The taste of climate change

Michaela Morris reports from the Tasting Climate Change, held in Canada in late 2019.

Michelle Bouffard, founder of Tasting Climate Change, photo by Valerie Paquette
Michelle Bouffard, founder of Tasting Climate Change, photo by Valerie Paquette

Montréal isn’t the most likely city for a symposium on wine and climate change. Somewhere in drought and fire-ravaged California or Australia would be more obvious. But Québec is where founder of Tasting Climate Change, Michelle Bouffard, is based.

A certified sommelier, educator and journalist, Bouffard’s concern about the climate arose when she watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth while studying for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma. In 2017, she launched Tasting Climate Change (Goûter aux Changements Climatiques in French), the first-ever conference of its kind in Canada. The second edition followed in November 2019.

Bouffard has an eye for detail, a perfectionist streak, and a knack for mobilizing her colleagues. This made for an impeccably run event with an impressive roster of expert speakers. She kicked off the program saying, “we need to be alarmists because it is urgent but we also need to believe that solutions are possible.” 

A warming world

Karel Mayrand, director general of the David Suzuki Foundation for Québec and Atlantic Canada set the stage with some sobering statistics. He showed that September 2019 was the 415th consecutive month with above-average temperatures and that July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded history. “The climate emergency is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of mathematics,” he declared. Using numbers from the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report he calculated that we have eight years “carbon budget” left before the world’s temperature increases by 2°C.  “We are reaching the point of no return.” 

Mayrand concluded his presentation optimistically, pointing to the growth in renewable resources replacing fossil fuels as well as the global youth-led movement against climate change. “It will demand changes in our behaviour.” 
Like Bouffard, keynote speaker Miguel A. Torres, President of Familia Torres was deeply affected after watching An Inconvenient Truth in 2008. Since that time, the company has invested 11% of its annual profits into sustainability, with a total of almost €16m ($17.6m) has been spent on energy efficiency, renewable energy, research, reforestation and land. Familia Torres is on target to reduce its CO2 emissions by 30% as of this year, with a goal of a 50% reduction by 2030. “This is why being family-owned works better,” said Torres. The company is not beholden to shareholders and decisions are made with future generations in mind. 

In the spirit of actually ‘tasting climate change’, Torres brought along samples from the company’s Ancestral Catalan Varieties Recovering Project, which has seen the company search for abandoned or forgotten grapes. Out of the 50 recovered, six grapes have proven to be most interesting. “The amazing thing is that they come from warm times so they keep their acidity,” said Torres. Forcada, Querol and Moneu were available for attendees to try during the conference’s lunch break.

More difficult for some to digest was Torres’ belief that organic is not always the most sustainable solution. “The concept of organic is great but we have to change it,” he explains. He singled out the permitted use of copper to combat Peronospora and the resulting toxicity from buildup in the soil, as repeated treatments are necessary. “That also means you are generating more CO2 emissions,” because vineyards have to be sprayed more often than with conventional treatments. Electric tractors will eventually provide a solution for the latter, but are currently very expensive and in limited supply, he said. 

Challenges and solutions

Beyond greenhouse gases generated at the winery, shipping makes a significant contribution to a wine’s carbon footprint. Worldwide transport accounts for 25% of CO2 emissions, reported Eric Jörgens, business development manager for JF Hillebrand in Eastern Canada. He gave comparisons of CO2 emissions based on fuel types and transportation modes. When coordinating shipments, Hillebrand gives customers emission data and alternative routes.

“We work on lead time analysis to determine how much further in advance they need to order to use the greener option,” he explains. Shipping from France to Canada, for example, might take an extra one to two weeks, while from Australia may take an extra two to three weeks. When asked specifically about the shipping practices of the SAQ & LCBO, Québec and Ontario’s respective liquor control boards, he responded: “Their mandate is getting products on time at the best cost which is very much in conflict with choosing the greener option.” Neither entity participated in the conference, so could not counter the claim. 

