Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Studying the (post) classics

An unedited version of a cover article that appeared in the G2 section of the Guardian on March 4. 2008 (invaluable additional reporting from the Global Warming Conference by Felicity Carter)

For anyone who feels they have finally mastered the concept of postmodernist books and architecture, there's a brand new intellectual and linguistic challenge, in the shape of "post classic" wines. The term was coined by the world-leading viticulturist Dr Richard Smart at the second World Conference on Global Warming and Wine in Barcelona late last month before an audience of the great and good of the wine world and – via a carbon-saving video link - Al Gore. If even a few of the more alarming predictions made by experts at that event prove to be accurate, over the next 50 years, many of the world's most famous wines may either simply cease to exist or be altered beyond recognition. And the effect may not be restricted to wine. For Dr Smart, wine may be "the canary in the coal mine of agriculture".

According to French tradition, the character of a classic wine Рits DNA if you like Рis attributable to four factors that are collectively known as terroir. Three of these Рthe slope of the vineyard, its soil and subsoil and the climate - were, it was believed, immune to human influence. The other ingredient Рthe choice of grape variety Рwas dictated by custom or law, so a Burgundy producer, for example has to make his red wine from Pinot Noir grapes; even the thought of his experimentally planting a few Merlot or Shiraz vines is as acceptable to the French wine establishment as birth control to the Vatican. For true believers in terroir Рa group that now includes a growing number of Californian self-termed terroiristes - the part played by the winemaker is very similar to that of a musician performing a musical score. One vineyard should always produce the liquid equivalent of the Eroica while another will give you Clair de Lune. This is nowhere more evident than in the cellars of small Burgundy estates whose vignerons might produce small batches of wine using the same grape variety and methods from each of a number of plots situated often only yards apart. The variations in weather from one season to another and the winemaker's skills will all naturally affect the final result, but in theory at least, the Meursault he makes from his Chardonnay vines in the Perri̬res vineyard which was planted on the site of an ancient quarry, should always taste recogniseably stonier than more immediately softer, more appealing wine from a plot called les Charmes made from the other side of the road.

To a Gallic chauvinist, the subtleties of terroir are rarely if ever found outside France. Aimé Guibert of the Domaine Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc Roussillon has dismissed all New World wines as "industrial" and said that "every bottle of American and Australian wine that lands in Europe is a bomb targeted at the heart of our rich European culture". But you only have to watch a gifted, experienced taster such as Michael Broadbent, former head of Christie's wine department, or wine critic Oz Clarke successfully identify Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra in Australia, the Stags Leap area of Napa in California or Curico in Chile when presented with them "blind", to see that unique combinations of grape, site and climate abound across the planet. Even a complete vinous novice can spot the differences in flavour and style between the Rieslings top Australian winemaker Jeffrey Grosset produces in his Watervale and Polish Hill vineyards in the Clare Valley. Which is just as well, because the Polish Hill can cost a fiver a bottle more. And the effects of those combinations transcend the climatic influences of particular years or winemakers. In other words, a 1955 Chateau Latour should be as recogniseable in a line-up as the 2005, even though the cellarmaster and the weather of the two vintages were quite different.

Whether this will be as true of the 2055, however is another question – and that was the issue that most troubled the 350 delegates to the Barcelona conference. According to research across 50 wine growing regions by climatologist Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University, Bordeaux will be 1.2˚C warmer in 50 years, while Chianti's vines might be baking in temperatures that are a full 2˚C hotter than they are currently. Stated bluntly, both areas will be enjoying a similar climate to North Africa today. This warmer weather will give riper, sweeter grapes, which then become stronger more alcoholic wines: "post classics" that lack the fine, complex subtle characteristics and defined flavours that are now associated with the world's finest wines.

