Climate Change Moves Wine Country's Borders

AY, France -- Fruity merlot from Siberia? Not so fast, say vintners from Champagne to California.

As global warming threatens to change the land vintners have relied on -- sometimes for centuries -- established wine growing regions around the world are deploying techniques old and new to adapt.

The goal: to stay competitive as progressively hotter harvests open up the prospect of wine from regions once deemed unsuitable for growing grapes -- including Russia's frozen but now thawing lands and rain-battered Britain.

In France's southern Languedoc region, for example, once-sacred rules against irrigating vines are being relaxed, while growers in the U.S. are experimenting with genetically modified heat-resistant grapes.

That's because by 2050, the world's premier wine-friendly zones could shift as much as 290 kilometers toward the poles, says climate geographer Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University.

In theory, that will make northern Europe or New Zealand more grape-friendly than Bordeaux or Australian valleys.

That has beverage conglomerates in the United States, where wine is a $100 billion-a-year industry, scouting out vine plots that get more shade -- contrary to age-old practices in both the northern and southern halves of the globe.

Meanwhile, sommeliers are readying for an array of new aromas as vintners vary varieties in response to warm weather.

"You are going to see people introduced to wines from weird countries, like Belgium," says Jancis Robinson, co-author of the latest edition of the "World Atlas of Wine," adding, "You will see a lot more wine from Germany, which can finally ripen its grapes, ... and good Canadian reds," she says.

Climate and market forecasts, and studies of grape behavior, suggest that during the next two generations -- not a long time in wine terms -- vintage Kent and Chinese or Canadian chablis could occupy as much supermarket shelf space as Bordeaux, Rioja and Napa's finest.

In addition to creating new wine regions, the warming trend is changing established ones.

To keep their vines cool, Argentine producers are planting them closer to the Andean slopes and in Patagonia. In South Africa, winemakers have moved sauvignon blanc vines to higher altitudes and sought patches open to sea breezes.

In Ay, where producers such as Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot nurture precious plots, harvesters hit fields in late August last year -- the earliest since 1822, according to the Champagne Growers' Committee, which sets harvest dates.

Leaving the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes on the vine any longer would have risked too much heat, too much alcohol and a strange new sweetness.

"Those who make wine have always been sensitive to climate," says Pierre Cheval, whose Gatinois Champagne House, a small family winery in Ay, has seen plenty of industry ups and downs during 11 generations in business. "Temperatures, humidity, microclimates, all this is essential to the health and originality of the grape."

He says smaller vintners face a tougher time adapting to climate change, since it takes several years to coax good wine from a new vine or to make a profit on new grape varieties.

But water is a concern to all vintners, large and small.

In many vineyard areas of inland and southern Spain, viticulture soon could be unsustainable without irrigation. Farmers today grow vines in untrained bushes far apart to allow each a chance of surviving on scarce underground water.

Climate scientists say global warming has brought heavier-than-usual rain to some regions -- which leads to more fungus outbreaks and attracts new pests. A recent Italian study suggested that increased intense rains are a threat to Tuscan wine quality.

Southern Europe's loss, though, may prove England's gain.

"The biggest problem with English wineries is keeping up in demand," says Christopher White, general manager of Denbies Winery in Surrey. "Climate change is one of the biggest factors for the growth of the industry."

"We haven't been hit by a frost in six years," he says. "The buds burst earlier, which gives a longer ripening period. ... The volume is getting higher year after year, and the industry is more on par with what happens on the continent."

Traditionally, English wineries planted German varieties but now are moving toward varieties familiar in France such as bacchus, chardonnay and pinot noir.

China, too, may benefit. After a 60 percent expansion over five years, it now has more vineyard acreage than the U.S.

Also, milder climates are producing more consistent quality in wines, as in the Caucasus Mountains of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. And Russian researchers think that southwest Siberia could sustain marketable wine grapes.

These pressures may even prompt European governments to -- "heretical as it may sound," Robinson said -- expand or adjust the strictly controlled regions where certain wines can be produced.

French officials already are studying ways to expand "Champagne country" to keep up with growing demand -- and are focusing on north-facing land with an eye to future warming.

Purists say something will forever be lost when the weather in Burgundy is too consistently hot to produce the early pinot noir that lends grand crus their sophistication.

Champagne vintner Cheval isn't ready to abandon his profession just yet.

In a warming world, "even the English will be able to succeed in making champagne," he says, before adding with a grin, "In four, maybe five hundred years."