Monday, January 25, 2021

What are the Australian and Spanish grape-growers doing?

Commenting on the effects of climate change in the wine industry, Jancis Robinson (What price terroir in an era of climate change?) recently commented:
Here then is the dilemma which will face Bordeaux châteaux in the next 20 to 50 years. Might they move to a cooler region and plant their present famous varieties, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc and Merlot, or, perhaps stay put in Bordeaux and grow more heat-tolerant varieties such as Syrah and Grenache?
The latter option is being actively pursued in several parts of the world, notably Australia, where the climate is now notably drier and hotter than it was when I grew up there, last century.* Robinson continues:
For presently cooler regions, such as Burgundy, or Central Otago in New Zealand, it is still possible to choose more adapted varieties as warming occurs ... However, for regions already enjoying quality reputations with more heat-tolerant varieties, such as Australia’s Barossa Valley with Shiraz, the situation is much more difficult as there are few well-known varieties adapted to hotter climates.

There are clearly two topics here: what the Australians (and others) are already doing, and what the Europeans might start doing. In this regard, the Australians are trying Spanish, Portugese and Italian grape varieties, whether well-known or not, but the Spanish seem to be trying French varieties!

The evolution of Australian wine

Australians originally planted grape vines familiar to those growing them, from the Old World. However, through time, the vineyards ended up being dominated by the "usual suspects" — the well-known international varieties. However, it has now been noted that the wine grapes are ripening up to two days earlier each year (Australian wine under threat from climate change, as grapes ripen early).

So, there is now increased interest in what have become known as "alternative grape varieties". In one sense, these consist of whatever varieties seem worth trying in a changing climate, or even in response to interest from wine drinkers. However, in general, the varieties being trialed are the tried and true ones from dry climates in the Old World. These are, then, mostly those from close to the Mediterranean. This actually has a long history, with Coriole first importing and championing Italian varieties (such as Sangiovese and Fiano) back in 1985.

This topic has been the basis of a recent research articles (eg. Alternative varieties for the Australian wine industry to help winegrape producers in a changing environment and market. 2020. Wine & Viticulture Journal 35(3): 52-57). There are also online discussions, such as Alternative Australian varieties and Australian alternative varieties: the ones to watch, three years on. There is even an entire website devoted to the topic (Vinodiversity). Some of the varieties being actively pursued include: Assyrtiko, Fiano, Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola, Grüner Veltliner, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, and Vermentino.

This is not to say that all of Australia is like this — it is a big continent, after all. In particular, Tasmania's cooler climate is still suited to those traditional grape varieties currently in strong demand — Pinot noir: 44% of the area; Chardonnay: 27%; Sauvignon blanc: 11%; Pinot gris: 8%; Riesling: 6% (Introduction to Tasmania’s wine and regions).

Finally, note that there are actually two potential driving forces behind the move to alternative varieties: a drying climate, and customer demand. If these both lead in the same direction, then all will be well in both the vineyard and the winery (Varietal diversity to drive demand). Otherwise, we might possibly see some future confusion within the Australian wine industry. This potentially occurs because of the New World propensity for naming wines after their component grapes, so that these grape varieties need to be known by the customer (recently discussed by Tom Maresca). In the Old World,  there are protected wine names, which are composed of sometimes quite un-namable varieties — for example, can you name the varieties that go into Rioja Blanco, from northern Spain?

Changing Spanish vineyards

In contrast to this, the Spanish grape-growers seem to have a very different idea. Recently, the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) put a couple of tables on their Facebook page:
   Red wine grape varieties in Spain: Vineyard area and age structure
   White wine grape varieties in Spain: Vineyard area and age structure
These data (originally from Estadísticas agrarias) show that relatively recent grape-vine plantings have included considerable areas of French varieties. Here are those with at least 1,000 hectares of vines:

Cabernet sauvignon
Sauvignon blanc
Petit verdot
Pinot noir

It is difficult to believe that this has anything to do with improving the Spanish vineyards in response to ongoing changes in growing conditions. Indeed, it looks far more like an attempt to cash in one the retail popularity of certain French wines. If so, then given the quote that I started this post with, it looks doomed to failure, unless these are high-altitude or otherwise cooler vineyards.

Indeed, it may have much more to do with the amount of bulk wine that travels from Spain to France, to beef up the northern wines — we need to get the varieties right, after all. Things ripen much better in Spain. For example (The differences between high- and low-elevation wine):
Médoc, also known as the Left Bank of Bordeaux, is one of the lowest-lying wine regions in the world. This enabled grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to ripen in a marginal climate for these varieties before climate change. Higher altitudes would have been too cool, and even low-lying vineyards often struggled to ripen grapes fully.

* Those wildfires that you are increasingly hearing about are simply one obvious by-product (as well as deliberately lit ones). Trust me, I know. In my previous life as an environmental biologist (30 years ago) I used to study the effects of bushfires on Australian plants, and how those plants cope with what is obviously an extreme situation. Well, that situation is now much more extreme than it was back then. The same is true of California, which I first visited in 1990.

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