By Joseph Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Jacques-Frederic Mugnier, better known as Freddie, is one of Burgundy's most respected winemakers. His domaine, recently expanded with the addition of a 25-acre site in Nuits-Saint-Georges, includes holdings in some of the province's greatest vineyards.
He chooses his words carefully. "I keep records of the weather," he says, "but the changes are clear for all to see. When I was a boy we frequently had snow. Now it is rare. Spring comes earlier every year. I am afraid when it comes time for my grandchildren to replant the vineyards, they will be using syrah."
Mugnier owns nearly three acres of Grand Cru Le Musigny, as well as bits of Grand Cru Bonnes Mares and Premier Cru Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses. This is holy ground for pinot noir, home to that most elegant and ethereal of red wines. That it might one day accommodate the big bruiser from the northern Rhone is unthinkable.
What makes Mugnier's gloomy forecast especially bad news is that he is not alone. Winemakers everywhere share the concern. It is easy to understand why growers in warm regions such as France's southern Rhone or California's Napa Valley would worry about rising temperatures. Great wine is produced in fairly narrow temperate bands in the northern and southern hemispheres; too much heat is as bad as too little. Just as concerned are growers in cooler regions such as Burgundy and Champagne who fear losing the distinctive character of their wines.
Chablis, the northernmost outpost of Burgundy, is a prime example. Famous for steely, minerally and, yes, often unripe chardonnays, Chablis has been on a roll for more than a decade. Since 1995 there have been seven very good to outstanding vintages, compared with roughly three per decade from the 1950s through the 1980s. Reason to cheer rather than fret, one might think. Right now it is, but some Chablis producers worry that their wines are becoming too much like Cote de Beaune whites or, even worse, New World chardonnays.
Wine, especially fine wine, is not a nimble or responsive business. Newly planted vines need four years to produce a usable crop, and old vines are highly prized. At top estates in Burgundy, growers tend vines planted by their grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Mugnier, for example, replants his vineyards on a 50- to 60-year cycle but keeps older vines as long as they are healthy and productive. How does such an industry, requiring long lead times yet so dependent on climate, prepare for a future that no one can accurately predict?
Champagne, at the northern limit of fine-wine cultivation, produces one of the world's most distinctive wines by turning necessity into virtue. The champagne style depends on ripe, mature grapes with moderate sugars and high acids, but because the region is so far north, the still wines can be so acidic as to be almost impossible to drink. The champagne method -- adding sugar and yeast to the still wines to induce a secondary fermentation in the bottle -- creates the signature bubbles (from trapped carbon dioxide) and makes an altogether more palatable wine. Austerity and length, rather than fruitiness, are the hallmarks of great champagne.
"In the last 20 years the average temperature has risen by 2 degrees Celsius," says Thierry Gasco, cellar master at Champagne Pommery. "This compares to a rise of 0.5 degrees Celsius in the previous 20 years. For the moment we don't have a problem, but naturally we are concerned. The beginning of harvest is certainly earlier. It used to be mid- to late September, and now it is early September."
Gasco does not attribute that solely to climate change. "Viticulture is much better now," he says. "Lower yields, more care in the vineyards, growers know much better the importance of ripe, mature fruit. This is true not just in Champagne, but throughout France."
He is well positioned to speak on the subject. As chairman of the French Oenologists Association, Gasco is aware of conditions in his country. He points to 2003 as the year that climate change became a universal concern. It was a summer of record heat across France. "In the south, particularly, conditions were very difficult for the winemakers," Gasco says. "It would be impossible to make fine wine if that summer were the norm."
Across the Channel, not far from Champagne, English winemakers -- not an oxymoron -- are hoping that climate change gives them an opportunity. Much of the south coast sits on the same vein of limestone-rich soil as does Champagne, and the climate is not all that different. There may, perhaps, be fewer English believers in global warming after the miserably wet and cold non-summer of 2007, but one year is not a trend.
One of the starkest warnings came in 2006 from the National Academy of Sciences. A report suggested that anywhere from 50 percent to 81 percent of America's premium winegrowing regions would be unsuitable for viticulture by the end of this century. Almost all of the affected regions are in California.
California produces many fine wines, but Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is the signature wine, at home and abroad. Shafer Vineyards in the Stags Leap District is one of Napa's top cabernet producers. The name Stags Leap may ring a bell: A wine from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, down the road from Shafer, finished first among cabernets in the famous Paris tasting of 1976, besting several Bordeaux first growths. Napa Valley had arrived on the world stage.
For years, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon defined the appellation, but for at least the past 15 years, Shafer's Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon has been the benchmark wine of the district. Of Napa's top cabernet areas, Stag's Leap is closest to San Francisco Bay and therefore the coolest. I asked Doug Shafer, winery president, whether things are getting warmer. "I'm not seeing a trend that way," he said. "We had smoking-hot years in the '80s, like 1984 and 1987, when we picked very early, and we've had some cooler vintages of late. I just don't see it on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis."
Shafer acknowledged that the winery's 30-year history could not match the historical perspective of Europe's ancient estates. But, he pointed out, "by California standards we're not that young."
If the doomsayers are correct and Shafer isn't, what can wine growers do? They can move up, either in latitude or altitude, or move closer to the ocean. Does that mean the next Napa Valley will be Sonoma's Russian River Valley, now known for chardonnay and pinot noir, or perhaps the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia? Or some sunny mountainside in Colorado with no history of viticulture? Will Burgundy become the new Bordeaux and Germany's Mosel the new Burgundy?
Such questions occupied winemakers and scientists who gathered last month in Barcelona for the Second World Conference on Climate Change and Wine, at which speakers urged greater environmental awareness. The wine industry worldwide is becoming increasingly green: limiting carbon emissions, seeking alternative energy sources, using water more wisely. Twenty years ago, winemakers seldom talked about environmental issues; today some talk about little else.
Water has become the critical concern in Australia, said Prue Henschke, who with her husband, Stephen, runs one of Australia's finest wineries. "The country is enduring one of the worst droughts in history, with no relief in sight," she said. "We are okay with our vineyards [in south Australia's Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills], but other parts of the country are facing severe shortages. And it isn't just winegrowing; it's other agriculture as well. We're having to rethink all our practices."
Her vineyards, already organically farmed, are becoming biodynamic. "Everything we do moves us to sustainable viticulture," she said.
Research in the United States, Europe and Australia pointing to a long-term warming trend makes for disturbing reading, but nothing haunts me like Freddie Mugnier's prediction. A world without great Burgundy: That is truly alarming.
Joseph Ward is senior wine correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler.