Winemakers warned not to underestimate pace of climate change

Climate change is happening at a rapid clip and winemakers should not wait to adapt, says one wine commentator. He speaks to Felicity Carter.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Wine producers in Europe should take note of the catastrophe unfolding in Australia’s wine regions, says a leading wine writer – because climate change is bearing down on European wine regions much faster than they may realise.

“In 2019, the Rheingau had the same heat summation as the Adelaide Hills,” says Stuart Pigott. “It wasn’t as hot as 2018, which was warmer – they had almost the heat summation of the Barossa Valley floor.”

The heat summation method was developed by Professors Albert J. Winkler and Maynard Amerine of UC Davis, to classify vineyard regions into five categories based on temperatures during the growing season. A region with a lower heat summation is cooler, so grapes take longer to ripen and have higher natural acid. The Adelaide Hills is in Region II, while the Barossa Valley is a much warmer Region IV region.

Stuart Pigott is a well-known wine writer based in Germany, who not only has expertise in German wines but who also worked for some years as part of James Suckling’s tasting team, giving him a deep overview of the world’s wines. 

“Last year in July I gave a lecture on Riesling in warm and warming climates, and I started digging deep into the stats,” says Pigott. “I am very glad I did, because this woke me up with a big jolt. I realised I had been grossly underestimating the pace of change.” 

To prepare for the talk, he asked Professor Hans Reiner Schultz of Geisenheim University, one of Europe’s premier wine schools, for data. “He sent me the stats and I remember opening the email and going ‘holy f—k’,” says Pigott. “Spring comes earlier, that’s the first thing you spot. And if it comes later, you get a few days of spring, and suddenly you’ve leapt from winter to summer.” 

Pigott published the data under the heading “Cool climate is dead in Old Europe” on his website. He now believes that the wine trade, for all its many discussions about climate change, is not reacting quickly enough.

“The situation has become so much more serious than we imagined it would be a decade ago,” he says, adding that ten years ago he spent two semesters at Geisenheim. “The scenario that was presented to me for 2050 is what we’ve got now.”

Pigott says he’s frustrated that wine companies are not reacting quickly enough, because of commercial considerations. “I know a bunch of people in Napa who are doing a lot of experimentation, but when I saw the list of grape varieties they’re experimenting with, I asked myself why Carignan wasn’t on the list. It’s a heat resistant variety.” The reason, he believes, is because Carignan is unfashionable, and listing it in a blend would create an image problem. 

Pigott himself now works for a winery, the historic Gut Hermannsberg in the Nahe. He says when the Reidel family bought it in 2009, they took the all-important step of improving the water retention capacity of the soil, so the vines can cope with long hot and dry periods. “This is the biggest challenge – that the vines don’t shut down and you don’t lose quality and quantity through warm climate conditions in a cool climate region.” Another problem is that in the past, if unfavourable weather came along, it would depart after two or three weeks. Now it can stretch out to ten weeks.

Pigott advises wine producers who haven’t already done so to think about water security and potential new varieties for the future. “Move quickly and decisively,” he says. “Don’t wait.”

Felicity Carter

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