Monday, June 16, 2008

Vintners rethink and replant to stay competitive

Fruity merlot from Siberia? Not so fast, say vintners from Champagne to California.

As global warming threatens to change the land vintners have relied on — sometimes for centuries — established wine growing regions around the world are deploying techniques old and new to adapt.

The goal: to stay competitive as progressively hotter harvests open up the prospect of wine from regions once deemed unsuitable for growing grapes — including Russia's frozen but now thawing lands and rain-battered Britain.

In France's southern Languedoc region, for example, once-sacred rules against irrigating vines are being relaxed, while growers in the U.S. are experimenting with genetically modified heat-resistant grapes.

That's because by 2050, the world's premier wine-friendly zones could shift as much as 180 miles toward the poles, says climate geographer Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University.

In theory, that will make northern Europe or New Zealand more grape-friendly than Bordeaux or Australian valleys.

That has beverage conglomerates in the U.S., where wine is a $100 billion-a-year industry, scouting out vine plots that get more shade — contrary to age-old practices in both the northern and southern halves of the globe.

Meanwhile, sommeliers are readying for an array of new aromas as vintners vary varieties in response to warm weather.

"You are going to see people introduced to wines from weird countries, like Belgium," says Jancis Robinson, wine expert and co-author of the latest edition of the "World Atlas of Wine."

"You will see a lot more wine from Germany, which can finally ripen its grapes, ... and good Canadian reds," she says.

Climate and market forecasts, and studies of grape behavior, suggest that during the next two generations — not a long time in wine terms — vintage Kent and Chinese or Canadian chablis could occupy as much supermarket shelf space as Bordeaux, Rioja and Napa's finest.

In addition to creating new wine regions, the warming trend is changing established ones.

To keep their vines cool, Argentine producers are planting them closer to the Andean slopes and in Patagonia. In South Africa, winemakers have moved sauvignon blanc vines to higher altitudes and sought patches open to cooling sea breezes.

In Ay, where producers such as Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot nurture precious plots, harvesters hit fields in late August last year — the earliest since 1822, according to the Champagne Growers' Committee, which sets harvest dates.

Leaving the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes on the vine any longer would have risked too much heat, too much alcohol and a strange new sweetness.

"Those who make wine have always been sensitive to climate," says Pierre Cheval, whose Gatinois Champagne House, a small family winery in Ay, has seen plenty of industry ups and downs during 11 generations in business. "Temperatures, humidity, microclimates, all this is essential to the health and originality of the grape."

He says smaller vintners face a tougher time adapting to climate change, since it takes several years to coax good wine from a new vine or to make a profit on new grape varieties.

But water is a concern to all vintners, large and small.

In arid Australia, winemakers who have long depended on irrigation have been parched by the country's worst drought in a century. And with government estimates predicting a sharp increase in dry spells in coming decades, industry experts say investment could shift from hot places such as Barossa Valley to the southern island of Tasmania.

In France's sun-roasted Languedoc, where winemaking dates to the 5th century B.C., the government relaxed irrigation rules to allow producers to slake the vines' thirst.

In many vineyard areas of inland and southern Spain, viticulture soon could be unsustainable without irrigation. Farmers today grow vines in untrained bushes far apart to allow each a chance of surviving on scarce underground water.

Higher temperatures also mean grapes are more sugary, meaning more alcohol when fermented — too much, in fact.

"We have been assessing alcohol reduction techniques, mechanical as well as through vineyard changes," says Lorenzo Banos, of Casa de la Ermita winery in the Jumilla region on Spain's southeast coast.

Climate scientists say global warming has brought heavier than usual rain to some regions — which leads to more fungus outbreaks and attracts new pests. A recent Italian study suggested increased intense rains are a threat to Tuscan wine quality.

Southern Europe's loss, though, may prove England's gain.

"The biggest problem with English wineries is keeping up in demand," says Christopher White, general manager of Denbies Winery in Surrey. "Climate change is one of the biggest factors for the growth of the industry."

