February 9, 2011

Global Warming Puts The Squeeze On Bordeaux Region

Climate experts warned industry leaders at a conference on Tuesday that global warming is putting a huge strain on Bordeaux's wine grapes in France.

The ominous scenario foretells that "Bordeaux's climate, by 2050, will no longer favor Cabernet and Merlot," the main tastes of the region's red wines, said Jean-Pascal Goutouly, a researcher at the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).

"We are currently on the most pessimistic curve -- that's the emergency," Goutouly told winemakers at the conference.

Experts said higher minimal temperatures and severe dry spells during the summer are on tap for Bordeaux in the coming decades. Higher temperatures means grapes will ripen earlier and drier weather means they will not have necessary water at a critical stage of maturation.

It could result in less aroma and limited freshness. And wines may lack the delicate balance of acidity, sugar and tannins that allow them to age gracefully.

Despite the negative outlook, winemakers remained optimistic that their ability to overcome past challenges will help them when confronting future ones.

"If climate change comes quickly, it will be difficult. If it comes slowly, we will adapt," said Philippe Bardet, a winegrower on the council's technical committee. "We survived phylloxera, which wiped out every vine in five years. We will adapt to climate change."

Europe suffered huge losses of vineyards in the late 19th century after an epidemic of the aphid-like parasite phylloxera struck the region.

Grape growers said they noticed unusual changes in the region's weather patterns nearly thirty years ago, long before climate experts sounded the alarm on global warming.

"We've seen climate warming since the 1980's with the date of the harvest coming earlier, but now it seems to have stabilized," said Bardet. "The average temperature is lower. But experts say it could start rising again."

Goutouly referenced a 2003 heat wave that saw frequent temperatures topping 104 degrees Fahrenheit, stating that it should be a prime example of what the region can expect on a more frequent basis by century's end.

"In 2003, the vineyards that produce Lafite had a classic, typical reaction," producing stellar bottles, said Charles Chevalier, technical director and winemaker at the fabled chateau. "But lesser terroirs were more sensitive -- those grapes had higher sugar levels."

Winegrowers have already begun adapting to the affects of climate change, turning to clone varietals that had been set aside in the past because they ripened too late, and looking at rootstock that will deliver water during severe dry spells.


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