A true taste of climate change

01 December, 2017

Sensitivity to weather and climate is the very core of wine’s appeal.

Vintage variations are endlessly debated, celebrated or mourned. And, like some kind of organoleptic scientific instrument, the slightest fluctuations in rainfall and temperature can be detected in the apparatus of a glass of wine. Or, to be a little more poetic about it, in wine, you can taste the weather.

Of course, that means you can also taste the rather strange or (and let’s call it what it really is) frightening – change in the weather over the past half a century. Take any region in the world and a vertical tasting of 20 vintages amounts to an assessment of the taste of climate change.

Occasionally, you’ll find the vinous effects of climate change treated with the kind of irreverence bordering on frivolity that reminds us how the world has got itself into the position where, according to scientific consensus, we have just three years to avert total climate catastrophe.

Look at how much riper and fuller and fruitier wines from traditional wine regions have become, says Nigel Lawson, former British chancellor and self-styled sceptic of man-made climate change and bon vivant, sipping his way through 20 years of claret. His fellow Brexit-cheerleaders in the English press also have a tendency to chortle about Sangiovese heading north from Chiantishire to Cornwall as the English summer heats up, while American deniers are fond of the idea of Alaska taking over from Sonoma.

Never mind that even the more conservative predictions suggest that, if we don’t get our act together as a species, the climate in the south west of England will be suitable only for raisins by 2080, or that Alaska – where the average temperature has risen 3°F in the past 60 years – will be blighted by wildfires, flooding, insect outbreaks and subsidence due to melting permafrost by the end of this century. Let’s just look forward to the days when we can sit in our deckchair and enjoy a balmy Indian summer by the Costa del Humberside as we sip our glass of Cumberland claret.

But this facile understanding of global warming, particularly in northern countries, as nothing more than the guarantor of warmer summers has been revealed in all its complacent absurdity by events in the northern hemisphere autumn of 2017. This was a year when the full effects of climate change – the massive increase in unpredictable extreme weather events – really came home to wine lovers in the most horrifically vivid of ways.

Set alongside scenes of apocalyptic destruction in wine country on both sides of the Atlantic – with dozens of lives and thousands of homes lost and vast tracts of vineyards burned to stumps in the wildfires of Napa, Sonoma, the Dão and Rías Baixas – any talk of the product itself can seem trivial. Who cares about progressive loss of natural acidity in champagne or the rampant rise in alcohol in Bordeaux when people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake?

But there is a way that wine’s sensitivity to the weather can help lead us on the long, torturous path to sanity over climate change. In a world where we’re too ready to turn a blind eye to the measures we need to take to – all hyperbole aside – save the planet, wine, with its ability to express the dry statistics of climate in vivid, liquid form, brings us regular, urgent reports from the natural world. It’s time we listened.

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