The Climate Times They Are A Changing

The debate over whether changes in our environment are the consequence of human activity or the product of natural forces that have been shaping the Earth’s weather since the dawn of time has thrust itself into the global conversation like never before. Scientists have documented the shrinking of the ice shields globally, an ever-increasing number of record-high temperatures, and the toll of prolonged droughts are inflicting on all life on this planet. Life on Earth is persistent and will adapt over time to long-term fluctuations that threaten its existence.

After hearing numerous reports of how vineyard managers are adjusting to preserve the production and quality of their vines I wanted to hear from the winemakers themselves why they are moving proactively to stay ahead of climate change related problems and exactly what measures they were implementing now in hopes of being successful in the long run. Vineyards are our proverbial “Canary in the coal mine” and they are signaling a warning of problems to come. 

For this article, I had the unique good fortune to draw on the expertise of individuals who are not only well-known winemakers, growers, and wine media authorities but also good friends whose opinions I trust. The following are their personal observations and first-hand accounts of how climate change is affecting winemaking operations in their area.

J.Stephen Casscles is a renowned vintner, horticulturist, and author that is currently working in partnership with the Milea Estate Vineyard in the Hudson Valley of New York to produce their Hudson Valley Heritage Wines. You can purchase the rare wines made with their estate-grown heirloom grapes from the Milea Estate website Here’s what Steve told me about how climate change is impacting vineyards in the Hudson Valley.

“The 2022 grape growing season was very difficult for the Hudson Valley and Eastern Massachusetts. In varying degrees, we had a drought that started in April and ended in late September in Eastern Massachusetts. For us in the Hudson Valley, our drought started in May and lasted until the middle of August.  Our temperatures were on average 3 to 4 degrees warmer than usual (and our norms in the summer have been going up for some time), In the Hudson Valley, we had a very wet September with 50 to 60 percent more rain as we were starting the earliest harvest season I have ever witnessed. With the ground so dry and sun-baked, all of the September rains (which can in 3 torrential downpours, so that much of the rain could not be absorbed in the soil, so we had flooding, which encouraged soil erosion.  Our Fall was warmer than average by 3 to 4 degrees so while my interspecific hybrids hardened off, many vinifera did not harden off as well. Hence, when we had our Christmas Eve Bomb Cyclone, where temperatures fell from 53 F to 9 F in about 12 hours, we had some vine damage.  After 3 days of fridge temperatures, we then experienced above-normal temperatures.  While, this seems to be a uniquely hard growing season, with climate change, this may be the “new norm”.  That is warmer Springs with sudden last Spring frosts, warmer and wetter summers, and falls, that end abruptly with our now fairly common Christmas time polar vortex or cyclone bomb (I see this in reverse too as a bomb cyclone).  Hence, I am expecting that the weather patterns that we saw in 2022 will become more common.  At my vineyard and at the Milea Estate Vineyard Heritage Grape/Wine Project, I have been shifting my work to not only find suitable interspecific hybrids that are cold hardy, fungus disease resistant, and make quality wine…. also include grapes that in addition to the above goals, also can produce a secondary crop with secondary buds when we get more commonly late spring frosts. In addition, because of our increasingly warmer falls, our grape wood is not hardening off to face our more commonly occurring Christmas-time polar vortex or cyclone bomb.  In association with the Milea Estate Vineyard Heritage Grape/Wine Program, we are now making wines out of these heritage varieties that can roll with the punches that Mother Nature is sending our way.   ***** Grape varieties that meet all 5 criteria listed above to better face our changing climate are Chelois, Pallmer, Burdin 6055 (reds), and Jefferson (a pink grape that makes a white wine).”

To get a glimpse into how climate change is altering the environment south of the equator in Australia I contacted Dan Traucki, acclaimed journalist, wine consultant, and Director of WineAssist for his candid insights on this subject. 

“The biggest single thing that growers are doing to combat global warming in the vineyard, is experimenting with and planting new (emerging) varieties.

From the coolest areas through to the warmest they are looking at what they grow and moving towards more heat and drought-tolerant varieties.

Australia has gone from growing around 80-90 varieties prior to the turn of the century, to currently growing 156 varieties and rising.

The charge is being led by the growers in the warmest areas such as South Australia’s Riverland, due to its hot climate and from time to time the restrictions the government places on irrigation (due to drought). Many growers are experimenting or have adopted Mediterranean varieties that are much more suited to this climate than the traditional Chardonnay, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot. Sure they still make a Shiraz and Cabernet but their focus and emphasis is on the “new” warmer climate varieties.

When I was the CEO of a grape growing company (1,500 acres) up there in 2001-2004, the region was mainly a bulk wine-producing region producing no more than 15-25 varieties (the classics), whereas today there are a number of excellent small/ish producers producing an array of interesting and exciting varieties, for example, Bassham Wines produces 24 different varieties- having just recently launched Arinto, Fiano, Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola to mention but a few. Whilst out of the 13 wines that 919Wines produces only three are “traditional” or classic varieties.

The Barossa, the traditional home of mighty Aussie Shiraz, is now becoming well known for other big and interesting reds such as Durif & Zinfandel- in fact, in my opinion, Australia’s best Zin’s come from the Barossa.

