Storm Clouds Gather Over the Vineyard:
Climate Change and the Future of Wine

alsatian-countryside-1-1336806Wine grapes are finicky things. They need water to grow, but if they get rain at the wrong time then the fruit can rot. Sun and warmth are required to ripen the grapes fully, however too much will result in high sugar (and, therefore, alcohol) with not enough flavor. The right mix of everything depends on which grape variety you are trying to grow and what wine you are trying to make. With all that to worry about, we can see why the topic of climate change is an important one to winemakers. Three recent articles explore the subject from strikingly different directions.

In No more Merlot: France’s vineyards under threat, Hazel Southam writes about the effect of rising temperatures on the grape at the heart of Bordeaux wine. French wine law is all about matching grape varieties with geography, soils, and climate. If the climate changes, the ideal combination may no longer be the one required by French law. Indeed, it may not even be possible to successfully cultivate Merlot in many of the regions where it is now required.

Matthew Southwick takes a look at the impact of climate change on wine production in Australian wine under threat from climate change, as grapes ripen early. Warmer summers are leading to situations where traditionally late ripening varieties need to be picked at the same time as early ripening grapes, compressing what used to be a three-month harvest into three weeks.  Dryer conditions are leading to increased brush fires which can destroy a crop (either directly or by smoke taint) and raise questions about the long-term viability of some vineyard locations.

Finally, showing that one winemaker’s terror is another’s potential terroir, James McWalter writes on The Feasibility of Ireland Becoming a Wine Producing Country Due To Climate Change. An analysis of predicted climate conditions in southeast Ireland shows many similarities to current northern European wine regions. Soils may present other problems, but it appears that winemaking in southern Ireland could be possible within the next 35 years or so.

Read all these articles (none of them is very long) and you will get a thought-provoking picture of the dangers and the opportunities facing the industry. In spite of the doom and gloom nature of two of the three titles, none of the articles predict the end of wine, in fact rather the opposite. And therein lies the common thread between all these pieces.

We’ve seen the ability of French law to adapt in its response to the Phylloxera crisis of the late 19th century. New opportunities in winemaking have already arisen from climate change, such as the flourishing sparkling wine industry in southern England.

We can be pretty sure that climate change is going to have an impact on the wine industry (not to mention a whole lot of other things). However, research and planning can help manage the change. Forward-looking professionals are already working to match grape varieties to anticipated climate conditions, either in existing vineyard locations or new ones. It’s an approach that should help wine weather the storm.

The Bacon Wine

Wine tasting opens doors to new dimensions- dimensions of sight, dimensions of smell, dimensions of flavor. But when the aromas start to include bacon and horse manure, you have crossed the line and entered… the Brettanomyces Zone.

This is a journey I made recently with a wine that I have nick-named ‘The Bacon Wine’. It was a 2012 California Zin. The color was a nice red, starting to show a little brick at the edges. Body looked good. I took a sniff, and… BACON! With a hint of band-aid! And then there was the taste, which was completely devoid of fruit. Never have I experienced a stronger example of Brett.

Brettanomyces, commonly called “Brett”, is a naturally occurring yeast that lives on the skin of fruit in the wild. It also happens to like oak a lot, and will grow its way several millimeters into barrel staves. It is a relatively slow growing yeast and is not part of the normal fermentation of wine (that yeast is Saccharomyces). It is also a fairly hardy yeast, and if a winemaker is not careful, Brett will patiently wait its turn, kicking in after primary and malolactic fermentation are complete.

What makes Brett of interest is what it does to the smell and taste of the wine. As it grows, Brett will reduce the natural characteristics of the grapes, things such as floral and fruit notes, and start adding new aromas. These new smells come primarily from four compounds:

4-ethylphenol: Band-aid or leather
4-ethylguaiacol: smokey or medicinal
4-ethylcatechol: savory and meaty
isovaleric acid: blue cheese or smelly sock

How all this works out in the wine depends on a lot of different factors. Some grapes seem to be more affected than others. Some winemaking choices seem to be more susceptible than others. In general, wines go through the following stages as Brett grows:

1) Some loss of fruit and oak character
2) Addition of smoke, leather, and/or spice notes
3) Development of medicinal and barnyard aromas
4) Noticeable loss of mouthfeel and grape characteristics
5) Significant band-aid and horse manure smells

Many people believe that a little bit of Brett influence can improve a wine, giving it a touch of leather, a bit of smoke, a hint of spice. Indeed, it has become part of the signature flavor profile for a number of wines. But go too far, and you get, well, the bacon wine.

