many regions. This all adds stress and cost to the practice of growing wine grapes.

And better adaptation to dry growing seasons is well underway. And where there’s altitude to play with, vineyard sites have moved a bit higher up. New vineyards have been planted in regions too cool previously. This is in evidence in South Africa. But it’s much trickier when your region is tied to a single variety, or just a few varieties.

The test case here is Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and, of late, Aligoté which is now getting a bit more recognition by the geeks at least). Vintages have been getting earlier and warmer here, which isn’t always a terrible thing, but is a trend that is scaring many in the region. The region built its reputation on its 930 climats, including some of the world’s most revered vineyards, organized in a hierarchical system with the Grand Crus at the top. The careful matching of climat and either Chardonnay of Pinot Noir, which has resulted in such revered wines, is now under threat. Performing at the limits of where they ripen fully, in interesting soils, these varieties have thrived. But with warmer conditions, the danger is that the fine differences that set these wines apart from other examples of these varieties might be lost. Some people might prefer Pinot Noir in a fruitier, richer style, but that’s no why people see this region as a place of vinous pilgrimage. They come here for the exceptional, fine, complex wines that often require some cellar time to show their best. They won’t pay a fortune for fruity pleasure bombs.

Lots of discussion has been taking place about what Burgundy will do. Should it switch varieties? Might we be seeing Syrah in Vosne-Romanée or Grenache in Nuits-Saint-Georges? Assyrtiko in Montrachet? The problem is that the region is so wedded to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this would probably be a step too far for consumers. The identity and magic of the place will be lost. Where a region is wedded to variety, tweaking the blend isn’t a possibility.

I don’t think it will come to this, but climate chaos is definitely a problem here, as in many other regions. The answer in the short term is to look for viticultural solutions. The best is to farm regeneratively, seeing the vineyard as an agroecosystem and creating more resilience. There might be different ways of managing the canopy, and particular the fruit zone leaf cover. More interventionist solutions such as shade cloth and kaolin clays might have some effect. Better approaches to frost control could be really helpful, too. What is clear, though, is that the wine world has to become creative in looking for solutions, and that as a result of the unpredictability of the climate, we might have to begin paying more for our wines.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.


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