Allen Balik, invited, two of our member to join a webinar focused on how viticulture can adapt to climate change hosted by Aron Weinkauf, winemaker and vineyard manager at Spottswoode in St. Helena, in conversation with Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga.
Read below the Allen Balik reports on this meeting:
Climate change is a progressive, complex, multifaceted phenomenon with inconsistent patterns from one area to another and casting a dark shadow over vineyards worldwide.
In addition to rising temperatures and severe drought (viticulture’s greatest challenges), it involves other diverse manifestations from increased rainfall, storm surge, rising sea levels, violent hurricanes and the tornadoes they spawn, devastating snow storms and blizzards, along with an increased incidence of pests and disease throughout agriculture.
Climate change has been observed, documented and debated over the last several decades. Its effects, existence and man-made contributions are proven by the global scientific community in more than 90 percent of their exhaustive and meticulous studies. Yet, an ardent group of deniers continues to remain vocal on the subject by resisting suggested lifestyle, industrial and community changes we must enact in an effort to stem the tide.
My intention is not to debate the existence or causation of climate change. I look to science and recorded data to prove that as a given. Rather, I’ll explore critical viticultural options being implemented to accommodate its deleterious effects. In a couple weeks I will follow-up with an insight into what the international wine community has launched to combat further expansion. This is truly a two-pronged battle with both efforts lending valuable contributions.
To maintain Cabernet’s dominance, growers can look at various rootstocks, clones and inventive farming practices to find answers. An alternate route involves accentuating the “Napa” brand (also being explored in Bordeaux and elsewhere) with other varieties better suited to rising temperatures in an effort to produce wines at or above the quality level expected from our Valley. The good news is even while climate is changing, our diverse Napa Valley soils are not.
Both Aron and Dan are experimenting with different varieties and introducing various farming protocols that have proven advantageous over the last 20 or so years. Aron is a strong proponent of working with Cabernet Sauvignon, which he says is the “cream of Napa Valley that will always rise to the top.”
Aron observes, “Variable conditions as becoming more variable and extremes becoming more extreme. Since agriculture doesn’t move as fast as the media… patience and long-term studies are [necessary].” Aron has dedicated several acres in Spottswoode’s vineyard to look at the growing potential of California’s “old blacks” like Carignan, Mourvedre, Petit Sirah and some hybrids.
Aron is also a strong believer in blending for added complexity in the finished wine. And even though other varieties planted to flourish in a warmer/drier climate may gain strength in Napa Valley, he envisions Cabernet as most likely remaining a significant portion of the blend while maintaining its local importance.
He agrees we should continue experimentation and adopt new vineyard practices to protect Cabernet. But we must also be aware that change is advancing and it is crucial that the Napa brand remain the core of our focus regardless of what grapes go into the bottle and ultimately our glass.
On the varietal side, Dan respects Cabernet’s premier role and said it may survive with newly adopted viticultural practices. However, he fears we may be facing “a chop at the knees” so extensive research must continue with other compatible varieties that could carry Napa Valley through the new normal ahead.
During the webinar, both Aron and Dan went into great depth on what we need to do in Napa Valley and stressed the ever-decreasing window of opportunity to realize positive results in the face of persistent climate change. We’re not alone in the world when it comes to vineyard and varietal modifications to preserve quality in the wines we enjoy, and here are a few examples:
In 2009, an experimental planting of 52 different varietals (from Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal) in the Pessac-Lèognan appellation was begun under the leadership the French National Institute for Agricultural Research and Bordeaux Wine Council. The aim of this continuing experiment is to maintain the character of great Bordeaux wine with varietals more acclimated to warmer temperatures.
Adaptation is necessary but fighting the expansion of climate change is also critical in avoiding ultimate disaster. We’ll explore some of the international wine community’s efforts on that front next time, so stay tuned.