Climate change and wine

A wine glass that ‘breathes’ makes a good gift. - Courtesy photo/Rudi Scharf
A wine glass that ‘breathes’ makes a good gift.
— image credit: Courtesy photo/Rudi Scharf

We have noticed subtle alterations in our weather, and the changes that it has wrought worldwide. We have seen the calving of glaciers up north and the drowning of polar bears because they have no ice floes on which to swim. When I noticed a winemakers’ conference on global warming, I began to wonder how climate changes would affect the wine industry.

Dr. Greg Jones, a climatologist at Southern Oregon University, predicts that by the end of the century, up to 81 percent of the country’s high- to premium-end wine grape production zones will decrease. That is because by 2050, temperatures will increase by an average of 3.6 degrees across 27 of America’s wine regions. By 2100, that number will have increased to 4.5 degrees in the west. Jones also predicts that there will be warmer and longer growing seasons, longer dormant periods and altered ripening profiles.

Jon Trumble, entomologist at the University of California at Riverside, said, “Insects don’t have the ability to control their temperature. As the weather warms up, we’re going to see an incredible increase in the number of insects. If we get more monsoonal rains coming up from Baja, we’re going to see a dramatic increase in species of insects in California that we’ve never seen before.”

While predictions are that the changes will not be experienced for around 40 years, some differences are noticeable right now. When we were in Germany in 1997, we spent a week along the Rhine and the Mosel Rivers. We came across tents indicating that the residents would be celebrating the harvest that night. We would stop, find a “zimmer frei” (available room) and party with the town. That is why it took us so long to travel that relatively small region. Whenever we would stop at an actual winery, the winemaker would eagerly bring out his spat burgunder, which is a German pinot noir. They were dreadful — it was not that they didn’t taste like pinot noir; they tasted bad. Fast-forward to 2008: I have been treated to several spat burgunders recently, and they were delicious. When I queried, the purveyor would comment that the climate is warming so that the grape now has enough heat days to ripen in Germany.

The same thing is happening to the pinot noir in Oregon. It seemed as if the weather was only conducive to adequately ripening Oregon grapes about one year out of eight. It was like that fairy tale: When it was good, it was very, very good. When in off years, it was awful. Now Oregon is experiencing more good years than bad, and that state can realistically claim to have the best pinot noir.

Australian wines may be drying up. Australia is experiencing a six-year drought. While grapes do not need much water, they do need some. And while the 40-year estimate of the full impact of climate change is a ways off, Washington state will be spared from any detrimental effect on its wines. The weather will be favorable to great vintages. Canadian wines will also benefit. Canada has been producing better wines. Initially, its wines were green, tasting as if the grapes did not have a chance to ripen. Now that the Canadian vines are maturing and the weather is more favorable, their wines are much better.

Chris Howell, a former Mercer Island resident and Cain Cellars winemaker in California, is my go-to guy when I have questions. He responded immediately with various reports and studies. In the Napa Valley Vintners’ publication, an article addresses the impending doom for the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Succinctly, the prediction is that those areas will warm up so much that the grapes will ripen too quickly and fail to develop character and acidity.

Because of these dire predictions, the Napa Valley Vintners — a coalition of 325 winery members — has created a Climate Change Task Force, working with noted geophysicists from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. By developing a more accurate model, the coalition hopes to adjust farming practices to maintain Napa’s leadership role in viticulture and winemaking.

In the short term, winegrowers can do a lot to curtail the harmful effects of climate change. Canopy management — how vines are pruned and trellised — is a critical method that can protect grapes from heat during the day. Leaf-thinning and shoot-pulling can provide greater air flow around clusters to curtail mold and mildew. These are just a few practices that can help keep the quality of grapes. Grapevines are adaptable and vineyard practices can minimize climatic effect.

Winemaker Chris Howell sums it up: “As you can see, it becomes more interesting as we bring it closer to home. And also it becomes less clear-cut, less proven, more speculative and more of ‘soft science.’”

My husband, who is my personal pundit, predicts that we will see varietals such as the Spanish tempranillo growing in areas where it is currently too cool. He also forecasts that the French law against irrigation will eventually need to be changed. However, we probably will not be around long enough to see his predictions come true.

Gifts for the

wine lover

I am constantly asked about gifts for wine lovers. Usually, my suggestions are standard and not very exciting. However, I have two recommendations that will perk up your recipients.

First, there is the breathable wine glass. With mystical technology, the Eisch family of Germany has developed a breathable glass that enhances wine in five minutes. We tried this at home with a normal glass of about the same size and a breathable glass with the same wine. Within five minutes the wine in the breathable was softer and more fruit forward, as if it had been decanted for a much longer time. The Culinary Institute in California uses these glasses plus an impressive list of Washington winery tasting rooms: Barnard Griffin, Basel Cellars, Bookwalter, Columbia Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia, Gordon Brothers, Kestrel, Sagelands, Snoqualmie, Three Rivers, Tsillan and Walter Dacon. After all, they want you to taste their wines at their very best so that you take some home.

Aerating wine helps to mellow the tannin and alcohol, allowing the fruit to come forward both in the nose and mouth. Primarily true for reds, aerating also helps white to mellow out wood notes and dissipate acid.

One breathable glass in a protective cardboard tube is $25.

A pack of six glasses in a cardboard box is $125.

Another interesting gift is a one-year membership to Two Mountain Winery’s “Vineyard Crew.” Crew members tend to the winery’s vineyards at four key growing periods during the year. Each session is accompanied by a lecture on seasonal topics such as pruning, thinning, verasion and harvest. The cost is $100 per person or $180 a couple. Call (509) 829-3900 or log onto

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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