Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Big Think: Books That Will Tweak Your Brain, Part I

A lot of the time, the media avoids focusing on what you might call "The Big Think," so it's great to take time out to dive deeper into topics that explore broader issues that can get lost in the day to day.

Recently, I've enjoyed reading two new books that pay attention to the Bigger Picture, taking me on paradigm-changing rides.

The first of the two is Wine and Climate Change by L. J. Johnson-Bell. (The book is Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease and Knowledge by Linda Nash which I'll save for a later post).

The news about wine and climate change is a big topic, covered in the news, but not as in-depth as one might like. Wine and Climate Change puts it squarely in the crosshairs and at a global level. Johnson-Bell's book, praised on the back cover by Stephen Spurrier as, "written with enthusiasm and intelligence," is the sort of concise and engaging book you didn't know you needed until you've picked it up - and voila - finished it.

A resident of London, Oxford and Venice (envy, who me?) and a veteran wine writer in Europe, Johnson-Bell proclaims in the introduction, "You can taste climate change."

And for many, that taste change is a coming nightmare, as famed terroir changes to "too warm."

For Napa and Sonoma, she defines the problem as not one of ripening (which in the New World is typically easier than in the Old), but as a new set of challenging issues: "...retaining acidity and developing flavor (flavor from the fruit and the soil, not from the selected yeasts used in fermentation, from over-extraction, or from new oak barriques) has become more and more difficult."

I heard this echoed recently when I moderated a panel of Biodynamic winemakers at SHED in Healdsburg and a prominent Pinot Noir winemaker said that in the future he might have to start adding acid to his wines, which he has never done, over a winemaking career of nearly 20 years. The family has been growing Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley since the 1970's. (I'm going to treasure those cases of mid 2000 vintages in my cellar even more).

The author tells us that it's not the everyday wines that will suffer the most, for we will always have these to rely upon. It's the great wines that concern her.

"Great wines are more particular," she writes, and will be affected by droughts, predicted to become hotter and longer, and rain, predicted to become more intense in Europe.

Once upon a time, France's greatest wine growing regions looked down their noses at their New World counterparts, whose riper fruits led to bigger wines. Now, Johnson-Bell says, that game is over.

"The two worlds are quickly and confusingly converging, climate-wise not terroir-wise," she writes. As temperatures in France heat up, she says, Bordeaux is becoming Napa Valley. (Or the climate formerly known as Napa Valley). These higher alcohol Bordeauxs and Burgundies and Rhone wines will not have the aging potential that earlier vintages once had.

At this point you may find yourself gloating, if you're a fan of the California wine home team. And then the realization sinks in - the California and Pacific Northwest wine regions won't be stuck in time - they'll be changing as well - and migrating to the north. Experts now predict that British Columbia, now a fairly marginal region, will be a perfect spot for lots of vineyards in several decades time.

Blue areas show areas that will become suitable for vineyards
 including Puget Sound and the Columbia Valley 
What can be done? The author provides a useful survey of mitigation and adaptation strategies. Among them is the advice to reduce use of herbicides and fertilizers (making the latter is a very carbon intensive process), ship wine in bulk and farm organically or biodynamically.

In Bordeaux, Johnson-Bells tells us of the First International Symposium on "Alcohol Levels Reduction in Wine" held in 2013.  There the leading brands came together to focus on solutions - switching to clonal selections that delay ripening, researching forgotten indigenous varietals, or changing canopy management techniques.

Vintners are also taking a hard look at their traditional blending practices. Johnson-Bell quotes the prestigious Rhone wine producer Michel Chapoutier:
"A Bordeaux will still be a Bordeaux, without a change in rules or a compromise in quality. Winemakers will merely have to adjust their blend ratios. Bordeaux will lower their amount of merlot and will raise their amount of petit verdot, while the Southern Rhone will lower their amount of syrah and raise their amounts of grenache and mourvedre."
But in other areas, these solutions are not possible. Johnson-Bell points to Champagne, where, she writes, "ripening used to be the problem and the addition of sugar (chaptalization) was practiced in order to raise sugars. Now this practice is being replaced with acidification, the adding of tartaric acid, in order to maintain acidity levels that make these wines what they are."

Others are thinking about planting the north sides of hills rather than the south sides.

Still others are looking north - to Oregon. But problems exist there, too, for their cool climate Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. There the length of frost free periods is growing (from 17 to 35 days) and without the cold snaps of earlier times, pests and diseases don't die off in winter, and therefore thrive.

The conclusion? The author writes:
"The Old World terrors will hang on for as long as they on their appellation 'brands' until with forced irrigation and heat they become even greater New World caricatures of their old selves than they are now. Full scale replanting programs will eventually be embraced, first by exploring the forgotten indigenous grape varieties and then by adopting others from other regions, or creating new ones, as the climate scale moves north."
Add to this list planting at higher elevations as well as developing new varietals.

Hear more about this subject from the author in this Sky News report. But buy the book. It puts all the research about climate change today in one great big readable sip.

My conclusion? Buy wine now, before things get worse. And savor what's in your cellar because there may not be any more of that coming your way - at least not in this lifetime.

No comments:

Post a Comment