You have probably heard the saying, don’t mess with perfection. And indeed, the cabernet sauvignon grape is as close to perfection as one can get. With its deep tannins and full-bodied flavor (and let’s be honest, its higher alcohol content), cabernet sauvignon has been at the heart of many memorable evenings for as long as the grapes have been cultivated.
But as the old song goes, times they are a ‘changing. And global warming has affected the entire globe, including how the beloved cabernet sauvignon grape is grown and harvested. The environment is clearly changing how the world conceptualizes grapes and how they are grown, but grape growers are determined to land on their feet despite it all.
The cabernet sauvignon grape has always been easy to please, preferring sunny temperate climates and cool nights to create the depth of flavor that wine lovers appreciate. With hints of blackberry and cedarwood that sometimes range to cigars, it is also the most widely grown grape globally. According to Forbes Magazine, it is planted on a total of 840,000 acres in the world, just over 5% of the world’s vineyard surface.
Originally from the Bordeaux region in France, over 67,000 acres are planted in Bordeaux alone. Because a great Bordeaux can age in a bottle for so long, its nobility and high quality are revered worldwide. There are a total of 126,000 acres of cab grapes grown in France as a whole. With over 100,000 acres of grapes in the US, most of them are concentrated in California, which places second for cabernet sauvignon production in the world. The United States is also producing some quality cabernet sauvignon that aims to rival the French. The world of wine has grown used to getting quality grapes from the Bordeaux region and Napa. And the grapes themselves love long sunny days and cool nights. But with the warming of many regions of the world, as global warming takes hold, the grape growing map is changing.
The Washington Post reports on a research paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, saying, “The scientists’ computer models show that if we do nothing, global warming of 2 degrees Celsius would wipe out 56 percent of current wine-growing land; increase that to 4 degrees and an estimated 85 percent of grapes won’t be viable.” This is bad news for grape growers and wine lovers around the world.
But it’s not time to panic yet. Geoff Kruth, the president of GuildSomm, an international organization for sommeliers, says, “it’s important to remember that there are dozens of human decisions — rootstocks, trellising, timing of vineyard work, etc. — that have significant impacts on how a vine reacts to a climate.” This is good news for grape growers that some of the power to prevail is in their hands.
So how is global warming already affecting the production of grapes? The cab grapes grown in the traditional areas are taking on new characteristics, based on the sweetness of the wine and the amount of alcohol. And the other change is that regions of the country and world that have never been good for growing grapes can now accommodate cabernet sauvignon growing.
“We know that ripening characteristics or profiles have changed. We’ve been accumulating more sugar and producing slightly higher alcohol wines. Therefore, wine styles have changed,” says Gregory Jones, professor and research climatologist in Environmental Studies at Linfield University, Oregon, in his TED Talk, ‘Climate, Grapes, and Wine.’
For instance, many areas were once thought to be too cool to accommodate the growth of cabernet sauvignon grapes, but they can now produce some quality grapes. California’s Russian River Valley and areas of Western Australia are two such regions.
Other areas that have been considered too hot to grow the perfect cab can now do so. Along the Oregon-Washington border in the Rocks district, growers are having some success. Other areas like Yolo County, California, and South Africa are also trying to grow the flavorful cab grapes. In addition to climate change, new techniques in growing and modern technology allow grapes to be grown where they haven’t been accessible before. Many vineyards are experimenting with the style of wines, pushing the traditional cabernet sauvignon to greater heights.
The future of cab grapes will be interesting to follow. According to the Washington Post, currently, “the biggest losses are in Spain, Italy, and parts of California that are already quite warm. But there are winners in warming scenarios: In Germany, northern Europe, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States, wherein some years they struggle to get enough sun hours to facilitate budding, fruit set, and ripening, a warming trend might produce dramatically better wines.”
With a little help from Mother Nature and a whole lot of planning, the future of cabernet sauvignon grapes, although quite different, is also quite bright. And that is helpful news for wine drinkers around the globe.