Let's drink to being a champagne environmentalist
The UK s warmer temperatures have seen a boom in high-quality sparkling wines and small producers, notably in the south-west of England. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
Protesters standing in floodwaters hold a sign that reads: Can we talk about climate change now? Scant media coverage of the link between increasing weather extremes and a warming world suggests it s a conversation still seriously waiting to begin.
Several voices were quick however to exploit underspending on flood defences to attack overseas aid commitments. Ironically, estimates of 5- 6bn flood damage costs are more than covered by UK subsidies to fossil fuels providing a more obvious candidate to switch resources. Problematically, many clung to the idea that extreme events would trigger a change of mind on climate change. Yet policy seems untouched. Unrelenting, bleak and disconnected is no way to start a new year. But what if there was a seasonal subject that could tell the climate story, explain how we might change and adapt and, at least if you live in the UK, provide a little pleasure too?
Don t put your glasses raised to new year down yet, the day of the champagne environmentalist may have arrived, in a good way. The world of wine, and especially the sparkling kind, can seem frivolous. But shifting patterns of global production are becoming a bellwether for climate change. Rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns pose particular problems to an industry which is so sensitive to weather that even mild seasonal variations can be tasted in every glass of the final product. Some grapes, like pinot noir, prosper only in a temperature range of 14C-16C. Increasing extreme weather events like the damaging European heatwave of 2003, revealed an acute vulnerability, for example, of traditional champagne-growing areas. Winemaking literally dried up. Last summer saw fears of a repeat. Wine reveals how a warming world challenges us to find new, more benign production methods and also to rethink our consumption habits.
The UK s changing climate, with warmer summers and milder winters, has presided over a boom in the production of high-quality sparkling wines and a flourishing of small-scale producers, especially in the southwest, a part of the country hit badly by floods in 2014.
Breaky Bottom vineyard is one example, operating since 1974 at the end of a rough farm track near the town of Lewes and charming wine critics. That counts as well-established compared to its near neighbour the Bluebell vineyard which only began production in 2007 and started winning awards by 2011. Though still modest internationally, they are part of a surge of production which has seen the area under production in England double in seven years. A good year in 2014 saw the equivalent of 6.3m bottles produced, nearly 50% more than the previous year, and exports to 14 countries. The high-quality, but small scale, non-industrial operation typical of wine making in the UK provides a lesson in sustainability according to Julia Stafford, founder of the Wine Pantry, a business set up to sell exclusively English wine. With a background in shipping, she saw the problems of industrial-scale production which is obsessed with cheapness, and the potential for a different approach in the emerging English market.
People laughed at first. But long summers are good for us. We don t have the problem of extreme heat. It s a young industry in the UK, with small areas and experimental, explains Stafford.
At Sharpham in Devon, award-winning wines are grown by the River Dart near Totnes. A study on whether the town could feed itself found that even with its current small-scale, high-quality production, the Sharpham vineyard produced enough to provide a bottle of wine each month to every one of the area s 22,000 inhabitants. Internationally, says Stafford, You have all this wine mass produced, an energy intensive industry. But here we tend to do hand picking, and use sheep and cows to graze instead of using herbicides. It s a lighter footprint. To get a more sustainable wine industry, she says: Have one good bottle (that might be more expensive), not two (cheap) bad bottles. The UK has, for the moment, won the climate lottery for producing some wines. But success could be short-lived. As temperatures continue to rise, one projection suggests that by 2080 the south-west will only be good for growing raisins.
In the US, the wine industry already faces major challenges. California, for example has been hit by both protracted drought and extremes of rainfall. After a period of denial, growers there say climate change is becoming too obvious to ignore.
I think that as human beings, until we experience something like real pain, we can generally find a way to rationalise things and pretty much defer tough decisions, says Randall Grahm of the Bonny Doon Vineyard, a wine maker near Santa Cruz, celebrated for championing terroir and biodynamic growing techniques. But, wells are running dry. The 2015 vintage is possibly the earliest harvest on record in California, and wild-fire flames are licking at the edge of Napa Valley.
Rising temperatures are changing the characteristics of the grapes and the wine they produce, he says, and not in a good way. Alcohol content is going up and natural acidities are declining, eroding the wines finesse and elegance. In response, makers are trying to find new grape varieties or rootstocks, avoid local regulatory obstacles to planting new vineyards, and respond creatively to climate change.
We are trying to plant a new vineyard in San Juan Bautista in such a way that will allow, at least for the red grapes, the possibility of dry-farming, says Grahm, We re using more drought-tolerant rootstocks, wider plant spacing, smaller, head-trained vines, and most significantly, using biochar as a means of enhancing the water-holding capacity of the soil. Their ploughing technique is designed to avoid rain draining away. As well as adapting to climate change, Grahm is pioneering techniques to reduce the industry s impact by reducing its more energy intensive infrastructure. He opts for a lower-impact plantation, progressively eschewing wires, end-posts, stakes, irrigation, in favour of a mixed plantation, ecological balance that might make spraying unnecessary and the use of biochar mixed with compost as a way to sequestering carbon in the soil. If you want to explain something, they say you should talk to people about what they care about.
As public spending cuts were voted through in the last UK Coalition government, annual spending on champagne rose in the bars of Westminster to 35,000. Wine could be the ultimately safe subject to communicate climate change where even great deluges fail.
As some in the industry point to ways in which we can both adapt to and minimise warming, in the UK at least you can become a champagne environmentalist without it necessarily being an insult, as long as you don t drink too much.
- ^ flood damage costs (news.sky.com)
- ^ more than covered by UK subsidies to fossil fuels (www.publications.parliament.uk)
- ^ shifting patterns of global production (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ pinot noir, prosper only in (www.academicwino.com)
- ^ heatwave of 2003 (www.grid.unep.ch)
- ^ fears of a repeat. (www.decanter.com)
- ^ Breaky Bottom vineyard (www.breakybottom.co.uk)
- ^ and charming wine critics (www.countryfile.com)
- ^ Bluebell vineyard (www.bluebellvineyard.co.uk)
- ^ area under production (www.decanter.com)
- ^ the Wine Pantry (www.winepantry.co.uk)
- ^ award-winning wines (www.sharpham.com)
- ^ a bottle of wine each month (transitionculture.org)
- ^ one projection (www.winelandsofbritain.co.uk)
- ^ drought (www.latimes.com)
- ^ Bonny Doon Vineyard (www.bonnydoonvineyard.com)
- ^ Wine (www.theguardian.com)