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"This shit is real"

Wine

"...and if we don't start facing it in drastic ways, we are done." Whitey reports on very strange things happening in the world's vineyards.

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“How much warming, then, can justly be attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gases? Taking all evidence into account, the proven amount is: none … from a viticultural viewpoint we can conclude that any anthropogenic changes to mean temperatures will be small and, for some decades to come, unlikely to have major effects beyond those of natural climate variability.”

That’s the revered grandfather of many dogmas in Australian viticulture, the Western Australian Dr. John Gladstones, writing in his Wine, Terroir and Climate Change (Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2011).

Dr. John has many fervid disciples in positions of power in Australian wine superstructure, even on its bridge. At the wheel. These gubernators have gone a shade quiet on the topic this year.

And as most grapegrower-winemakers tend to do, Raymond Haak, a representative of the vignerons of the Gulf Coast wine region, in Texas, has rather blithely dismissed the fact that their vineyards 40 kilometres from Houston, had just taken 1,500 millimetres of rain. That’s nearly the height of the average human if you need to measure it on the gulp scale. But most of the Gulf region’s grapes were already in the tank. Close one.

“We had a little bit of water in the cellar, and lost power for about 16 hours,” Raymond told Wines & Vines when the rain stopped. “But now we’re doing great; we’re back on our feet. The crop was all off the vines, and that takes a load off the vine. They can have wet feet for several weeks if the crop is off.”

No wet feet in California, however. While the south seemed to sink, the north of the USA was glazed in bushfire haze while the west sweltered and burnt.

Cross to Chris Carpenter, maker of some of the best – and most expensive – Cabernets in California. He makes wine from the peaches-and-cream moutaintop vineyards of the Jackson Family: Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota and Mt. Brave, as well as their prime Hickinbotham Vineyard at Clarendon on the Onkaparinga Gorge south of Adelaide.

“Two days before the heat hit,” he responded to my query, “as we were watching that high pressure system roll in, two of my irrigation pumps went out, on two different mountains in vineyards that desperately needed a drink. Desperate days ensued: earnest pleas to colleagues, pump engineering wizards and friends and foes alike just to make sure that we got them fixed. There was not a doubt in my mind that the heat was coming.

“How could it not be?  There were killer hurricanes heading to desperate souls in Texas and right behind it was another, its eye on Florida. Los Angeles and much of the West was on fire. Northern California wasn’t going to let the rest of the country have all the fun.  Somewhere Hal Lindsay was smiling.

“Three days of 45-46C.  Three days of hiding indoors, as even the coast didn’t offer relief.  Three days of watching trees, shrubs and ornamental plants meant for climates in places like Canada lose their grip on their time on this planet. Three days of contemplating Mother Nature’s feverish attempts to rid her body of the virus that is humanity. The planet is an organism, and like all organisms it reacts to changes in its health with heat and we are living that reaction. Mother Nature’s flu virus is us and the massive fever we are experiencing is meant to eradicate it.”

Chris Carpenter with Hickinbotham Cabernet. Photo: Philip White

Annika Berlingieri, who usually cooks bounteous weekend long table lunches at Sellicks Hill Wines, reported from Tuscany that superfrost followed by superdrought had severly limited the crop there. The Vinosalvo Shiraz and Sangiovese vineyard Alison Hodder, third woman to graduate from the Roseworthy Winemaking College, has established there with her partner, Claudio Berlingieri, was not spared.

“Yields are very low and it’s depressing,” Annika reports. “The Shiraz vineyard last year produced 14 tonnes. This year 2.5! Alison has purchased a bit of fruit to top up but no one really has much to sell, especially Shiraz, here! I’ve seen some pretty dry shrivelled vines and grapes the last week. But what she crushed is looking beautiful so fingers crossed!”

As most of the great vignobles of Europe can testify, some of the biggest, and most famous are whispering about a harvest that could be the smallest since 1945. France, overall, is looking to be around 20% down on last year, Italy 24% lower. This is all directly related to climate changes.

Back in California, Chris reports extra damage from critters. He says that heavy rains of winter produced “a huge growth of the cover crop plants between the rows. So much growth that it was nearly impossible to keep up with the mowing needed … the rodent population exploded.  Gophers, ground squirrels and voles made their way through the cover of grasses … undetected by owls, hawks, falcons, snakes, and the occasional feral cat.  None of these combatants  could see or smell their elusive and prolific prey.  When the heat hit [they] took to the plants to suck what water they could from their roots and graft unions, exacerbating the devastating affect of the heat.”

That unusual winter rain had Chris’s favourite vineyards 10 days behind in picking. “With the amount of water in the soil we were looking at a late harvest and it was likely that it would happen all at once. That is no longer the case as we began picking almost immediately after the weekend. The sugars shot up but the acid metabolism stalled. Again, a good thing as we will likely be picking with pretty high acids. And the phenolics are outstanding in the berries I am tasting.  I have yet to figure that part of the equation out.

“Speaking of variety the thick skinned varieties seem to have fared better, and are bouncing back a little better as we have tried to rehydrate some of the shrivelled berries post heat.”

Alison Hodder surveys a baked remnant of her 2017 harvest in Tuscany. Photo: Annika Berligieri

While I write this, I’m enjoying a lovely white from 700 metres up the mountains east of Tokyo and directly north of Mount Fuji. Grace Gris de Koshu 2016 ($45, 12% alcohol; compound cork) is from the Koshu variety, which found its way along the silk route from the Caucasus, where it’s been for over a thousand years.

Beautifully floral, rich with nectar and fine honeydew melon flavours, with really refreshing steely high-country acidity, this baby shows no warming unless you refer to the wine losing some of its crisp chill and growing a little muscaty as it warms in the glass: it’s more or less along the lines of the Mediterranean French Picpoul, which is beginning to appear around McLaren Vale.

It’s simultaneously comforting and bracing. Yin and yang. They say it goes well with sushi, but I reckon, more to the point, its slightly sweet flesh is perfect for counterbalancing the sharp ammonia of wasabi. You can’t do that with Sauvignon blanc.

My point being that rodents and pumps aside, we’re gonna have to get used to a lot of our vineyards moving to the mountaintops in places like Japan or closer to the melting poles. Things are changing faster than anybody seems to grasp. Forget Gladstones and his sanctimonious zealots. Or, better still, seek them out and remove them from positions of power.

“This is just the beginning my friends,” Chris Carpenter concludes. “There is a new paradigm and the fucks in political office better start paying attention. Too many of them have viewed their food from the aisles of a grocery store wrapped in flashy packaging and always available. Food is grown in a set of conditions that have a very small bandwidth. We are disrupting that bandwidth to a degree that Silicon Valley ‘disruptors’ would be jealous of if it wasn’t ultimately going to starve them. Now more than ever those who grow our food need to sound the alarm. This shit is real and if we don’t start facing it in drastic ways we are done.”

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