Climate Change Is Forcing the Wine Industry to Get Creative

Rows of grapes in a california vineyard with smoke in the air from wildfires
George Rose / Getty Images

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the roadhow to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

On a summer weekend, winemaker Bertus Van Zyl drove up Highway 95 amid hazy skies, heading to California's El Dorado County to harvest chenin blanc, picpoul, and fiano grapes for Tank Garage Winery. He usually packs a refractometer, an instrument to measure the sugar in grapes, but his most important tool has nothing to do with winemaking. It’s an N95 face mask to protect his lungs from smoke and ash from the Caldor wildfire that’s been raging for more than three weeks not far from South Lake Tahoe.

Winemakers have always swapped stories about challenging vintages when a spring cold snap hits just as the tender buds appear or when a damaging rain falls right before harvest. But those stories are changing. “Things that were legendary are now quite commonplace,” said Chris Christensen of Bodkin Wines in Healdsburg, a wine enclave in North Sonoma County. “I’ve been picking in and around fires, or there’s been serious concern of smoke exposure to my grapes since 2015.” He’s hedging his bets by buying grapes from three different counties to ensure that one fire doesn’t wipe out his entire vintage.

It’s just one of the ways that wineries around the world are grappling with extreme temperatures, wildfires, water shortages, and changes in grape ripening patterns. Climate experts say this new normal will require the wine industry to be flexible and creative as the climate keeps changing.

You can do everything right...but there are consequences of the changing climate.

When Van Zyl and his wife Allison chose the vineyards for their Belong Wine Co, they tried to be strategic to avoid wildfires. They chose Mourvedre vineyards at 2,000 to 3,000 feet elevation, so it's a crisp Alpine clime that gets snow. They chose north-facing vineyards, so their vines would be protected from the most intense sun.

But that still hasn’t been enough to protect their grapes from wildfire smoke. Smoke-tainted grapes can result in wines that taste like a campfire on an ashtray. “You can do everything right and then try to set yourself up for success, but there are consequences of the changing climate,” said Bertus Van Zyl.

Unlike earthquakes or tsunamis, climate change is a subtle and slow-moving natural disaster, said Greg Jones, a climatologist based in Oregon. Sixty years ago, England was too cold and wet to make top-flight sparkling wine, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley was too chilly to ripen pinot noir grapes consistently. Today, U.K. firms Nyetimber and Ridgeview are making bubbly that rivals Champagne, and the Willamette Valley is one of the premier U.S. regions for cool-climate pinot noir.

Pinot noir grapes are delicate, thriving in a very particular cool temperature zone. Grapes exposed to less sun have lower sugar content, resulting in a wine with brighter acidity and lower alcohol content. Warmer areas create riper grapes that lead to more lush and higher alcohol content wines. And if the earth warms by 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 50 years as expected, the style of pinot noir associated with certain regions will shift, according to Jones. “The Willamette Valley can still do pinot noir, but it’s going to be bigger and bolder with darker fruit characteristics,” Jones said.

In Ribera del Duero, a region in northwest Spain renowned for supple and earthy tempranillo wines, more sun means alcohol levels are rising. On Bodegas Viña Vilano wine labels from the 1990s, the alcohol level was about 12.5 or 13.5 percent. Now, according to export manager Pavlo Skokomnyy, it averages 14.5 or 15 percent. “What can we do?” he asked. “We need to find solutions to look for another grape or another kind of wine category.” In Southern Spain, some producers turn extra-ripe grapes into sweet wines or replace tempranillo with garnacha vines, which tolerate heat better.

Photo of burned grape vines with withered grapes and burnt leaves
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Extreme Weather & Surprises

The arid Ribera del Duero region has faced worse climate challenges. In 2017, a surprise May frost ruined more than 60 percent of the crop. Winemakers decided against making some younger tempranillo wines to ensure they would have enough fruit to make the age-worthy reserve wines they’re best known for.

Throughout California, wineries are dealing with droughts. Many winemakers practice eco-friendly dry farming, encouraging vines to send down deep roots to search for water. However, when there’s little rain, the vines can suffer. In Sonoma, districts are imposing watering restrictions just as parched vines need water. “That definitely affects the vines’ ability to get the fruit ripe, especially for late-ripening varieties like cabernet sauvignon and merlot,” said Christensen. It’s pushing winemakers to harvest earlier when the fruit is not as lush as they want.

In Anderson Valley, about two hours north of San Francisco, during the 2014 vintage, winemakers went 350 days between harvests with no rain, said Guy Pacurar, whose family makes pinot noir, zinfandel, and sauvignon blanc under the Fathers + Daughters Cellars label. When grapevines are chronically thirsty, they produce less fruit.

“The yield was down slightly from last year, but there is great intensity in the fruit,” Pacurar said. Droughts mean the grape clusters are smaller, too, so they make less wine. As the family replants older vines, they’ll also add hardier rootstock that doesn’t need as much water.

Traditional seasonal rhythms that have guided farmers for decades are changing too. Usually, Anderson Valley grapes ripen from the south end in Boonville to the north, called the Deep End by locals. “Two or three years ago was a weird instance where the entire valley ripened at the same time,” said Pacurar. “They didn’t have enough vineyard workers, so some vineyards went unpicked.”

Resilience Is Key

With growing conditions changing everywhere, people who want to continue making wine have to be flexible. That means making new wines or doing things differently in the cellar.

A fire led to a new wine for Betty Tamm, who runs Triple Oak Vineyard in Oregon’s Umpqua River Valley. “In 2020, we had a big fire 8 miles away, so we had ash and burned leaves falling on our pinot noir vineyard and heavy smoke,” she said. “You couldn’t see to read a book at noon. Pinot noir is a thin-skinned grape that’s very sensitive, and it will suck up that smoke flavor.”

Triple Oak decided to make a pinot noir rosé instead since it only needs brief skin contact to get enough color and flavor. Their Winter Sunrise Rosé was a good gamble: the off-dry wine with stone fruit and tropical notes won a silver medal at the Oregon Wine Experience.

It’s not sustainable to just say we’re not going to make wine in smoky years.

At Bodegas Vilano, cabernet sauvignon typically ripens after tempranillo, according to Desi Sastre Gonzalez, the vineyard's director-general. “But right now, we have vintages where the cabernet sauvignon matures at the same time as the tempranillo,” said Sastre Gonzalez. This has allowed them to make a new blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot grapes called Baraja, which has been in production since 2015. “We have more alcohol, but we are still preserving a nice acidity, good tannin structure, and color for the wine,” he says.

The Van Zyls know that the livelihoods of their grower Chuck Mansfield and the people who pick grapes depend on winemakers making wine. “It’s not sustainable to just say we’re not going to make wine in smoky years,” said Bertus Van Zyl. While mourvedre, a red Rhone varietal, was the couple's original focus, they’ve pivoted to making more white wines, which are often harvested before fire season. They’re also doing more rosés via a technique called carbonic maceration. Instead of crushing the grapes and letting the juice soak with the skins, grape clusters are carefully and slowly fermented whole. This allows the wine to take on intense, fruity flavors while keeping the smoky skins out of the mix.

“We have these conversations like can we keep this going? What is this going to look like for us?” said Allison Van Zyl. “Resiliency is the word that comes to mind from 2017,” her husband added. “You get to see what communities are made of when you go through these terrible times. In that sense, you have a lot to be grateful for.”