Many wine lovers will have already noticed the phenomenon. In the 1991 edition of his seminal book on Bordeaux, David Peppercorn recalled that the great reds of the Medoc in the 1940s usually had alcoholic strengths of 11-11.5%. By the late 1980s, he regretted that the trend towards 12.5% had become "the norm to be aimed at". In 2005, the norm was closer to 13.5% and critically well-received reds such as Chateau Balthus and l'Ynsolence weighed in at a wopping 14.5%. In California, where, in 1971, red wines averaged 12.5%; the Martinelli winery now makes a Zinfandel with an alcohol content of 17.4%

Whatever you might think of a red wine that's a strong as a gin-and-tonic, there's no denying that California's Zinfandel grape is actually quite well suited to producing high alcohol wines. But that's not true of a number of classic European varieties. According to Dr Richard Smart, (you’ve introduced him), Burgundy may become too hot for the Pinot Noir, the grape with which it has been associated for over a thousand years. Jacques Lurton of Chateau la Louviere in Bordeaux expects the widely-grown Merlot in his region to be increasingly supplanted by the less heat-averse Cabernet Sauvignon and legal but currently unused grapes such as the Malbec and Carmenere that are now more usually associated with wines from Chile and Argentina. And what's true of these ancient French regions will be apply to areas like Barolo in Italy, La Mancha in Spain, Australia's Hunter Valley and Rioja, all of which will effectively be rewriting the melodies and orchestration of their terroir.

As the world's top viticulturist Dr Richard Smart told the conference, research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and INRA (the French national agronomic research institute) show that even a one degree rise in temperature leads to significantly different weather patterns. Smart's point about "different" weather is a crucial one. What we are already seeing is a greater variation between vintages, and far greater unpredictability. For one of Germany's most respected estate owners and winemakers Ernst Loosen, "Every year seems to be another challenge... a new problem. How do we handle these weather patterns? How am I to keep the style of my wine? It requires a lot of experimental stuff".

Among the solutions to Loosen's and hundreds of thousands of other winemakers’ problems will what his compatriate Hans Schultz of Geisenheim University called "climate adjustment" or "shaping wines with technology". This will include new ways of growing and training vines and the introduction of irrigation to the classic regions of Europe. Watering vines is currently illegal in these areas because of fears of the overcropping it might facilitate but, as Jacques Lurton revealed to the conference, grapes may ripen better in higher temperatures, but if all that sunshine isn't accompanied by rain, they can simply shut down and stop ripening completely. If the legalisation of irrigation seems to be an undramatic move, lovers of classic wines may be more affronted by the use of sophisticated reverse osmosis filters to remove alcohol from wine. These machines are already widely employed in California where it has been estimated that some 55% of wines initially pack too much of a punch.

The alternative to altering the way wine is made in traditional regions will be to shift production to places where the process is easier. Spain's leading winemaker Miguel Torres who is spending millions of dollars on research into ways to counter climate change is, for example, developing new vineyards high in the Pyrenees. Others are looking beyond their own borders. The challenge of course is to choose which countries offer the best prosects.

For Dr Smart, some areas that already produce wine will fare better than traditional parts of Europe. Tasmania, New Zealand and Argentina are all on a "lucky list"; at the very top is Chile, thanks to the cold current that runs runs along its long coast. The southern hemisphere, Smart believes, will be generally less badly hit than the north because of its smaller land masses, and larger cooling oceans. But there is one northern hemisphere region that has caught his fancy. China is currently the seventh largest wine producing country in the world. Most of its existing vineyards are less than ideally situated, but there is a cool, new, unexploited region to the to the north west of Beijing that shows real potential.

Anther surprising possible beneficiary of post classic wine may be England, though when English winemaker Stephen Skelton stood up at the conference wearing a Union Jack shirt he was at first, perhaps understandably, taken less than seriously. When he began to describe his experiences, however, the audience began to take more notice. "For the first seven years of my wine growing I never saw a day with a temperature of over 29 degrees,” he said. “Since 1994 there has only been one year when it did not rise about 29. Last year was actually the second warmest year... in 356 years of record keeping, even though it was overcast in June and July.” For the moment England's strongest suit lies in its sparkling wines – which not only beat Champagnes in blind , but which sell at Champagne prices.

Skelton has apparently had interest from two major Champagne houses but so far the costs of investment, have proved too high. Another worry is the thought that global warming might lead to a stoppage of the gulf stream, leaving England a better place to develop ski slopes than vineyards. This theory of possible gulf stream failure has recently been dismissed by some experts but it still has supporters, and there are even suggestions that the stream actually did stop for 10 days in 2004.