Intentional or not, the fact is that Brett is everywhere. Winemakers can’t eliminate it, the best they can hope for is to control it, and there are multiple techniques for doing so. Some can have a profound effect on taste and mouthfeel, such as aging in stainless steel, flash pasteurization, and filtering. Others are more traditional, such as excellence in sanitation, kick-starting fermentations with standardized yeast strains, minimizing residual sugar, and the judicious addition of sulfur dioxide.

You have probably experienced a lot more Brett than you realize. All those times you got an earthy barnyard aroma or a whiff of medicine, it was probably Brett. The growing trend to natural winemaking, which eschews many of the traditional techniques for inhibiting Brett, means we’re probably going to experience more– a development which could lend new meaning to the phrase, “bringing home the bacon.”

The Blood of Jove,
The Soul of Vino Italino

Theories abound on the origin of the name Sangiovese. One of the most common (and most likely incorrect) is that it comes from the Latin sangius Jovis, “the blood of Jove.” Others say it comes from the phrase the blood of the ridges” (sangue dai gioghetti), which would seem to tie to the name Sangiogheto used in what is believed to be the first written reference to the grape. Another interesting theory is that it comes from the term sangiovannese, a word that refers to an inhabitant of San Giovanni Valdarno, a town in eastern Tuscany.

No matter what the origin of the name, no grape captures the essence of Italian wine better than Sangiovese. This is not because it is the most widely grown grape in Italy, present in more than 250 DOCs across the country, nor because somewhere around 90% of the Sangiovese grown worldwide is grown in Italy. All those things are true, but the key fact is that the wines made from Sangiovese demonstrate both the abysmal lows and the stellar heights that Italian winemaking can reach.

There are some good reasons for this. Sangiovese has been described as being as sensitive to location and climate as Pinot Noir. It buds early and ripens late, so it likes a long growing season with plenty of warmth. If not fully ripe when picked, the resulting wine can have a distinct barnyard quality, but too much warmth can dilute the grape’s flavors and rob the wine of complexity.

Left to its own devices, Sangiovese will produce copious amounts of fruit, leading to wines that are thin and acidic. The fruit grows in very tight clusters that ripen unevenly. It is a relatively thin-skinned variety which, along with the tight clusters, makes it prone to rot when rains occur near harvest, a fact that can put pressure on growers to pick the grapes before they are fully ripe.

In the mid-twentieth century, the focus for many Italian winemakers was to create low-cost easy-drinking beverages meant to be consumed in their youth. In such an environment, greater quantity meant greater profits, making Sangiovese a popular grape. It was not uncommon for growers to rip out lower yielding varieties and replant with Sangiovese (or if looking for white grapes, Trebbiano, another variety known for abundance). Emphasizing quantity almost guaranteed bringing out the worst in Sangiovese, so blending in other grapes to shore up the weaknesses was the norm.

It didn’t always work.

However, there always was a segment of industry focused on quality vinification using Sangiovese. Out of this group have risen some of the greatest Italian wines of all time: Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti Classico, Morellino di Scansano, Sangiovese di Romagna, and, more recently, Sangiovese-based Super Tuscans. (Ironically, “Super Tuscan” is a term now coming to encompass the worst in Italian winemaking as well. See Snake Oil From Tuscany.)

While each expression of Sangiovese has its own identity, and blending partners can change the overall taste of the wine, there are commonalities. Flavors of cherries, tobacco, and leather generally come from Sangiovese. Some people get strawberry notes in young wines and prune and chestnut flavors in older ones. Regardless of style, these wines are exceptionally food-friendly, matching with everything from red sauces and pizza for young Chiantis to deep rich stews for Brunellos.

And that truly is the soul of Vino Italiano– food and wine together.

Veritas in Vino

Montalcino neck bandsThere have been several stories recently about counterfeit wine. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that the wines chosen for schemes like this are higher priced wines. An example in Italy is Brunello di Montalcino, which often starts in the $60-$70 per bottle range. Now one industry organization is fighting back.