"We haven't been hit by a frost in six years," he says. "The buds burst earlier, which gives a longer ripening period... The volume is getting higher year after year, and the industry is more on par with what happens on the Continent."

Traditionally, English wineries planted German varieties, but now are moving toward varieties familiar in France such as bacchus, chardonnay and pinot noir.

China, too, may benefit. After a 60 percent expansion over five years, it now has more vineyard acreage than the U.S.

Also, milder climates are producing more consistent quality in wines, as in the Caucasus Mountains of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. And Russian researchers think valleys in southwest Siberia could sustain marketable wine grapes.

These pressures may even prompt European governments to — "heretical as it may sound," Robinson said — expand or adjust the strictly controlled regions where certain wines can be produced.

French officials already are studying ways to expand "Champagne country" to keep up with growing demand — and are focusing on north-facing land with an eye to future warming.

Purists say something will forever be lost when the weather in Burgundy is too consistently hot to produce the early pinot noir that lends grand crus their sophistication. Differences in soil quality, composition, groundwater levels and the angle of sunlight mean that Sussex can never replicate Saint-Emilion.

Champagne vintner Cheval isn't ready to abandon his profession just yet.

In a warming world, "even the English will be able to succeed in making champagne," he says, before adding with a grin, "In four, maybe five hundred years."


Grape growers bubbly over expansion

MAGNEUX, France - Jean-Michel Petit, a third-generation beet farmer in this village, yearns to trade his earthy roots for the sparkle of Champagne.

more stories like this"I'd plant the maximum amount of grapevines if I could," Petit said, beaming at the prospect of tender pinot noir vines lining the chalky soil of his farm in northeastern France.

Petit and the roughly 200 inhabitants of Magneux are part of an eager group of outsiders pressing to join the elite growers of the $7 billion Champagne industry.

A nearly eight-decade-old rule that delineates the official Champagne zone is about to be changed to include new territory, potentially allowing farmers like Petit to sell grapes for Champagne with the French seal of approval, the "Appellation d'Origine Controlee," or AOC.

Traditionally, Champagne could be grown only in a part of the Champagne region.

But with global demand for sparkling wine soaring, putting pressure on limited supplies, the French authorities are opening what could be the largest wave of expansion of Champagne vineyards in nearly a century. Potentially, the expansion could increase annual production by 100 million bottles, to 430 million.

The major Champagne houses support the expansion plan, which is in its appeals stage until Friday. Without more vineyards, they fear customers could revolt against rising Champagne prices, edging above $35 for nonvintage bottles of Moet & Chandon and $40 for Veuve Clicquot in the United States.

The current Champagne growing region encompasses a patchwork of territory sprawling over 87,000 acres, in 319 villages. In March, a team of experts appointed by the French government approved more than 40 more communes, or communities, to add to the Champagne territory, zones that are now the subject of final appeals.

In preparation, some major Champagne houses, which buy most of their grapes from independent growers, are quietly scouting for fresh land, according to people in the industry who did not want to be identified because the government experts had not finished with the appeals period. Companies do not want to discuss possible land purchases for the same reasons.

The same cannot be said for the region's villages, especially those passed over by French authorities - like Magneux. Quiet jockeying to join the club is still taking place, even though the appeals period closes in less than a week.

Magneux was one of a collection of about eight communities that joined together to hire four students to prepare a dossier exploring the history, climate, geography, and soil of the area, along with records showing that pinot noir grapes were actually grown there before the last Champagne designation was imposed in 1927.

Jean-Pierre Pinon, mayor of Fismes, helped to organize Magneux and the other communities to promote their suitability for Champagne vineyards.

But he is reluctant to celebrate his town's inclusion in the new territory until the government panel issues its final conclusions.

"There's no euphoria and no Champagne here because people are superstitious until the decision is definitive," Pinon said as he strolled among vendors during his town's annual festival of flowers in May. "I've tried to work as discreetly as possible on this."

Doreen Carvajal

Wineries celebrate solar power

Here comes the sun.

