Wine and Climate Change
Updated: Aug 12
This month we are thrilled to have an article contribution from Ken Eckersley from Nicholson River Winery discussing wine and climate change.
Climate Change(CC) is happening throughout the world and one of the consequences
is changing the wines that we all enjoy. There will not be an impact on many alcoholic beverages, like beer and spirits, because they are essentially manufactured. Natural beverages sourced directly from fruits, like grapes, that grow, ripen and reflect the season are certainly influenced.
Fruits are ripening quicker and are sweeter. Vintage(grape picking) is now 3-4 weeks earlier that 40 years ago. Paradoxically the frost damage risk in Spring is now longer by 3-4 weeks because the air is drier and there are more clear night skies.
CC means that everything is on average getting warmer. Over my lifetime alone temperatures have risen an average of 2 degrees. I can remember as a boy in Sydney the newspaper’s front pages in large letters shouting “40 Degrees!!”. Today, east coast temperatures often exceed 40 degrees and the novelty has long passed.
All would be well if we only drank sweet wines and ports, like our 19th century forbears, as they require grapes with high sugar. However, the most popular wine styles today are dry reds and whites, commonly consumed with food at the table. In the past these wines were between 11 to 13.5% alcohol.
A walk through your local bottle shop looking at red wine labels will show a range of alcohol levels, from 13 to 17%, with most 15-16%. A definite shift towards port styles(18 to 20%).
The question is, does it matter? The wines will be different in unexpected ways.
- You will feel the effect of a glass of wine sooner, especially women. One glass may be more than enough to have with a meal. You could surprise yourself by being > .05% blood alcohol. “ But I only had one glass, officer!”
- The higher alcohol makes the wine sweeter and softer initially, that can be followed by a burning sensation at the back of the throat. It makes sense to add ice to the glass to both cool the wine and lower the alcohol.
- Red wines in particular may tend to taste the same with plain overripe characters
(plum, jammy, prune). Their varietal feature flavours (cherry, strawberry, raspberry, melon etc) are being lost.
- A tendency for the wine to be heavy and overwhelm the food.
There are many ways the Australian Wine Industry, collectively and individually, are trying to address the issue.
- Planting new vineyards in cooler areas.eg. along the coast, mountain areas, Tasmania.
- Changing grape varieties to ones better suited to hot dry climates. Eg. Indigenous varieties from Spain, Sicily, Cyprus.
- Using sunscreen products to shield the grapes in the vineyard.
- Wineries are purchasing more presses and vats to process grapes quicker so that grapes do not wait in the heat beyond their optimum picking date.
- If the winery owners are wealthy enough, bringing in technology, like mini Desal plants, to remove water from the juice, alcohol or anything from the wine. In use from Bordeaux to Margaret River to Central Otago.
But the cheapest and most widely used means of lowering the alcohol, is by lowering the sugar, simply by adding water to the must(grape juice), prior to fermentation. In California this is called the “Jesus Correction” – from the Biblical ‘Wedding in Cana’ where water is miraculously turned into wine. In South Australia, the euphemism for added water is the “Black Snake” – a reference to long standing illegal use, when the garden hose went from the tap to the vat.
In Australia it has been legal since the 2017 vintage to add water to lower the sugar to no less than a potential alcohol of 13.5%. No mention need be made on the label. Just a reference in the winemaker’s log of the wine. At this stage there is no analytic test as to if or how much water has been added. So if a wine tastes “watery” it probably is.
It is a reasonable assumption that the widely consumed house wines comprise 10-20% added water, with the Murray River making more of a contribution than from irrigation.
Of course this last resolution to one of the consequences of CC could be a public relations nightmare in the waiting. Wineries could start putting “No added water” on their label, to give a point of difference in a highly competitive market. The British tabloids would love to ridicule another example of Australian and American crassness.
Small wineries like ourselves are terrified that the image of wine as natural and with regional character will be diminished by the practices of larger players in traditional wine areas.
On the other hand Australian wine drinkers may not mind when they eventually find out, except for connoisseurs. They already drink diluted wine and it hasn’t done them any harm. As long as it is cheap and tastes OK, which is a large share of the market.
Ken Eckersley-5th August, 2020
Nicholson River Winery