Few deny that climate change is happening. The problem for producers is that it can be hard to predict what this will mean for their area.
Last summer I sat in the conservatory of an English wine producer on a gloriously sunny day. We were discussing his business plan and, in particular, the launch scheduled for the following year.
Suddenly the heavens opened and hailstones clattered on to the roof. In a remarkably short space of time the lawn looked as if it had been covered with a thick layer of icing sugar. The producer rang his vineyard manager, and it was immediately clear that the launch plans might need amending.
On the journey home I couldn’t help thinking that I needed to get out more. As someone who tends to feel that producers don’t spend enough time thinking about commercial questions, it is occasionally useful to be reminded that growing vines and making wine is not only a pretty time-consuming pursuit, but also one that is fraught with risk and subject to a fair degree of chance.
I can bang on and on about how producers should learn from other categories in terms of marketing their product, yet few categories are subject to the vagaries of vintage and the vicissitudes of the weather to the same degree as ours.
For small producers where business planning and marketing tends to be in the hands of the same people who manage the winemaking and vineyards, as well as the general day-to-day administration, it is not surprising that the orientation is towards production matters. But in my experience, even among larger producers, the fact that the product is so “earthed” can tend to slant the focus in that direction.
I’m not arguing that this is how it ought to be. As I’ve noted in previous posts, if you don’t get your marketing right, you will not reap the full rewards of all your work in the vineyard and winery. And if your plan is not relevant to your capabilities, you are likely to be disappointed or moving in the wrong direction.
However, when it comes to planning, relating your capabilities to your objectives is not really the difficult part. The difficulty tends to involve taking into account factors over which you have no control, and where the consequences for your own individual business are particularly difficult to pin down.
Are producers ignoring climate change?
I recently read Tim Atkin’s piece on climate change in OLN, entitled “Too Hot to Handle”. The piece, which reflected on the recent report by Conservation International, expressed surprise that the wine trade appeared to paying such little intention to a phenomenon which was clearly going to have profound consequences for producers.
My view is that this may be a little harsh. I’m sure there may be some climate change deniers out there, but I suspect the overwhelming majority of producers accept that there is something significant going on. The issue is more likely to be the difficulty of estimating the effect of climate change on a particular region or business.
From what I’ve gleaned from both this report and previous studies, in the next 40 years the core vine growing area is forecast to move north (or south, below the equator) to an extent which would make a vast swathe of vineyards non-viable. Others might become so for their current varietal mix or current quality levels.
Playing the waiting game
However the devil in such reports is clearly in the detail, both from a technical and a commercial standpoint. I don’t have a scientific bone in my body, which may make the technical issues appear more complicated than they are, but it seems to me that the range of options that some (most?) producers may have to contemplate are just so fundamental. In which case it would be entirely natural to wait until the evidence which specifically relates to one’s own region is much clearer than is currently the case.
For example, if I was a red wine producer in Burgundy I would assuredly be aware of the reports which suggest that Pinot Noir may not be viable there by 2040-50. So what would I do? Pinot Noir is core to the value of my business. Replacing it with Syrah (given I’m unlikely to have any spare land) is hardly a straightforward proposition.
If I could afford it I might buy a property further north (maybe in England) to spread my risk, but this is hardly a trivial decision. I would certainly be liaising with my fellow producers to press for more concrete forecasts, to investigate ways to ameliorate the more immediate effects of climate change and to consider contingency plans in the event of the broader prognosis proving to be correct. However I somehow doubt if I’d be doing anything drastic just yet.
To illustrate the problem, the report to which Tim refers has already been criticised by Michel Chapoutier: not on the grounds that climate change isn’t happening, but because France may be getting colder, not warmer, as a result. His view is that the effect on the Gulf Stream of a melting ice cap might override the current warming trend. Given that Montreal is on the same latitude as Bordeaux, the influence of the Gulf Stream is clearly considerable.
How do you predict the unpredictable?
Whatever the level of uncertainty there is on a regional level, one thing does seem clear: as a side effect of climate change, we are likely to see more extreme and more unpredictable weather. Given the vine’s susceptibility to extreme conditions, at least in the growing season, and given that placing vines under poly-tunnels, or some equivalent, is hardly a practical option, it may be that in some instances this will be our greatest threat.
And so in a way we come full circle. The hail storm in the vineyard last July may not have been anything to do with climate change, but it would appear that the likelihood of such events will increase, even in areas which may, in a macro sense, be benefiting from climate change.
The irony of all this is not lost on me as someone who tries to persuade producers to spend proportionally less time in the vineyard and more time standing back to consider longer-term issues. It is quite possible that this particular long-term issue will not only prove of profound importance, but may mean that producers need to spend even more time with their production hats on. Of all the uncontrollable influences on a producer’s business the least controllable may turn out to be the most influential on a day-to-day basis in the vineyard.