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Posted: Thursday, 24 October 2019 09:30

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Global Warming: Times they Are- a- Changin’

Oct 24: Never before was the need to understand the impact of global warming so urgent as today and as the song by Bob Dylan suggests, ‘you better start swimming or you will sink like a stone’ but winemakers are putting their minds to solve the problem by going to cooler areas, canopy management and using different strains of yeast, with a very interesting experiment being conducted by New Zealand to make a low alcohol Sauvignon Blanc successfully, writes Subhash Arora

Come gather 'round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Lyrics of the above song by Minnesota-born folk singer Bob Dylan in 1964 ring true even after 55 years in the case of climate change that has been a subject of global debate for years. In the last 5-10 years the murmur has turned into roar with most sensible people including wine producers changing their tune and conceding that global warming and climate change are a reality now. They are now worried and becoming proactive in protecting their business. As Jancis Robinson says it is a race to the poles.

In another 30 years a big change is expected in the temperature that will necessitate the desirable grape profile. The bands of growing season temperatures are projected to shift significantly. In the northern hemisphere, winemakers are seeking land further north, and at higher altitudes. The areas affected the most by temperature rise would perhaps still continue production but different wine grapes or might even shift to other crops like olives, raisins or sweet table grapes types.

Even Bordeaux announced this year that it is allowing 7 new varieties from outside the region for blending up to 10% in the blend by 2021 despite criticism from some quarters about the grapes to be allowed.

Experience in Fronsac, in southwest France, near the eastern part of Bordeaux explains the problem of increasing alcohol over the years. The average alcohol, in one of its premier wines, is documented over the last 40 years with increase in temperature. It had an average of 12.5% alcohol in 1980, which increased to 13.5% in 2005 and by 2010 it was 15%. Similar stories are being heard from wine regions across the globe, gains of some colder regions like UK, Sweden and Norway notwithstanding.

Bucking the trend with low alcohol wines

Fortunately, there are countries and regions making concerted efforts to face the challenge pro-actively- even to the extent of trying to reduce the alcohol. In 2014, eighteen New Zealand wine companies led by Forrest Wines (In alphabetical order-Accolade Wines, Allan Scott Wines, Constellation Brands, Forrest Wines, Giesen, Indevin, Kono, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Marisco Vineyards, Mount Riley Wines, Mt Diffculty Wines, Pernod Ricard, Runner Duck Estate, Spy Valley Wines, Villa Maria, Whitehaven, Wither Hills and Yealands), banded together to find ways to decrease the alcohol content in a natural way rather than dealcoholising. They invested NZ€ 10 million for a light wine programme, to make New Zealand as the world’s leading producer of wines containing less than 10% alcohol by volume by natural reduction. Canopy management, suitable site selection and use of specific yeast strains were among the main focuses of the research, but it is still under experiment stage.

New Zealand’s image as a “green” purveyor of some of the world’s finest Sauvignon Blanc is at stake. The quality of this wines must be at par with the conventional counterparts, and the typicity of Marlborough must be replicated to entice the consumers to make a switch from the regular 12.5/13% abv to 9.5 or even 9%-in any case less than 10% abv.

Even before climate change brought the issue of alcohol reduction across-the-board clearly into focus, Dr. John Forrest, a medical scientist had begun experimenting with making lower alcohol Sauvignon when there was no discernible market for such a product. After initial setbacks he focussed on the canopy and vineyard management and was quite successful, according to an Article in Concours Mondial du Sauvignon.

The changes to canopy management can help reduce sugar and alcohol by up to 40%, and  Forrest Wines has been so successful that their entire business model has been evolved to accommodate the 60% share of the wine range with lower alcohol. There are now over 50  such wines that find a market of 7% of the total production- this share has doubled in the last 3 years.

Unlike many producers in India except Grover Vineyards, NZ producers like to enter wine to the international wine competitions to benchmark their wines. NZ Lighter Wines are thus entered in the same category of Sauvignon Blanc in these competitions so that the flavour profiles are judged along with regular conventional equivalents. In one such competition, the low level Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc from Pernod Ricard won gold for its low alcohol lighter wine and only silver for its full strength counterpart.

By next year the sales of lighter Sauvignon Blancs is expected to go up to 10% of total production, according to Sharon Nagel, author of the Article and a fellow jurist at Concours Mondial Bruxelles for several years. While the threat of global warming is real, New Zealand’s Lighter Wines programme looks set to gain even greater traction. “The leading operators in the project predict around 10% of their current range will be produced as lighter wines by the mid-2020s, mirroring their confidence in market potential”, says the programme’s manager and technical advisor Dr David Jordan, according to Sharon.

An estimated 45% of premium wine drinkers are likely to purchase lighter wines, provided they find comparable flavour to their normal wine of choice. Sauvignon Blanc drinkers are more likely to do so than other drinkers. With 20% of global beer sales predicted at lower level of alcohol or alcohol-free, the timing is right for the wine industry to plug the gap. It would be a good motivation for the producers in other parts of the world emulate this model and ‘start swimming’ with the reminder from Bob Dylan’s song:

‘And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Subhash Arora


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