C’est le Vin: Europe’s vintners are buying fruit, lighting fires, and saving good vintages as climate change alters the future of fine wine

Illustration by Andrea Jacobs

Illustration by Andrea Jacobs

The world of wine is always changing. Consider in Champagne, France (circa 1668), when a monk by the name of Dom Pierre Pérignon fought desperately to keep the bubbles out of the insipid red wine he was making for mass. It wouldn’t be until much later that the region would become known for its beloved effervescence. 

Truth be told, Champagne never made great red wine because it was just too darn cold there. These days you can find precious few bottles of lovely red Coteaux Champenois, but for the most part Champagne is Champagne. They’ve determined which wines work best for their region.

Finding that certain regions are better suited for grapevines than others brought about the conception of terroir—a hotly debated term among wine professionals and scientists relating to a set of location-specific factors that impact the overall experience of a wine in the glass. These include things like climate, grape variety, weather, soil, inputs (such as irrigation, fertilization, compost, etc.), harvesting decisions, and winemaking choices. 

Climate has always been an important factor for grape growing and is one of the main elements of regional terroir—it helps determine which grapes can grow where, and how well. So what happens to the wines we know and love when the climate changes? 

For hundreds of years now, Champagne has evolved an iconic style of winemaking based around a cool climate that produces grapes that are high in acidity and relatively low in sugar content (historically it has been hard to get grapes to fully ripen in this region). In turn, these grapes are made into bright, low alcohol, still wines that provide the zippy backbone to your favorite sparkling wines. 

But Champagne’s bubble-friendly climate looks to be fleeting. Over Thanksgiving weekend, the U.S. Global Change Research Program dropped their Fourth National Climate Assessment, over 1,500 pages that stated, in no uncertain terms, that the climate has changed and is continuing to change, bringing with it daunting challenges for nearly all aspects of life on Earth. What is particularly striking about the report is that we seem to be exceeding our previously predicted pace—things are changing faster and more intensely than we previously thought.

Those working the land have already experienced the effects of climate change for decades. In a 2017 TED Talk, wine climatologist Dr. Gregory V. Jones talks about the wine grape as a “narrow specialty crop” that is quite prone to changes in climate overall. Ask any vigneron and they will tell you that the growing seasons are trending warmer and longer, which is bad news for the acid levels in those Champagne grapes. After all, you can’t just pack up a vineyard and move it to a more suitable clime.

This warming pattern also means increasingly mild winters, which can trick grapevines into budding and flowering too early. This is particularly troublesome because early spring is one of the most crucial points in the life cycle of the vine—early buds risk exposure to heavy frosts which can cause catastrophic damage in the vineyard. A striking example were the frosts at the Dönnhoff vineyards in the Nahe region of Germany in 2017 (and 2016). In an effort to avoid total loss, they burned small fires overnight in between the rows of grapevines. “Despite the fact that it looks super nice,” says winemaker Cornelius Dönnhoff, “fighting frost is a real nightmare.” 

Fires lit in between rows of grapes at a German vineyard to mitigate damage from frost // Illustration by Andrea Jacobs

Fires lit in between rows of grapes at a German vineyard to mitigate damage from frost // Illustration by Andrea Jacobs

The harsh reality is that when much of your vineyard is lost to something like frost or hail, it is hard to make up the vintage. Most small producers simply don’t have enough fruit to withstand substantial losses and still craft estate wines to sell to the market. (Or if they do have enough fruit, quantities are often very low which means a higher price to the consumer.) This presents an existential quandary for most grower-producers, and has resulted in more of them buying fruit from friends and creating “second labels” in order to survive. 

It goes without saying that extreme weather conditions are testing the flexibility and understanding of the wine market. Consumers have been broadly taught that “estate” wine is the best wine, and that a producer that grows their own fruit is inherently “better” than one that buys and blend grapes from all over. But what happens when a storied vineyard or estate, one with name recognition and the price to match, is increasingly imperiled by inclement weather?

