Is wine as we know it changing forever?

I love wine. It adds a little joy to life, complements fine food, and is even good for you, in moderation. But a few years back, I started cutting back on it. I chalked my newfound inability to quaff a half bottle and still function the next day up to my advancing age. Just wasn’t rolling with it the way I used to.

Then I started reading labels, and it dawned on me. Some of my favorite wines were quite high in alcohol, and according to wine experts, only getting higher every year.  All those juicy reds I was washing down red sauced pasta with were loaded with the strong stuff. So, I started paying attention.

Now you can disagree about whether human activity is to blame for our advancing temperatures, but the fact is, the wine growing regions of the world are getting warmer. Wine producers have been worried about this for a long time, and for good reason. The documented 1.7 degree increases in temperature in places like Napa California or the Burgundy region in France have changed the way the grapes behave. Heat makes the grapes produce more sugar, and sugar makes alcohol. It also takes the acidity away from wines, making them one-dimensional and not as food-friendly.

I thought I would ask a wine expert, so I contacted Liz Caskey, who lives in Santiago Chile and has a bustling business, Liz Caskey Culinary and Wine Experiences, leading tours of the wine regions there.

Liz agreed that the warming climate is having an effect.

“Well, as the climate gets warmer, for example, places like Burgundy that formally produced delicate reds like Pinot Noir are having hotter years and the wines are going up in alcohol, tannins, and flavors completely changing. If it continues, the Pinot could resemble more new world than old world. However, it also brings consistency in France where it was very marked between a cold, rainy year (green/unmature wines) and years like 2005 in Bordeaux that were very hot with the wines already succulent.”

So there is a slight upside to the change, kind of like the happiness we feel when spring comes early in Minnesota, even as the heat drives away native species, from fish to plants.

Vegetarians who like wine often pick lower alcohol wines, anyway, since lighter styles, from whites to reds like Pinot Noir, go best with veggies and with the spicy and global fare we enjoy. But what will we do, when our pinot gris is no longer dry, or when finicky pinot noir won’t grow in California? When even medium body reds become rough with alcohol, and make your food taste weird?

The wine world right now seems to be in flux-just imagine that you have been growing grapes in a vineyard for years, and now those grapes are turning out all wrong. Do you tear them out and plant something more heat-friendly? Do you invest in winery property a few clicks north, so you can still make cool weather wines? Do you investigate ways of reducing the alcohol in your wine? Actually, all of the above are being reported and discussed in the world of wine.

Ms Caskey was of the opinion that the flux will continue, even though Chile is less affected than other regions.

“In Chile, the climate change for some reason feels less noticeable although our spring and fall have been reduced, we still are a Mediterranean climate. I think people will continue to search for new terroir and cooler climates as the temperature increases. After all, who wants a wine cocktail at 15 percent alcohol??”

I feel you, Liz. That 15% Zin just doesn’t work for me, or go with my meal. Here’s hoping that winemakers can figure out how to keep wine great, and still make some lower alcohol wines.