One person who evidently does not believe in the fragility of the gulf stream is Bernard Seguin of the French research institute, INRA, who pointed out that, with just two degrees of global warming, there will be places in Finland that might enjoy a climate that is very similar to that of wine regions in northern France today.

And then of course, there are those who simply dismiss global warming as being of little concern – or as being manageable. Bruno Prats, former owner of Chateau Cos d'Estournel in Bordeaux said that he was very confident in the future of that region, provided the producers amended the blend of their grapes to suit the new conditions. In his view, the spicy Petit Verdot, traditionally a bit player in red Bordeaux where it rarely makes up as much as 5% of the final wine, may have a major role to play. But Prats is hedging his bets: today, the wine he makes comes from Chile. Another participant in the conference who seemed relaxed about climate change was the Bordeaux-based superstar winemaking consultant, Michel Rolland who has successfully helped to produce wine almost everywhere, including such unlikely countries as India and Uruguay. "So far" he said "climate change has been very good for us…Perhaps the warming will stop? We don't know,". But, it is interesting to note that, like Prats, Rolland has cannily invested some of his money in high altitude vineyards in Argentina.

Rolland might in any case respond to the suggestion that the move to post classic wines is exclusively explained by a changing climate by saying that long before climate change was a cloud on a distant horizon, many of us had already begun to discover wines that bear more than a passing resemblance to the ones that Old Europe is wrestling with today. Way back in 1993, Oz Clarke, author of an excellent recent book on Bordeaux, published an equally good one called "The New Classics", in which he heaped justifed praise on then-new regions such as Casablanca in Chile, Margaret River in Western Australia and Marlborough in New Zealand. All of these were places that were already delivering wines that offered a new spin on the traditional efforts of regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy. Fifteen years ago, however, the idea that southern hemisphere countries could be talked of in the same breath as those Gallic meccas was complete anathema. When Clarke launched his book at an international tasting event in New York, many of the French members of the audience ostentatiously left the hall. Today, some of those same Frenchmen and women are busily prospecting for vineyards on the other side of the world.

When lovers of classic wines that taste the way they did in the 1950s and 1960s have wanted to apportion blame for the fact that their modern counterparts have become bigger, richer and less "elegant" and "austere" - to use the old fashioned wine taster's vocabulary – the two words that have sprung to their minds have rarely been "global warming". Far more usually, they have pointed their fingers at the US guru Robert Parker and his favourite winemaker Michel Rolland. Parker, the "emperor of wine" whose opinions shape the destinies and even the pricing policies of the most famous wines in the world, likes the big flavours that are associated with ripe grapes. His tasting notes rarely include words like "elegant". The bottles that get the highest marks tend to be described as "opulent", "inky" "blockbusters" with "gobs of fruit". That 17.4% Zinfandel was, for example, a wine he particularly liked.

Parker owes his success to the fact that large numbers of people across the world agree with his tastes – or, at the very least, have lost their inclination for the way wines used to be. A glance at the shelves of Tesco or Thresher reveals that, far from being at the dawn of the age of the post-classic wine, we’ve been increasingly surrounded by it, and enjoying it, since the arrival of the first bottles of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon and Rosemount Chardonnay two decades ago. Today, it is an inconvenient truth that while thousands of producers in Europe still strive to make classic “elegant”, food-friendly, wines with moderate levels of alcohol, to judge by the supermarket shelves, the bottles most of us apparently prefer to uncork come from Australia and the Americas. Or from European producers who welcome the unusually warm weather of years like 2003 and 2005 to make wines with more than a passing resemblance to those more opulent New World offerings. No wine exemplifies this trend better than Chateau Pavie, the St Emilion estate that, since a change of ownership, has fully embraced the post classic style - to the approval of US critics and the dismay of many a Brit. Robert M. Parker described the “inky” wine from the hot 2003 vintage as a “brilliant effort...a wine of sublime richness... with extraordinary richness". In Britain, Jancis Robinson, thought it "Completely unappetizing. Porty sweet. Ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux”. For the moment, at least, you pays your money and you takes your choice between ckassic and post classic Bordeaux, but who knows how long that will last? And how long it will be before we switch our allegiance to the post-post-classics of China, Finland and, just possibly, maybe even Yorkshire.

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