Two fantastic Beaujolais producers, Yann Bertrand and Jean-Louis Dutraive, are dealing with this reality. Each suffered devastating losses in 2016 and 2017 due to hail and decided to purchase fruit from carefully selected parcels that align with their sustainable and organic philosophies. As more and more producers like Bertrand and Dutraive continue making exquisite wines from purchased fruit, consumer attitudes about single-vineyard wines and the magic of specific terroir will continue to be complicated and challenged.

Not only is climate change impacting the supply of fruit, it is impacting the fruit itself, which in turn impacts wine style. It’s an increasing challenge for our friends in Champagne, where the warmer and longer season is accompanied by warmer evening temperatures. The difference in daytime and nighttime
temperatures, called the diurnal temperature variation, is what helps grapes to ripen as well as maintain acidity for balance. In an article for Bloomberg in 2018, winemaker Antoine Malassagne of Champagne house A.R. Lenoble spoke about this change: 

“Harvest is two weeks earlier than it was 20 years ago. It used to be mid-to-late September. Now harvest often starts in August, as it will this year. But maturity during hot days and nights results in lower and lower acidity in the grapes, which means less freshness in the wines.”

In 2010, Malassagne made a decision with the future of their house style in mind: in addition to maintaining their “réserve perpétuelle,” a solera-style method of reserving wine from past vintages in order to add richness to new cuvées, they began to bottle wine in magnums from vintages with exceptional acidity in order to blend their brightness into the wines of the future. In 2018, they released their first two wines to use this reserve—their flagship wine, the Brut Intense “Mag 14,” and their Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly “Mag 14.” The label “Mag 14” refers to the use of reserve magnums from the 2014 vintage. Both of these wines are excellent and exemplary of the A.R. Lenoble style, which indicates that their experiment has worked. But at the rate things are changing, looking ahead 10 or 20 years, how many of these wonderfully acid-driven vintages will they continue to have at their disposal? 

Despite the long-standing cultural and legal definitions that true Champagne comes only from the Champagne region, a changing climate has some Champagne houses setting their sights on England. Historically, the Brits played an integral role in the refinement of the sparkling wine we know today and have been steadily ramping up their own production of Méthode Champenoise wines in places like Kent, where the chalky soil and south-facing slopes are increasingly suited to growing the classic Champagne varieties. 

In early 2018, Vranken-Pommery was one of the first big Champagne houses to launch an English sparkling wine under the label Louis Pommery, garnering mixed reviews from wine critics. This first release was made with the use of purchased fruit, but the winery has planted their own vineyards in England for use down the line. This move may seem sacrilegious to purists, but we must steel ourselves for the reality that we are likely to see more changes of this nature in the future.  

It is our responsibility as producers and consumers to acknowledge the challenge in front of us and promote a future of the industry that has the health of the whole system in mind.

Dom Pérignon likely never imagined a future where Champagne was synonymous with sparkling wine, and the folks who set out to establish legal designations for wine regions and productions methods (AOC in France, AVA in the U.S., etc.) could not have imagined their definitions would be challenged by something like climate change. Could the Champagne of the future be known for red wine? According to Dr. Gregory V. Jones, it’s possible.  

Second labels from iconic producers, red wine from Champagne, sparkling wine from England, fantastic chardonnay from the Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, and world-class wines from Sweden may all be things to look for on the wine lists and shop shelves of the future. And while we will most likely always have something nice to drink, it is important to remember that wine is a widespread agricultural product. It is our responsibility as producers and consumers to acknowledge the challenge in front of us and promote a future of the industry that has the health of the whole system in mind. 

From smart water usage and increased biodiversity in vineyards to carbon-neutral facilities and forward-thinking packaging, producers are adopting innovative practices to reduce negative impacts on the environment and increase overall resilience in the face of a changing climate. The movement is growing to ensure the wine community has a future—even if it looks very different than it does today.