The conference’s afternoon sessions included two separate panel discussions about challenges and solutions in different climates. For the warm climate panel, Jérémy Cukierman MW considered the future of Rhône Valley grapes – and reassured the Hermitage aficionados: “In the future it might still be possible to make great wine with Syrah in Hermitage” Cukierman reported that temperatures have increased more than 2C in the region in the last 40 years. “By 2080 it will be a warm climate,” he continued, “but still cooler than other regions that grow Syrah and are successful.” Solutions for the future include a myriad of soil and canopy management practices; he also noted that producers are considering backcrossing Dureza and Mondeuse, “essentially to create a Syrah sister.”

As for the Southern Rhône, he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to change grapes there. “Grenache is made in [a] fresh style in warm places,” he said, pointing to Swartland, South Africa. The problem in France, he said, is the focus on phenolic ripeness. “We pick grapes far too late, so we have wines with 15% [alcohol].” His suggestion is earlier picking and softer extractions. 

On the subject of rising alcohol levels, microbiologist Ann Dumont shared some work being done at Lallemand. “The holy grail of any yeast microbiologist is to find a wine yeast that will reduce the level of alcohol,” she said. But all wine yeast produce more or less the same levels, so it is difficult to find one that does it naturally. While they have found that stressing the yeast produces 0.3-0.8% less alcohol, while producing more glycerol, winemakers are looking for a decrease of at least 1%.

Grégory Viennois, head winemaker at Domaine Laroche in Chablis, related that earlier ripening and late spring frosts are the biggest challenges. To combat the latter, Viennois has implemented late and double pruning to delay budbreak, and uses electric wires for warming. “They are more ecological than spraying water and burning candles,” he said. Viennois echoed Torres’ sentiments regarding organic viticulture: “It’s a good certification but it’s not enough. We have to manage more parameters.” Laroche has renounced organic for France’s new Haute Valeur Environnementale certification.

Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, head winemaker at Benjamin Bridge in Canada, debunked the myth that climate change is beneficial for cool regions. “There is a misconception that Nova Scotia could use some heat units,” he said. “That is fundamentally wrong.” He explained that the region specialises in traditional method sparkling wine and relies on the moderating effect of tides in the Bay of Fundy to prolong the season and encourage slow ripening. With climate change, rising tides and warmer temperatures risk upsetting the natural rhythm.

The impact on grapes

Dr José Vouillamoz, a geneticist and expert in grape varieties, admits that global warming has been positive for late ripening grapes in Switzerland – but that same warming, if it continues, won’t remain positive. 
Vouillamoz also spoke to the standardization of grapes – according to the OIV, just 13 cover more than 33% of the world’s vineyards. “People were lacking imagination when they planted Cabernet everywhere,” he said, noting that relying on a handful of grapes that are challenged by climate change is a vulnerability.  

“When you need to replace your variety, it is for the next 50 to 100 years,” he said, meaning viticulturists must take the new reality of unpredictable and extreme weather and increased pest and disease pressure into account. He presented the options: GMO is “essentially taboo”, while gene editing “is fascinating but expensive”. New hybrids are polygenic, meaning they are resistant to more than one problem, “but only 4.4% of planet has changed to hybrids. Growers want to stick to the existing biodiversity.” Vouillamoz suggested reviving old, forgotten varieties that have survived past climate changes. Included on his personal wish list are Alfrochiero in Portugal, Cinsault in France, Nieddera in Italy and Areni in Armenia. “These varieties are very high in acidity, fruity and low in alcohol – and the future is that.”

Vouillamoz said further research on rootstock will also be crucial if we still want top Burgundies to be Pinot Noir. “We need to adapt every clone to every rootstock to every terroir,” he said. 
Clearly there is much to do in the wake of climate change – and a single day isn’t enough to address all of the issues and innovations. Water, packaging, and the role of media were touched on just briefly, though these will no doubt be at the top of the program of the 2021 edition of Tasting Climate Change.

Despite a few empty seats due to people being grounded by the heavy snow falls in Québec, it was a sold-out event. 

Not only that, but Bouffard asked all 200 conference attendees for their travel details, and then calculated that they had generated 20.66 tons of CO2 between them. The cost of carbon offsets was a mere C$676 – an amount that conference organisers put towards planting 188 trees. Not a quite a forest, but it’s a good start.

Michaela Morris

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2020 of Meininger's Wine business International magazine, available by subscription in print or digital.

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