And it seems no one worships sunshine more than wineries in Rutherford. The Upvalley hamlet is ground zero for going solar: Three wineries are joining forces to celebrate solar power and are inviting the public to join them on June 21, at 5:30 p.m., until sunset — for the first ever “Solarbration” event.
It is also the summer solstice, the most hours of sunshine in a day.

Participating in this inaugural festivity is Honig Vineyard & Winery, Peju Family Estate Wines and ZD Wines. All three Rutherford wineries have gone solar and they want to share what they are doing with the rest of the Napa Valley.
The cost is $40 for wine club members and $50 for everyone else. Proceeds from the event go to the Land Trust of Napa County. Visitors can go to the three solar venues for wine tasting, appetizers, music, tours and a chance to learn about solar energy.

Also participating is Sunlight Electric, which installed the solar arrays at Honig and ZD; and Akeena Solar, which did the photovoltaic system at Peju.
Rob Erlichman, CEO of Sunlight Electric, citing stats from the NorCal Solar Energy Association, said that across the Bay Area’s 10 counties, the average watts per capita of installed solar is 16.7; but, Napa County far exceeds that at 51.1 watts per capita.

Erlichman’s research also shows “Rutherford is the most solar place in all the Bay Area.”

“With a population of 525, that means our work has generated 1,135 watts per capita, so it seems that our customers are largely responsible for putting Rutherford on the solar map.”

Sunlight Electric has completed five major projects in Rutherford — Frog's Leap, Honig, Long Meadow Ranch, Staglin and ZD Wines, totaling about 600 kilowatts.

According to Erlichman, Napa County wineries have adopted solar energy 42 times faster than California businesses overall.

“Within Napa, Rutherford wineries are at the forefront of this trend.”

Peju spokesperson Katie Lewis said the family-owned winery went solar in 2006 with 720 panels covering about 10,000-square feet, over the crush pad, cellar and administrative office. The system produces 126 kilowatts. “This accounts for 36 percent of our annual energy.”

“If we all do the little things like this ... it is going to help the environment for future generations ... we want to preserve the vineyards and land. We want this area to thrive for years to come,” Lewis said.

“Maybe (Solarbration) will help influence other businesses. We want to let everyone know that wineries are doing their part to preserve the land, air and water.”

Visitors will enjoy appetizers prepared by Peju’s own in-house chef, who will use many vegetables from the winery’s own organic gardens.

Outside they will be pouring white wine in the vineyard, while red wines can be enjoyed inside.

ZD is the latest Rutherford winery to adopt solar power, with the installation of a 125 kilowatt system in February, according to Brett deLeuze, president and partner in the winery.

The 712-module design supplies 100 percent of the energy used by ZD. The panels run about the length of a football field and is 18-feet wide.ZD produces surplus electricity. “We are trying to figure ways to use more electricity ... we have been looking at electric cars as a way to use it,” deLeuze said.

“We are trying to be as green as possible. We are trying to be good stewards of the land,” he said.

For Solarbration, ZD will offer an “open house type of feel to its event,” said deLeuze. “We encourage our guests to travel to all three wineries and see what each is doing.”

In ZD’s tasting room there will be a PowerPoint presentation. “People will be able to see how much power we are using,” deLeuze said.

Honig Vineyard & Winery has been solar since August 2006. Their system consists of 819 Sanyo 200-watt modules, mounted on the ground. The system is saving the winery about $42,000 a year on its electric bills.

Honig has one of the larger solar setups in the Napa Valley. It cost about $1.2 million.

Prior to going solar, Honig’s utility bill in June averaged $5,000 a month. After the system was installed the bill dropped to $1.19 the following June.

Regina Weinstein, director of marketing and retail at Honig, said the solar panels generate enough power for whole winery on sunny days and actually gives some back into the grid.

A monitor in the tasting room will let guests see how much electricity is being produced and how much is going into the grid.

Why tout the importance of solar?  

“I think what is happening with the planet right now is pretty critical ... Co2 has a lot to do with the problem ... so whatever we can do to reduce our impact is important,” Weinstein said. “This is the important thing to do.”