Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Wine Grapes and Canaries in Coal Mines

christopher-wine-550We have long admired the red nose of the Scots. Now, thanks to climate change, we may be admiring the nose of the wine they produce.

The warming of the planet, despite dismissive claims of climate-change deniers. may convert many of the clan from producing belly-warming whiskeys to palate-pleasing pinots.

A United Nations panel issued a scalding report in recent days indicating earth is already feeling the effects of climate change, with even more severe change looming ahead. If you don’t believe the United Nations or 1,500 scientists who authored the report, then follow the footsteps of the world’s winemakers who deal in temperature days, microclimates and sugar content.

The French, Italians and Spanish – and your neighbors in the Willamette Valley – are slowly marching their grapevines up hillsides and even expanding to once-shunned, sun-shaded north slopes.

Gregory Jones, a research climatologist at Southern Oregon University, tells the Bloomberg News that centuries-old wine-growing regions around the world may be unsuitable for their current varietals as early as 2050 because of warming trends.

Warmer conditions are already raising sugar and alcohol levels in wine grapes, which can reduce the acids and tannins that give wine complexity and character.

Winemakers in Burgundy believe that higher temperatures threaten to cook Pinot noir wine grapes on their vines.

Meanwhile, north of Edinburgh, Scotsman Christopher Trotter has planted 200 acres of wine grapes after noting the hilly landscape experienced record high average temperatures. The varietals he planted are not tip-of-the tongue familiar, such as early budding Solaris from Germany, white Siegerrebe and red Rondo. But in time, as the weather warms even more, Trotter intends to plant more well known varietals such as Sauvignon blanc, which are now associated with legacy wine-growing regions.

Scotland isn’t alone in expanding the frontiers of wine grapes. Polish vintners have gone from cultivating 40 wine grape varietals to 100. Improbable places such as Michigan now boast a wine-producing industry. Even Iceland is producing fruit of the grape, which can be found in bottles often sporting Icelandic wine sweaters. And there are vineyard owners and speculators spying and buying north-facing slopes, which may be the refuge for cool-climate varietals such as Pinot noir.

canary-in-a-coal-mineIf the UN report on current and future impacts of climate change is anywhere near correct, shifting wine-growing zones may be the least of our problems. One scientist who worked on the report pulled his name off because he felt predictions in the document were too “alarmist.” The report’s chief author said predictions aren’t alarmist because the “facts are alarming.”

So if you were planning on hunkering down in the dead of summer in Scotland with a nice bottle of wine, there could be other problems on the horizon. But for the moment, it is fascinating to view wine grapes as the climate change equivalent of canaries in coal mines.



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