Above: a vineyard in the Barolo appellation where warmer temperatures and more intense weather events have reshaped viticulture — uncannily, for the better.
It seemed like yesterday — well, actually it was ten days ago or so — that an octogenarian winemaker was telling me how climate change has reshaped his vineyards in Piedmont in ways he never imagined possible.
As we walked down the dirt road that forms the crest of his two top growing sites, he explained to me that his most prized grapes used to not ripen properly on one side of the hill. Today, he said, they ripen perfectly.
He then shrugged his shoulders and grimaced tragicomically: “It’s because of climate change,” he said plaintively. “It’s been great for our winery,” where he has worked for more than five decades, “but not for the earth.”
It brought to mind a conversation with one of Barolo’s highest-profile growers, from nearly 20 years ago when a newly-turned-30 writer was just getting his career in wine started.
“The greenhouse effect is making me a very rich man,” he bellowed using one of the early euphemisms for global warming. He was referring to a string of Piedmont vintages, beginning in 1995, when regularly warmer temperatures began to deliver more consistent and balanced ripening. A generation ago, the Piedmontese were lucky if they got one good vintage in a decade. That was true through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. But in the mid-90s, it began to change.
That same winemaker might be crying today. Early this month, a number of Barolo producers were affected by a severe hailstorm that caused extensive damage. The Barolisti were extremely tight-lipped about the episode during my visit last week but some told me, off the record, that they had never seen hail like that. It was rice-shaped, they said, and it sliced right through the skins of the grapes.
The way climate change — global warming or the green house effect, depending on your generation — is reshaping the vineyards of Europe and even California is no news to anyone in the wine trade. Italian winemakers have been talking about it for two decades now.
Just this week, the New York Times published an article on climate change and its impact on wine growing: “The Future of Wine: Very, Very Dry.”
And earlier this year, the paper’s editors published “‘Disgusting to Say, but It’s the Truth’: German Winemakers See Boon in Climate Change.”
It is disgusting to say, isn’t it? But the humble words by a self-aware grower during my recent visit in Piedmont rang in my ears as our children and I hunkered down for the third round of major flooding this year in Houston, the city where we’ve lived for more than five years.
Our oldest is seven going on eight. She and her younger sister, age six, have already lived through two of the wettest storms in U.S. history. See this Wikipedia list for Overall wettest in the contiguous United States. Harvey is number one. Imelda is number five.
Leaders from around the world are meeting today at the United Nations to discuss climate change and the challenges of combatting it.
They surely (or hopefully) realize, as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her breathtaking New Yorker article “The Sixth Extinction” in 2009 (2009, people!), climate change isn’t something we can turn on and off like a light switch. There’s no way to replace the melted ice in the Antarctic or reverse the acidification of the oceans.
I’ve been fortunate to benefit from trends in Italian wine over the last two decades. But, to borrow a line from Kris Kristofferson, I’d trade all of my yesterdays, for a single tomorrow…
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