Right across the country regions are exploring new more heat-tolerant varieties suitable for their particular region. Thus Australia now has over 400 Tempranillo growers amongst its 2,600 wineries, compared with 60 in 1990.

The other development is the rising number of vineyards that are converting to either Organic or Biodynamic. Whilst mainly done for environmental reasons, I have been told that there are climate change benefits in that these practices make for a more natural vineyard that requires slightly less irrigation, thereby helping with the upcoming and ongoing challenge of water availability. 

The Mighty Murray River upon which South Australia depends for almost all its water for humans and irrigation, which has been in drought for several years is currently flooding and is expected to peak at a new record- even higher than the devastating 1956 flood- many vineyards are underwater and I saw images of one where only the crowns of the vines were visible above the water!!

Meanwhile, within 50 kilometers of the flood zone, there are catastrophic bushfires raging.

Half the emergency services are battling floods and the other half raging bushfires all within the one county, for the first time in recorded history!!!”

Award-winning winemaker, grower, and owner of Chateau Niagara, Jim Baker gives us his take on how climate change has altered his winemaking operation on the Niagara Plain in Newfane, New York.

“We had a devastating cold snap in the third week of January 2022. As a result, our vineyard died back to the ground. As part of the farming culture in cool climates, we hilled up our vines, basically plowing a mound of soil up onto the plant. This allows us to use the soil as insulation from sudden, deep cold snaps. This protected the dormant buds at the graft union and when spring hit, after we de-hilled the vines, these buds sprang into action. We spent the summer regrowing them but alas, had no harvest. 

So one of the effects of climate change is more extremes. Our summers have been generally a bit longer, our winters shorter, and overall milder. I noticed the shoreline of lake Ontario had no ice built up this year. Another observation is that the high-humidity disease of downy and powdery mildew has been tougher to deal with. The effect has been subtle on the insect population as well, with more Japanese beetles overwintering as grubs and emerging to feed on the grapes. On a more positive note, the number of growing degree days is increased,  resulting in riper fruit with improvements in the Bordeaux reds in particular. Overall it seems positive for us, at least that is the view from Niagara.”

The following are excerpts from an interview I did recently with Ulrike Platter, Director of Castel Sallegg in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy. You can read the interview in its entirety in an earlier post on this blog.

In addition, 80% of our vines are 30-50 years old, which means that the roots are growing very deep to get enough water for themselves even in a very hot season. These vines are stable.

“Our vineyard manager noticed the changes, especially this year, which was hot and dry. Since Castel Sallegg is more of a red wine winery (we produce 58% of red wines) and we often had difficulties in the past years, with the red grapes, such as Lagrein, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon fully ripening, so 2022 was a great year for us.

Problems can be seen in younger plants or new plants.

For this purpose, we invested in a project for the next few years, which will digitize needs-based irrigation. This means that the humidity of the soil is measured by soil sensors and the wines in different places were partially watered by a targeted system.

Since we have some vineyards on a slope and the vines get less water at the top by draining and the vines at the foot get more water we can irrigate more targeted and water-saving.

We have also noticed increased hail in recent years. For this reason, we will place our most important vineyards under hail nets in the next 2-3 years.”

The following is an excerpt from a recent interview I did with Andrea Moser, Chief Enologist at Erste+Neue a winery and vineyard located in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy.

“Facing the challenges of climate change is becoming increasingly important in every wine-growing region of the globe, and in South Tyrol, too, it is no different.

However, Alto Adige and specifically our area benefits greatly with respect to this issue, in fact, our orographic situation is very particular. The vineyards start in fact with the red varieties at about 230 m.a.s.l. and arrive in just a few kilometers to elevations of about 700 m.a.s.l. where the white varieties find excellent ripening conditions. This large elevation range, combined with a constant south-to-north wind “the Garda Hour” and strong temperature fluctuations between day and night due to the mountains that surround us (Mendola range), allows us to consistently obtain high qualities on both red and white grape varieties.

Ripe but fresh and elegant reds and whites with low ph, good acidity, crisp and fresh that perfectly embody the spirit of our territory and our vineyards located in the middle of the Alps.”

It doesn’t matter which side of the climate change debate you favor, there is no denying that the environmental forces in the vineyards of the world have changed and continue to do so. The grapes in northern vineyards are ripening more fully as the growing degree days increase and the growing zone edges further north each year. The vineyard managers and winemakers whose vineyards are located in the traditionally ideal spots for growing wine grapes are being forced to adapt to earlier and earlier harvest dates. One of the options being explored is to seek higher ground and the advantages that come with planting at altitude now affords. The rise in air and ground temperatures aren’t the only danger we have to worry about. Historic droughts, huge storms, floods of biblical proportions, and freakish weather events have become the new normal that must be endured and prepared for as we enter an era of unprecedented climate uncertainty. 

These are immense problems that must be addressed universally but solved locally. In a world facing such extraordinary challenges, you might be wondering what you can do to help. The only thing any of us can do is to be thoughtful of how our actions affect the environment and all living in it because we can only control what we do and that is what really matters. You can help by sharing a link to this post on your social media to raise awareness and sensitivity to our current situation.

Thank you for your time and attention.