The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino has created a system to verify the origin of wines of Montalcino. Go to their website, select the type of wine, the size, and enter the number from the DOC or DOCG label, and you will immediately have the truth about whether the bottle in front of you is authentic or not. They say the current system works for Brunello di Montalcino vintage 1999 or later, and Rosso di Montalcino vintage 2005 or later.

More on Pierce’s Disease

In my recent post The Next Cult Wine? I shared an article about the efforts of UC Davis researchers to breed a variety of wine grape resistant to Pierce’s disease. The disease currently costs the industry millions of dollars per year and it is spreading, so it should be no surprise that multiple research projects are underway to combat it.

Today, the Wine Spectator published an article, Scientists Gain New Understanding of Vine-Killing Pierce’s Disease by Lynn Alley, giving the results of another UC Davis project. This group has ascertained how Pierce’s Disease actually kills grape vines, a breakthrough that may offer hope for protecting existing grape species from this deadly disease. Maybe we’ll get to keep our old cults wines and try some new.

Higgs’ Amazing Corkscrew

Even though this has been posted on YouTube since 2011, somehow it waited until today to come to my computer. The video shows an automated cork puller and wine pourer created by artist Rob Higgs in operation. It’s not exactly pocket sized… oh, heck, I’ll just let the video speak for itself.

You can find out more on the website of Mr. Higg’s firm, ONEOFONE.

Snake Oil From Tuscany

It is hardly news that the term Super Tuscan has steadily been losing its luster. Created in the 1970s to put a name to some exceptional wines that didn’t fit into the structure of Italy’s DOC laws, it has been widely co-opted by lesser products seeking to bask in the sunshine of the original success. Just how devalued the name has become was demonstrated to me at a recent wine tasting.

Invited by the seller to try a “Super Tuscan”, I was immediately wary when I noticed that the wine in my glass had a definite brown color at the edges. True Super Tuscans are big wines with tons of aging potential and this one was only 5 years old (vintage 2010, which happened to be a pretty good year in Tuscany). The aroma wasn’t conclusive, but my first thought upon tasting was, “This seems a bit tired.” In fact, what it really reminded me of was a Chianti past its prime.

A glance at the spec sheet confirmed my instinct. The wine was 85% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot, and 5% Syrah (meeting the rules for Chianti), and made just outside of Montalcino, well within the borders of the Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG. So why would a wine made in the style of a top level appellation settle for carrying a Toscana IGT name? There are several possible reasons, but I think the clues we have, coupled with a quick look at Italian wine law yields the most likely answer.

The Toscana IGT rules allow winemakers to do pretty much anything they want as long as the grapes are grown in Tuscany and the yields are 16 tonnes per hectare or less (for red wine grapes). The Chianti rules are stricter, requiring the wine to be 75% Sangiovese and limiting yields to 11.5 tonnes per hectare in Colli Sensei. Sangiovese is a grape variety that will produce bountifully if you let it. By selecting the IGT appellation, the winery can legally harvest nearly 50% more grapes from the same land.

The trade-off in doing this is that the resulting wine tends to be thin and acidic without much aging potential. Merlot and Syrah are exactly the right grapes to balance out a thin and acidic wine in its youth, and that completes the picture of what’s going on here. The winemaker was creating an inexpensive quaff meant to be enjoyed while young. Nothing wrong in that… until the sales channel starts trying to pass it off as something more.

The definition of “snake oil” is a product with questionable or unverifiable quality. The problem with unofficial names like “Super Tuscan” for wines is that there are no rules, which means there is no framework for evaluating the quality. Even legally defined terms can be of little value when they are too broad or too vague, as demonstrated in the discussion above. Some of the original Super Tuscans now have their own DOC designations, a step that provides a much more reliable guide to their composition and quality. Everything else being marketed under the Super Tuscan name is best covered by an ancient Roman law: caveat emptor.

Power in Pink

The recent rise in popularity of dry rosé wines (at least in the U.S.) might lead you to think they are something new. You’d be wrong. For much of history, dry rosé was the preferred expression of red wine grapes.

It is only in the last couple hundred years that winemakers have had all the technological pieces in place to reliably make the mature red wines we enjoy today. For example, without the ability to to control temperatures, wines undergoing maceration can get hot enough to kill the yeast (called “stuck fermentation”). The was particularly a problem in warmer climates, such as southern Italy. Winemakers learned that by pressing the wines early and separating the juice from the skins, they would be able to complete the fermentation. The trade off was that they would end up with a lighter color wine, or rosato, the Italian word for rosé.

