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New Book Details How Climate Change Will Alter How Wines Are Made Worldwide. . . Sooner Than Later

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More than most industries, the global wine community has recognized how climate change will radically affect their vineyards, grape growing and flavor of their wines. As a result many vintners have committed to extensive and expensive program to ward off the worst effects, at a time when a United Nations report released this week warns that the world, especially richer carbon polluting nations, remains “far behind” and is doing very little to reach any of the global goals limiting future warming.

To gauge just how serious and diverse the effects might be, I interviewed Philadelphia-based wine writer Brian Freedman about his important new book Crushed: How a Changing Climate Is Altering the Way We Drink (Rowman & Littlefield).

When most people think of climate change they think of global warming. But in terms of some vineyards in some parts of the world, that’s a good thing?

In southeastern England, for example, a warming climate is allowing growers there to ripen not just Chardonnay but also Pinot Noir more reliably than in the past. One of the producers I spoke with for the book was even able to bottle a still, red Pinot Noir, which would have been unheard of a generation ago. It's not something he thinks will happen all that often in the short term, but the fact that it did is remarkable. Of course, parts of England hit 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) this past summer, which is terrible for vines, people, everything. And there are now wines being made further south in Patagonia than ever before, and even in Northern Europe, which is fascinating.

The timetable for disaster has increasingly moved up. How are vintners in the forefront of battling climate change?

Many grape growers and winemakers around the world are making serious efforts to farm in a more sustainable manner, to plant vines that are more suited to the changing conditions in their specific locations, to find ways to pivot from the received wisdom of the past in light of the dramatically changing conditions of the present. A winemaker once told me that it's a bit easier for chefs, since they have a new chance every night to succeed, but winemakers have one chance a year, maybe 50 vintages over the course of a long career. That puts even more pressure on them to accept that climate change is not something to pretend isn't happening, and instead find ways to modify existing practices, if necessary, to ensure a successful future.

Is it now possible to theoretically make wine almost anywhere on earth because of technological advances?

There are extremes of climate where vines just won't grow, and if they do, they won't ripen any kind of usable fruit. I don't see any Antarctic Albariño any time soon coming to a store near you. But as the north and south extremes are warming, the range of locations for growing wine grapes is expanding. And technological advances make it possible to produce pleasant wine from all kinds of grapes. The question, however, is what is wine? Is it just fermented grape juice, or is it an expression of a particular patch of the planet as seen through that fermented grape juice. I firmly believe it's the latter, which means that overly manipulating it in the winery detracts from that. There are also places that are just too hot or dry to grow grapes successfully, and those areas are expanding as well.

What’s wrong with having a wine at 14.5% alcohol and higher?

If the wine is balanced, nothing at all is wrong with a wine at 14.5% or higher. I've had delicious wine that's 15% alcohol and equally delicious wine that's 12% alcohol. The question for me is whether the wine in my glass accurately reflects the place where it was grown and the conditions of that particular vintage. It's also a question of balance: A wine with 14.5% alcohol and not enough acidity may be less pleasurable than a wine at 14.9% alcohol that has well-calibrated acidity to lend a sense of freshness and balance. I tend to drink the vast majority of my wine with dinner, so while I taste wine for work on its own without food, I consume wine with food that hopefully pairs nicely with it. A 14.5% red alongside a perfectly grilled steak sounds great to me...then again, so does a 12% red!

Do you think California wineries manipulate their wines for popular taste?

Not at all. I think that there are wineries all over the world that have and continue to manipulate their wines to fit perceived popular tastes, but that's not limited to any particular place: It happens in the US, Europe, South American, Australia, anywhere grapes are grown and wine is made. The wine producers that I most respect and that I think offer the most rewards for consumers are the ones that allow their grapes and the conditions of the vintage to speak for themselves. If that means making higher-alcohol wines in a hotter and sunnier year and less-powerful and less fruit-driven wines in cooler or cloudier years, then that's where the real interest comes from., and those producers can easily be found in California, France, Italy, Argentina, Australia, anywhere grapes are grown and wine is made.

Since spirits are distilled, how does climate change affect them at a time when dozens more distilleries are being opened in Scotland and elsewhere?

Climate-change-related issues with the farming of cereal grains, whether on smaller farms on commodity-level operations, are rearing their head. Floods, frosts, diseases, plant viruses—it's an issue. Climate change is also affecting the aging of spirits, since their evolution in barrel, if the aging warehouse isn't climate controlled, is deeply affected by temperature and humidity. And one distiller I spoke with, who produces gin, was lamenting the lack of access to certain botanicals last year because a massive storm wiped out much of what he needed to source, and he had to scour the planet to find them. That affects the finished product, pricing, availability, and more.

What changes have allowed Israel’s wine industry to change it image of cheap, sweet kosher wine?

Israel has been producing wine for more than 5,000 years, and it's finally getting the recognition it deserves. It has everything going for it: A wide range of terroirs, from desert to more verdant areas to mountains to coastal climates; a long Mediterranean coastline; and one of the most forward-thinking grape growing and winemaking cultures in the world. Top producers like Tabor, Shiloh, Vitkin, Psâgot, Tulip and more are bringing back a focus on the health of the land in which their grapes grow, on working with varieties that thrive particularly well in the specific micro-climates and soils of the individual vineyards, and working diligently in the winery to express all of that in the finished wine. Israel is also a world leader in the agricultural technology that allows precise monitoring of vineyard conditions, drip irrigation, and more. As a result, the wines are among the most exciting in the world right now. Vitkin produces a stunning Grenache Blanc, Shiloh a phenomenal Petit Verdot, and so much more. The sense of discovery in the world of Israeli wine is unparalleled.

What changes happens in the soil when a vineyard burns down? Does the carbon addition help or hinder?

No one benefits when a vineyard burns down—the loss of life in many cases, of livelihood, is impossible to comprehend. Replanting a vineyard takes immense amounts of money and years of work and waiting. Nothing can justify that.

Since Robert Parker retired has the influence of Wine Advocate waned?

I think that Parker's retirement happened at around the same time that the internet democratized wine criticism. There are, I think, many legitimate arguments to be made against any single person having so much power over an industry, but there are also arguments to be made against exclusively crowd-sourcing wine criticism. My best advice is to recommend that consumers find as many sources for wine advice as they can. There are great critics at the more establishment publications, including Wine Advocate, as well as great ones at online-only and newer sites. The trick is to taste as broadly as possible and find the critics whose palates overlap as much as possible with your own. But I will say this: Few things make me sadder than when I hear someone say they won't drink a wine that was scored below 90 points by such-and-such a critic. Don't be that person! One person's 88 is another's 91 is another's 90. It's wine—explore, experiment, and enjoy it!

Is the planting of too many disparate varietals detrimental to terroir and soil?

Planting different varieties is healthy for the soil, but so is planting single grape varieties, as long as the balance of the ecosystem is respected in both cases. This is why so many growers from California to Italy to Israel and beyond are increasingly planting cover crops, nitrogen-fixing legumes between their rows of vines, working to bring back microbial life in their soil, minimizing chemical inputs and more. You can do that with a single grape variety and you can do that with many varieties planted in the same vineyard. The key, as in everything with wine and life, is balance and respect.

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