Thursday, August 3, 2023

Canary in the coal mine

 Michael - Alternate Thursdays

Like our protagonist, Kubu, I’m partial to good wine. Maybe this isn’t a coincidence since Stanley also has a taste for the fruit of the vine. Among all the possible negative outcomes of climate change, probably the demise of the current leading vineyards isn’t high up on the list of potential disasters. However, it’s interesting that while the debate about global warming was going on, some wineries were already thinking ahead.

Canary cage complete with oxygen cylinder
 to resuscitate the bird
Spanish wine master, Miguel Torres, said that wine is “the canary in the coal mine,” referring to the old practice of using a canary to predict carbon monoxide accumulation in a mine. When the canary stops singing, get out of there. The wine canary hasn’t stopped singing, but it’s definitely sounding a bit throaty right now.

So what can be done?

One option is just to harvest the grapes earlier, but the balance is often wrong. Alcohol is higher, tannins more bitter, acidity lower. Slow ripening is important, and it’s not only warmer summers that’s a problem. Warmer winters encourage early sprouting, and then a deep frost can damage the plants. 2021 was a particularly horrible year in France—a very mild winter was followed by several days of below freezing temperatures. The country’s total wine harvest was only about two thirds of the usual volume, disastrous for the growers. There are other problems as well. Drought conditions and wild fires have affected vineyards, particularly in South Africa and Australia, but Europe is having a turn now too. Even if the vineyard itself doesn't burn, ash settling on the grapes may later affect the taste of the wine.

Fire in the Cape winelands

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Germany, known for cool climate, and often sweeter, whites is now extending white vineyards into regions that were previously too cold, and producing some satisfactory reds in the warmer areas. So is England where cold resistant cultivars are being replaced by the desirable cultivars that are struggling with the new climates in France. Pinot noir, chardonnay.

Cabernet pfeffer
Looks hardy enough...

A second approach is to plant new varietals, or old varietals that are out of fashion – basically anything that survives hot weather. Some of the winemaking fans of these grapes say they are more interested in preserving historical cultivars than addressing climate change, but I’d guess they have an eye on the thermometer as well. An example is California’s recent interest in cabernet pfeffer. I have no idea what it tastes like. Perhaps I’ll find out at Bouchercon.

Yet another strategy is to find cooler slopes, perhaps not facing the sun as directly, or higher terrain. Some of the larger Spanish wineries began planting at higher altitudes quite a few years before climate change became accepted as a problem in the industry. Now they have a head start. (They are also selecting cuttings from vines that seem more heat resistant. But only time will tell how the wine from that selection will taste.) Generally, moving to cooler areas is successful and it’s happening in Spain, France, and Argentina. But it’s not an easy option for South Africa or Australia, which are already growing grapes in their coolest climates.

In the meanwhile, you may want to stock up your cellars, particularly those pinot noirs and chardonnays. The future ones may not be as good and will be more expensive if they are.

After all, a nice, chilled, white in the shade may take the edge off the heat.

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