Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 2 October 2013

Viticultural climate change: dog days for wine makers?

Climate change has been something of a fraught dinner table/editorial page subject for the better part of a decade. Al Gore partly expiated the sin of leaving the US to the mercies of George W Bush by focusing attention on some of the issues - and so helped to give the debate mainstream status.

When the world was really warming up – from the 1970s until at least 1998 – no one except scientists seemed very perturbed. Now that it may be cooling down a little, levels of anxiety – fuelled by the industry that it has spawned and driven by the prospect of a new kind of tax – have reached an all time high.

The Du Toitskloof winery has even sponsored a wine writing competition (which, as will become clear, I couldn’t honestly have justified entering) on the consequences of climate change on the South African wine industry.

There’s little point in pretending I’m not a skeptic – at least when it comes to the anthropogenic causes, and therefore on the pressures to modify human behaviour. Despite ever-increasing carbon levels, temperatures may actually be declining. (The scientists – worried about their future grants – have tried to explain this by saying that the heat is hiding at the bottom of the ocean, a neat if unlikely hypothesis: when I was at school we were taught that heat – and especially hot air – is prone to rise).

The minimum arctic sea ice surface area this year is over 1.5m sq. kilometres more than at this time last year and the surface area of the Antarctic sea ice may be at a modern day high.

It’s possible that the earth was heating up until about 15 years ago, and it is now cooling down. In fact, we could arguably be entering the next ice age. Whatever the case, the one certainty is that we are living in a time of visible, palpable and discernible climate change.

This is by no means the first time in modern history that the world has had to deal with outlandish weather patterns. In the so-called Medieval Warm Period, the weather was hotter and drier than even the drought year of 2003: in 1540 the Rhine could be traversed in several places on foot. The Little Ice Age which followed, saw temperatures plummet: in the late 17th century several of Bordeaux’s top properties abandoned their harvests entirely.

All this was achieved without the internal combustion engine. No doubt, long after all stray carbon has been sequestered and our descendants scoot around in vehicles powered by electricity harvested from lightning, the wind or even sunlight, the climate on earth will confuse even 22nd century meteorologists with its unpredictable fluctuations.

So, if climate change is with us as a fact of life, what are wine farmers to do about its impact on their vineyards? The 1930s in Bordeaux produced a series of truly catastrophic vintages, with only 1934 and 1937 yielding wines of passable quality.

The second half of the 1940s was infinitely more generous, with 1945, 1947, 1948 and 1949 somewhere between very good and utterly extraordinary. The 1960s had three of the worst modern vintages. From the 1980s onwards, producers were so upbeat that they began to assert that bad vintages were a thing of the past. “With the technology at our disposal,” one writer blithely maintained, “there will be no more good vintages and bad vintages – just bigger vintages and smaller vintages.”

I’m not sure how the pundits are going to account for the 2013 harvest, described this week by the director of one of the First Growths (admittedly over lunch) as “the worst vintage of our career”. A few years after a string of “the greatest vintages of all time”, Bordeaux has had a trio of very ordinary harvests, of which this latest is clearly the ultimate dog.

Despite some warm weather last week which raised the hopes of the water-logged vignerons, it is clear that in some places the roots of the vines are now below the water table. It seems that rot will triumph over optimism.

The usual climate change models for wine producing areas focus on what will happen if global temperatures rise by the amounts the scare-mongers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used to maintain was the fate awaiting planet earth.

However, the latest IPCC report (released this past weekend) acknowledges that the rate of surface temperature global warming over the past 14 years (1998?2012; 0.05 °C per decade) is smaller than the trend since 1951 (1951?2012; 0.12 °C per decade). John Gladstones – widely regarded as Australia’s pre-eminent viticulturist – concluded in a book published two years ago, well ahead of the release of the revised IPCC figures, that the effects of viticultural climate change have been exaggerated.

He maintains that viticultural Europe was warmer in the Medieval Warm Period than in the late 20th century. Either way he argues that in general vines are easily able to adapt to the kind of average surface temperature changes in the existing models.

What is less certain – and Bordeaux’s current experience bears this out – is that climate change (rather than global warming) can produce unpredictable but catastrophic effects in some areas.

The heat, combined with storms of tropical intensity, wreaked havoc in some parts of Bordeaux in the 2003 growing season. The string of smart vintages which ran, almost without interruption, from 1998 until 2010, has been replaced with a trio of duffers. It’s not the warming alone which is the issue, it’s what’s happening everywhere in the environment.

That said, things are no different now than they were in the Medieval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age, the 1930s, 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s. For a brief period wine producers bought into the delusion that they were in control of the environment. The Ancient Greeks had a word for this – they called it hubris – and it was followed by something else for which they also had a word, and that was nemesis.DM

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