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Berger: Adjusting wine expectations with climate change

A decade ago, in an issue of my private wine newsletter, I wrote about an interview I’d had with a Swedish winemaker.

The gentleman revealed to me that he was growing Cabernet Sauvignon just outside Stockholm, that he hoped the resulting wine would display all the characteristics that a great red wine should have, and that he hoped to market it throughout Europe at a fairly high price.

He said growing Cabernet was possible because of global climate change, making parts of Sweden warm enough to ripen Cabernet. He said that fact would be welcomed throughout all northern hemisphere latitudes.

Most of my readers took note of the date of that issue, April 1, and saw the “interview” for what it was: an April Fools’ joke. Still, I heard from three readers who called to ask how they could buy the wine!

Though it was a false story, to those three people, global climate change was so far advanced that Sweden was now a competitor to California.

Today, the effects of global climate change are yet to be fully seen, but what appears to be happening from region to region is a slight increase in the average daily temperature of fine wine-growing regions. In some areas, the effects are so great it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain the styles of wine each of these regions historically produced with panache.

Some regions are seeing the effects more prominently; others have yet to see much of a direct impact.

Carneros, for instance, in southern Napa and Sonoma counties, once was considered to be California’s parallel to Burgundy, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as the primary wines and each producer hoping for a world-class identity tag for their twin offerings. But that is changing.

About the time of that April Fools’ issue a decade ago, I interviewed the winemaker for a large Sonoma-Carneros winery. At the time he was making excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But he noted that within a couple of years, Syrah and Merlot would be his best wines.

“Carneros is no longer a cool region,” he said. “It now has a moderate climate, and very soon it’s gonna be really hard to make a ‘Carneros-like’ Chardonnay or Pinot.”

That chat gave me the idea to write about the emerging Swedish wine industry.

This week, Decanter Magazine in England, one of the world’s top wine publications, carried a story with the headline, “English wine is ‘like New Zealand in the 1980s.’”

The quote came from British wine expert and educator Gerard Basset, who spoke about the fast-growing English wine business. Basset is further quoted, “At that time [1980], New Zealand was not very well known, but now it is considered a very serious wine producer.”

Considered far too cold and rainy to make wine at all as late as 1985, Great Britain today has 4,500 acres of vines, 135 wineries, makes an array of fascinating sparkling wines, and looks to develop better quality table wines very soon.

This is a lot more energetic an idea than is Alaskan wine, where its five wineries still make a lot of berry wine, and are hard-pressed to develop a broad following for table wines.

Some of the colder regions of the wine world are as yet immune from some of the warming we have seen in other regions.

Among these are high-altitude wine regions, such as those in Colorado and the Northern Victorian highlands of southern Australia. Other areas that may be immune, for now, from increased average daily temperatures are those nearby huge bodies of water, such as Santa Barbara County, Monterey County, New Zealand.

As for Sweden, no Cabernet Sauvignon is yet planted there, though its tiny number of wineries produces small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. I have yet to try any of these wines.

But I have tasted many of the wines now being made in Minnesota, most of them from winter-tolerant hybrid grapes from the so-called Minnesota grape varieties. In various competitions, many of these wines have impressed the international judges, who have awarded gold medals to some of the best.

And as we have previously noted here, there are now great wines being made in Canada (both from British Columbia and Ontario), Ohio, New York, and Wisconsin.

So although we may not see a Swedish Cabernet for a while, that day may be here sooner than later.

Wine of the Week: 2014 Yalumba Sauvignon Blanc, South Australia, “Y Series” ($13) -- This lighter white wine has a delicate varietal note of dried herbs and tea and a dry entry to allow it to pair with lighter, green-herb-seasoned seafood, such as halibut with tarragon.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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