A glass of Cerasuolo
The vibrant cherry red of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo

An example of this is Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. Brief maceration (8 to 12 hours) and light pressing on the dark, flavorful, thick-skinned Montepulciano grape yields a delightful medium bodied wine. The word Cerasuolo means “cherry red”, and the resulting wine is a vibrant color that could make other rosés (if you’ll excuse the term) blush.

The color isn’t the only vibrant thing about Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. These are some of the heartiest pink wines available, likely to have cherry and strawberry flavors supported by elegant spicy notes that might include orange peel and cinnamon. Richly flavored without being heavy or tannic, these wines are capable of pairing with an amazingly wide variety of foods.

Richer seafood dishes, pork, and roast game are all easy choices, but the bright fruit and exotic notes of a Cerasuolo can stand up to spicy food as well– after all, pepperoncini comes from Abruzzo. These wines go great with grilled Italian sausages (sweet or spicy) and BBQ.

Wanna take a walk on the wild side? Try Cerasuolo with curry. Then you will know for sure that there is Power in Pink.

The Case of the Cheap Wine Headache

Recently at a wine dinner, one of my table-mates asked, “Why does cheap wine give me a headache?” I have made a point of avoiding cheap wine for quite a long time, so I didn’t have an answer at hand, but the question intrigued me. Case accepted.


As any modern day sleuth would, I began my investigation on the Internet. After wading through multiple postings (often accompanied by an “I’m not a doctor” disclaimer), the likely answer seemed to be sugar, but I didn’t find any data to support this conclusion. Then, when working on something else, I came across an article talking about residual sugar levels in mass market wine and I became convinced.

The biochemistry that makes wine possible is the conversion of sugar into alcohol (and carbon dioxide) by yeast. This process normally continues until the sugar is used up and the yeast has nothing left to work on. The resulting wine will typically have residual sugar levels under 3 g/L (grams per liter).

When setting out to make a less expensive wine, it is clearly to the benefit of the producer to maximize the yield of the grape vines. This, however, also increases the chances that the resulting wine will be thin and acidic– something that will not sell well, even at a low price. By adding sugar after fermentation, a producer can balance out the wine and give it more body, making it a more enjoyable quaff.

The proof that this is going on is in the residual sugar levels of mass-produced wines, which often run around 12 to 15 g/L. This works out to more sugar in each glass of cheap less expensive wine than in an entire bottle of wine without added sugar. Some popular wines have residual sugar levels exceeding 50 g/L (or about as much sugar in each mouthful as in a bottle of quality wine)!

Why does this cause a headache? The commonly accepted explanation is dehydration. In processing both alcohol and sugar, the body uses water, which can lead to dehydration and cause a headache. Either one can do it by itself, but put them together and the odds go up quickly.

Not all less expensive wines have added sugar. But if you find that a moderate quantity of some wine gives you a headache that you don’t normally get, you might want to look into the residual sugar levels (these are often published on winery websites). Oh, and drink more water. Your doctor would probably tell you to anyway.

The Meaning of Aroma

Earlier this week in Name That Smell, I shared’s handy fold up aroma card. It’s a great source of inspiration in identifying aromas, but it does little for understanding what they mean.

The pioneer in this area is Ann C. Noble, a (now retired) sensory chemist from the University of California, Davis. During her time at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, Noble invented the “Aroma Wheel” which is credited with enhancing the public understanding of wine tasting and terminology. The aroma wheel started a new way of thinking about what our nose tells us when we taste wine, and has taken this to another level with their Updated Aroma Wheel with 100+ Flavors (shown below).

The Wine Folly Aroma Wheel

What I like about this version is that it helps sort out the meaning of what our nose is telling us. Primary aromas provide information about the grapes and the terroir. Secondary aromas give clues about fermentation. Tertiary aromas come from aging. Everything else provides clues to things that might be wrong with the wine.

When tasting, start with the faults. Experienced tasters can detect most in the first sniff, and any of these aromas is a signal to approach the wine with caution. After that, work on identifying varietals, location, and vinification. Organizing smells by meaning helps get more out of the tasting experience.