From the Wall Street Journal today: Climate change may benefit northerly wine growers…
Rise With Mercury
Growers Try Classy Grapes,
By DOUGLAS BELKIN
October 15, 2007; Page A1
TAPPEN, British Columbia — Two weeks ago, a brief storm left the mountains above Gary Kennedy’s fields ominously capped in snow. His Pinot Noir grapes needed another week — maybe two — in the sun. The race was on: harvest versus first frost.
“We’ve literally bet the farm that this is going to work,” said Mr. Kennedy, a slight, sinewy man of 65, who is trying to make a go of winemaking 1,100 miles north of Napa Valley. “We’re right on the edge.”
Such are the perils of winemaking Canadian style, as global warming encourages vintners to press ever-farther north. If all goes well for Mr. Kennedy, his four-year-old Granite Creek Estate Wines will hold onto its place as one of the most northerly winemakers in North America — at least for a while.
The borders of the world’s grape-growing regions are shifting away from the equator and toward the poles, redrawing the world wine map in the process. Traditional winemaking powerhouses such as Napa and parts of Australia are struggling with excessive heat. Formerly frosty climes like this verdant corner of British Columbia are beginning to produce first-rate wines.
“There is concern in some areas, and there is opportunity in others,” says Gregory V. Jones, a professor of climatology at Southern Oregon University, who is a leading researcher on the subject of viticulture and climate. “Canada will be one of the winners in the wine world.”
Grape varieties traditionally harvested in Europe, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, produce some of the world’s best wine — and the most expensive. But they are extremely sensitive to temperature. The thermal niche in which these types of grapes thrive is narrow, and the conditions required to produce a good vintage are narrower still.
That’s one reason why generations of Kennedys had mostly raised cows on the rolling, cypress- and pine-studded hills here, halfway between Calgary and Vancouver.
When Mr. Kennedy’s children informed him they didn’t want to take over the dairy, he began looking for alternatives. With a thriving wine business taking root in the Okanagan Valley to his south, Mr. Kennedy spent two years studying the region’s climate data. His conclusion: Winters were getting warmer, summers hotter, and the growing season longer. Four years ago, after selling the cows, he and his family took out a hefty bank loan and started Granite Creek.
Mr. Kennedy’s winery sits 70 miles north of the Okanagan Valley, where British Columbia’s winemaking industry has taken hold. A broad, deep lake lies at the center of the valley, surrounded by jagged, 5,000-foot mountains. The deep, dry soil, the long, hot summer days and the limited precipitation are favorable for grape growing. But the cold winters have always set limits on what could be harvested.
When farmers here first tried their hands at growing grapes in the 1920s, they used a cross between the heartier American varieties and their European cousins. The harvest was pressed into jug wine and sold cheap.
“B.C. wine was the joke of the wine industry,” says Howard Soon, a winemaker who came to the Okanagan in 1980. “Nothing that came out of this area back then was particularly good.”
In 1989, as tariffs were removed, hybrid grapes grown in the U.S. flooded the Canadian market. Thinking that local grape growers would be unable to compete, the Canadian government paid vineyard owners to pull up their vines and plant different crops.
Most grape growers in British Columbia took the government’s money and moved on. But about a half dozen Okanagan Valley growers, noting the absence of a serious cold snap for several years, opted to forgo the payout and roll the dice: They planted the delicate European grape varieties that had never before survived.
“I thought they were crazy,” says Mr. Soon, who is today a senior winemaker at Sandhill, one of the biggest wineries in British Columbia. “I thought everybody was going to get frozen out, and we’d all be out of a job.”
The point at which cold becomes deadly for most plants that produce European varietals is about four degrees below zero Fahrenheit, says Mr. Soon. Between 1947 and 1956, the temperature in the Okanagan Valley dipped below that mark 28 times. Between 1967 and 1976, the number of deep freezes fell to 11. In the last 10 years, the coldest recorded temperature was a half degree above zero, says David Phillips, the Canadian government’s senior climatologist.
“The changes are slight, but they’ve been enough to make a big difference,” says Denise Neilsen, a research field scientist for the Canadian government who has studied the valley’s climate. “The milder winters opened the door. They are what made this industry possible.”
As the winters moderated, warming an average of five degrees over that 60-year span, the growing season increased by 11 days, giving some of the slower ripening varietals a chance to mature. At the same time, average summer temperatures rose nearly four degrees, increasing the speed at which the grapes ripened.
By the mid-1990s, Okanagan winemakers were entering their still-young wines in international competitions — and being derided. George Heiss, owner of Gray Monk Estate Winery, was among the first to try to cultivate European grapes in the Okanagan. He remembers setting up a table alongside winemakers from Australia and Spain at an international wine competition in London.
“People would walk by and do a double take,” Mr. Heiss says. “They’d say, ‘Canada? Where do you make your wines, in igloos?’ “
But as the vines matured, so did the grapes they produced. Okanagan wines began to earn a reputation for balanced, food-friendly vintages, and the wineries began to turn profits. By this year, the number of British Columbian wineries had shot up to 136, from 17 in 1990. The value of the wine produced has increased more than 20-fold.
In recent years Canadian wines have begun to consistently win gold medals at European wine competitions.
Wine and culinary tourism have taken off in the valley, and development has followed. Farmland has jumped to about $200,000 an acre, from $5,000 two decades ago. Albertan energy executives, flush with cash from the oil rush, have flooded the region, building vineyards and second homes.
Established winemaking regions are struggling to adapt to climate changes. In Spain, winemakers are planting vineyards at higher elevations to escape excessive heat. In France, they are altering centuries-old irrigation traditions to accommodate longer, hotter summers. Prof. Jones at Southern Oregon characterizes the anxiety in Napa as “worry, not panic.” In Australia, researchers say that up to 11% of the grape-growing land will be too hot to use by 2030.
As the Okanagan Valley has flourished, Mr. Kennedy is betting the good fortune will reach north to his spread.
“I’m not necessarily a proponent of global warming,” says Mr. Kennedy, whose grapes are now days away from harvest and have escaped frost so far. “But I do know the climate has changed here, and it’s having a pretty significant impact on the grape industry. How long it will last I can’t tell you. We’re pioneers up here.”