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Grapes of Wrath

Wine + Wildfires = Worry

Wine Geek is not one to declare his hair is on fire very often: crises and emergencies are part of life so addressing such things should be done calmly and logically. However, those much-feared and increasingly frequent California wildfires—which unfortunately are most prevalent as the wine harvest looms. Also, these are not limited to California: this summer alone (2022) there have been ferocious fires causing lots and lots of destruction including lost vineyards and potentially smoke-tainted grapes in California, Oregon, Washington & British Columbia, as well as an unprecedented rash of fires in France, Spain & Portugal…what is going on?

Without going down the political rabbit hole of climate change, it is frequently asserted that the root cause for this recent increase in these mega-fires is global warming. We do think we are undergoing a warming period, regardless of the cause, and we do not need reams of data to conclude this: we simply talk to the vintners/grape-farming families in places like Burgundy, Champagne and Barolo (to name a few) and hear first-hand the temperature trends on their family properties—land they have farmed for decades and decades—and which they know intimately.

During July & August of this year, Southwest France has been pounded by wildfires, including not just the vast Languedoc region to the tune of 125,000 acres, but reaching the City of Bordeaux itself, where a 26 square mile stand of timber was lost in the Gironde region. Some 40,000 + people have been evacuated in the area. Smoke reached the city of Graves, where super-cult wine of Liber Pater (their 2015 sells for $30,000 a bottle!) is grown…and we are guessing it is doubtful they will make a wine this year though, happily, the local growers association has declared ‘we don’t think there will be any smoke-taint issues’. Hmmm. Through the end of July, Spain had lost 225,000 acres to fires, and smoke taint is a concern there. Ditto Portugal. And at last count, British Columbia has lost 75,000 acres thus far.

Of course, this isn’t new. Australia suffers gargantuan brushfires regularly. The ‘Victoria Bushfires’ of 2009—known as ‘Black Saturday’ swallowed up entire villages, and even shut down parts of Melbourne, a city of 5 million. Sicily had a bad episode last year where fires raged throughout the rustic countryside…on a day where the temperature reached 120 degrees in Siracusa!

Though vintners can’t do much to prevent these fires, they are taking steps to mitigate the effects of global warming. Things such as allowing bigger canopies to shade the fruit in the vineyards and inhibit over-ripeness; planting on North or East-facing slopes—rather than the tradition of planting on South or West-facing slopes in order to maximize ripeness; planting at higher altitudes (cooler). In Bordeaux—a bastion of tradition and convention—the INAO just allowed six new varietals to be included in Bordeaux blends, grapes that can handle heat better than Cabernet or Merlot, including the Douro’s (where it was 116 degrees last week) Touriga Nacional.

As we push the boundaries of the wildlands-urban interface, we will likely see more of this. And our best strategy is to load up the cellar when we find great wines we like…cuz they might not make it next year.

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