Climate and Wine

There are many things that influence the style, quality and character of wine. The winemaker, as well as the viticulturist (fancy name for vineyard manager), will make important decisions in the winery, but one thing that can’t be controlled is the weather. For centuries, the wine industry has done its best to control the climate and terroir. They have tried and succeeded by choosing the best sites for planting certain grapes in certain climates, a concept that embodies the European Appellation system and the concept of terroir, and has provided us with such “brands” as Chablis, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. One great example is the region of Champagne in France, where the weather is historically cool and rainy. This forces the region’s wine producers to pick the grapes fairly under-ripe and to produce a wine (sparkling) that is well suited to the cool weather and barely-ripened grapes. While throughout the history of wine, there have been very warm and very cool vintages or seasons, the recent spat of inconsistent weather has created some very unusual results.

Prior to 2003 in Europe, there had never been so warm a vintage in places like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Tuscany. In Montalcino (home to Brunello), there were forest fires during a brutal heat wave. The vintage was so unusual that wine producers were not able to find any historical data to use for responding to such heat in their region. Winemakers are notorious for keeping detailed data on the weather, when the grapes were picked, how ripe the grapes were and how they responded to that information in the winemaking process. But for such an extreme vintage, that data didn’t exist. Since 2003, there have been a few other remarkable growing seasons in many regions—Long Island had a vintage almost wrecked by a tropical storm (2005), a vintage that was one of the driest and warmest (2007) and the current vintage, which is going to be stunning given the absolutely perfect growing season and picking season.

Meanwhile, the 2010 vintage has been a tough one for California. The region known for consistently warm, dry growing seasons has had one of their coolest and wettest seasons since the 1998 vintage that got beat-up in the press. However, a group of forward thinking producers are embracing the lower alcohol levels in the finished wines, and the more subtle and elegant potential for the best wines. This is quite interesting as the wines of cooler regions such as Long Island and Bordeaux are having a Californian-like harvest while parts of California are having a vintage and harvest that is similar to cooler wine regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Long Island. This is good for Long Island and the 2010 vintage, following on the great 2005 and 2007 vintages, should help our local wines gain more respect from the wine media and consumers.

When I discuss wine regions and climates, I recommend to my Long Island based students that they watch the spring plant-life evolution. This shows the influence of the cold (during spring) or warm (during fall) weather coming off the Atlantic Ocean on the plant lifecycle. However, this fall season, the leaves changed colors very late and has illustrated the concept of microclimates in a manner I haven’t noticed in the past. The farmers of the world pay close attention to these little signs from nature. The rest of us might want to pay a bit closer attention, too.