'Tasting Climate Change' discussed in Montreal

Alistair Cooper MW reports on a conference in Canada for JancisRobinson.com

An unseasonably cold and snowy Montreal played host to Tasting Climate Change, an informative and engaging wine-industry conference held on 12 November. The global climatic conditions then current provided a poignant and powerful backdrop for the event. Venice was underwater with its second-highest water levels since records began in 1923, while bushfires were raging (extremely early in the season) in drought-ridden Australia, and Sonoma’s wildfires continued to wreak havoc, as reported by Alder recently.

Climate Change Panel

This second edition of Tasting Climate Change was organised by Michelle Bouffard, a Montreal resident and leading light of the Canadian wine industry. A renowned educator, broadcaster and journalist (as well as MW student), Bouffard gathered an impressive array of speakers to address and discuss current issues facing wine producers, including Miguel Torres Sr and Dr José Vouillamoz (co-author of Wine Grapes with JR and JH).

I asked why she felt compelled to put this conference together. ‘I want to offer a platform where not only challenges but solutions can be explored. From the vineyard to the table, everyone involved in the wine industry has an obligation to be informed and to take the necessary steps to be part of the solutions to fight climate change’, she explained.

To kick-start proceedings Karel Maynard, Director General for Quebec and Atlantic Canada for the David Suzuki Foundation, provided an overview of current global climatic changes (not specific to the wine industry). There followed a significant number of alarming statements and statistics used to set the tone for the conference. ‘The energy trapped by man-made global warming pollution is now equivalent to exploding 500,000 Hiroshima atom bombs per day 365 days per year’, according to James Hanson, former director of NASA.

Climate change

I must admit to not personally being able to fully compute this comparison, yet it does sound dramatic and certainly not insignificant. I am not sure that one can equate climate change to the energy produced by an atom bomb – but I am no scientist, and I suppose alarm was the purpose of the statement.

There were other factors that were far easier to understand and seemingly undeniable, all pointing to the fact that rapid response is vital. I was shocked to hear that globally we have endured 415 consecutive months of above-average temperatures, with July 2019 being the hottest month recorded in history – although apparently October 2019 was also much, much hotter than previous Octobers. A full 18 of the 19 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.

It seems we are just now beginning to enter an era of consequences, highlighted by current and recent climatic fluctuations. More dramatically, Maynard believes, ‘we are entering a point of no return’. When asked to offer three concrete actions that all individuals could take to reduce their carbon footprint Maynard responded, ‘Reduce air travel, travel less by car and consume less beef.’

Following Maynard’s informative, generic introduction, Dr José Vouillamoz then spoke about the past, present and future of wine grapes in a changing climate. One of the world’s leading authorities on the origin and parentage of grape varieties through DNA profiling, Vouillamoz is also a highly accomplished and entertaining speaker. Some of the presentation was repackaged from last year’s MW symposium (see Julia’s report). He posited that perhaps Nebbiolo might one day replace Pinot Noir in Burgundy.

The whole topic of variety replacement is one that will continue to provoke discussion and debate. In the long term it will probably prove necessary – but it depends on how long we may consider ‘long term’ to be. Vouillamoz offered two interesting slides that illustrated the current limitation of grape diversity globally, and then one offering potential future solutions.

Currently, 13 grape varieties account for more than a third of the world’s vineyard sites, with 33 varieties covering 50% – yet there are over 1,500 different vine varieties in total. Vouillamoz explained that the reason Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay (among others) were widely planted is not because they were the most suitable varieties, but for purely commercial reasons.

Considering that fact, it is local, ancient and indigenous varieties that should be a focus for producers looking forward. ‘My suggestion is to move back to the old varieties that have been forgotten and have survived all the climatic changes so far. We have the possibility of bringing them back to life, and this is what I would prefer to see. I think this is the most important factor.’ This slide suggests potential indigenous grapes that might be considered for more extensive plantings in the future. Most of the grapes suggested, such as Alfrocheiro, are naturally high in acidity, and grapes such as Cinsault are hardy and drought-resistant.

Vouillamoz then added:
‘Clonal diversity is also key to achieving this. Within Pinot Noir there are over 1,000 clones, which offer huge differences – from higher-yielding clones to others with smaller berries and much higher-quality wine. We need to work on this and this is in the process of happening. We can now identify clones through genetics and sort them into groups of clones, which is a big move forward. Biodiversity is of extreme importance.’

Climate Change

Briefly he touched on gene editing (which is not considered the same as GMO for some reason I did not understand), a new area that is opening up. This allows targeting genes to fight against pathogens (botrytis, mildew etc) essentially through switching off genes via something akin to an on/off button. There has been limited success thus far with this technique but the technology may also be able to adjust sugar ripening as well as other factors such as aroma development. While this is important (and expensive), Vouillamoz also stressed that this may contribute to a loss of biodiversity as the focus will be placed on a minimal number of clones.

One of the key factors identified for the short to medium term is the countless possibilities offered by rootstocks to mitigate climate change. We have a plethora of options available, and while they are specific to each vineyard’s situation, they can have a major influence on all of the following: bud break, tolerance to soil-borne pests, growth vigour, efficiency of water use, nutrient uptake and fruit yield. These are all above the ground, yet below the ground the rootstock will also influence the plant’s relationship with soil pH, chemical conditions and mycorrhizae (symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants that play a major role in soil aggregation and promote microbial activity). There remains a huge amount of research to be done on rootstocks, especially since there is such potential to counter the effects of global warming.

An interesting (though somewhat self-serving) presentation followed by Eric Jörgens, Business Development Manager for the eastern Canada division of Hillebrand. Hillebrand is a logistics firm – essentially freight forwarders or shippers, or, as more poetically put by Jörgens himself, ‘transportation architects’. Jörgens touched on how Hillebrand is responding to the imposed targets of reducing greenhouse gases by 2050.

The inimitable Miguel Torres has strong views on environmental issues, which was clear in his engaging presentation. In 2008 Torres was left shocked following a visit to the cinema with his wife to watch the Al Gore climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. This led him to read over 50 books on the topic and quickly start to take action within the company.

Actions implemented and forthcoming include:

  • since 2007 Torres have invested €15,795,000 in renewable energies, biomass, electric cars, energy efficiency adaptation to climate change, reforestation and research
  • between 2008 and 2018 Torres have reduced carbon emissions by 27.6% (as certified by Lloyds)
  • in 2019 they started to reuse the carbon dioxide produced by alcoholic fermentation
  • by 2020 they will have reduced carbon emissions by 30% per bottle compared with 2008.

Perhaps the most interesting and contentious point raised was the seeming paradox of organic viticulture. First, the use of copper sulphate in organic farming (for the treatment of downy mildew) is an issue, on account of copper’s toxicity and the damage it does to the soil. While this is not directly linked to climate change, there is an indirect link via increased carbon emissions (from tractors etc) arising from the application of copper sulphate to the vines (which only lasts one week on the leaves).

Figures from the Research Centre for Energy Resources and Consumption claim that CO2 emissions from organic farming can be nearly a third more than those from conventional viticulture. I am not aware of which vineyards these figures are derived from, but it certainly raises an interesting issue when considering organic production methods.

Echoing the thoughts of Dr Vouillamoz, Torres have worked on rescuing ancestral varieties in both Catalonia (see Jancis’s review of some of them) and Chile (working with País vineyards in Maule and Itata – see this early result). On the issue of vineyard practices to mitigate climate change, Torres have worked on the following techniques:

  • increasing vine training height as well as leaf canopy height to delay ripening
  • usage of hail nets to also delay ripening (an expensive method?)
  • use of gobelet training to reduce water usage
  • reducing vine density to limit competition and thus water consumption
  • less de-leafing in the canopy to create a cooler mesoclimate.

Climate Change

The company purchased Los Condores, a 6,000-hectare estate in southern Patagonia, in 2018 for the purpose of reforestation and offsetting carbon emissions. It was this point that really brought home to me one of the advantages of being a family-owned company. The ability to take such long-term decisions and invest for the future is considerably easier for a family than for corporate entities. The presentation certainly projected Torres in a positive light, as one might expect. Sitting down for a glass of wine afterwards and conversing further with Miguel Torres, I found it hard not to believe that his commitment to the environment is anything but genuine.

During a series of round-table panel discussions, several interesting points were raised. Gregory Viennois, head winemaker of Laroche Chablis (hence no stranger to climatic variations over recent years), discussed altering pruning times to delay budburst and avoid frosts as well as to delay ripening. This point, in conjunction with Dr Vouillamoz’s rootstock issue, would seem to offer real possibilities in the short and medium term. Francisco Diez is a Chilean viticulturist currently consulting in Nova Scotia. Discussing Chile, he emphasised several initiatives including:

  • looking further south in Chile for cooler areas with greater rainfall
  • row orientation: instead of planting on a north/south axis, north-west/south-east offers less sunshine exposure as well as reduced water consumption
  • the use of deficit irrigation to significantly decrease water consumption.

I was somewhat surprised to hear Jérémy Cukierman MW suggest the possibility of water additions for the wines of the northern Rhône as an option to counter rising alcohol levels due to warming temperatures, although it is a simple, pragmatic tool currently used in many other countries, so perhaps – why not? Interestingly he also pointed to the option of whole-bunch (presumably also open-vat?) fermentations as an option to lower alcohol levels by up to 0.6%. Finally, Anne Dumont of Lallemand (researchers and producers of yeast) discussed ongoing research into the stressing of yeasts during fermentation in order to reduce alcohol levels by up to 0.8% (while increasing glycerol production).

While climate-change sceptics certainly exist, I don’t believe that there are many within the wine industry who are not concerned. Fortunately, there appear to be options to combat it and with further research these will surely increase. Older vines are better equipped to deal with climatic extremes (both drought and excessive rainfall), and it is a shame that so many were grubbed up globally during the 1980s. More protection for older vines, which is beginning to happen (see our Old Vines Register), can only be a good thing for the future given the current situation. The vine is a resilient and hardy plant, and seems to find a way to cope. Long may this continue.

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