Unraveling “Plus ça change”: A Delicate Balance of Change and Continuity

By | 15 February 2024

How can winegrowers hope to maintain stylistic continuity as the climate crisis deepens?


David Schildknecht

David Schildknecht contemplates the numerous methods available to winegrowers struggling with the substantial shifts and obstacles brought about by climate change, discovering that many of the practical lessons obtained have widespread relevance beyond the vineyard.

Handling climate disruption is often seen by wine growers as battling against or resisting increased grape must weights, deteriorating acidity, and increasingly early harvests. Recent successes appear to suggest that the more things change, the more they can remain the same. Altered approaches to managing vineyards, harvesting strategies, and vinification have been remarkably effective, grape varieties themselves surprisingly hardy, and these successes will be notably heightened by attention to vineyard ecosystems andvine genetics. However, the opposite is also true: the less wine cultivation, vineyard, or cellar processes change, the more climate change will lead growers into unknown territories. Keep to methods to preserve continuity or prepare for inevitable changes in the wine’s profile. It may be wise for growers to do both. The potential of methodological changes is far from fully explored; the possibility for significant stylistic disruption is similarly underappreciated. Adding to climatic challenges is the increased demand for lower alcohol, higher acidity, and savory flavors. Ironically, a warming earth may be contributing to the attraction of sensory characteristics that are more difficult to achieve, while traits that consumers are overlooking—fruit ripeness, textural richness, body—could, if desired, be achieved more easily than ever. Speaking of “staying the same” could therefore come across as misleading—if it weren’t for the fact that stylistic tendencies from the beginning of the century are increasingly seen as excessive deviations.  

Reflect on the situation of German cultivators. Just ten years ago, it appeared few understood that ascending alcohol concentrations endangered the expressivity, let alone the sheer potability, of ostensibly premier Riesling selections. These days, awareness of alcohol content has risen, wines that are top-heavy or overpowering are diminishing, and there is an agreement that Germany’s dry Rieslings have attained unprecedented levels of distinction. With Riesling Kabinett also experiencing a resurgence in its native land, Mosel cultivators like Julian Haart, Constantin Richter, the Weiser-Künstler pair, and the Webers at Hofgut Falkenstein, or Klaus Peter Keller and Kai Schätzel in Rheinhessen, are achieving aesthetic and business victories with grapes harvested at effective acid levels and must weights from the 1970s or ’80s.

Austria’s Wachau strikingly demonstrates both excess and adjustment. Due to innovators at the vanguard of the late 1980s, this region reaped its initial global acclaim. Within ten years, “Grüner Veltliner Smaragd” was associated with robust wines but then, increasingly, with alcohol concentrations well above 14%, which too few could harmonize. Presently, alcohol content is progressively reverting to pre-1998 numbers. For a similar situation outside the German-speaking countries, consider California Cabernet, which arguably enjoyed global recognition for merely twenty years before succumbing to an overly fruity flavor and excessive alcohol content. Currently, a group of producers like Broc Cellars and Maître de Chai are rightly promoting wines as examples of pre-1990s Cabernet qualities, while the esteemed reputation of Ridge Vineyards Montebello— which reached a peak of 13.7% ABV merely twice in 60 years— is more firm than ever.


The list of techniques involved in such roll-back initiatives and recovery of historical style is extensive and varied. The removal of botrytis was vital in the Wachau. Broader applicable strategies are rarely as simple. Close spacing enhances shading and encourages reducing fruit volumes—a stress reliever in principle. But the struggle for water and nutrients causes stress; tension to the point of stopping sugar accumulation, while numerous cultivators consciously propose to reduce yields. Tall canopies and very selective leaf removal contribute to shading; however, foliage also boosts photosynthesis. Agreement regarding what methods work and why is only slowly taking shape.

Vine genetics and entire vineyard ecosystems provide further solutions for responding to increasing temperatures and drought. However, at some point, a specific grape variety in a location may irrevocably produce wines significantly impacted by climate change. Diana Snowden Seysses from Domaine Dujac believes that for Pinot Noir in Burgundy, such a time has passed. She mourns the loss of historic flavours like those from her birth vintage in 1978. She recognizes that new weather patterns cannot be combated by irrigation, canopy management, or vinification strategies and that change in taste is inevitable.

Nevertheless, Snowden is not willing to embrace change without resistance. Her concerns extend beyond the wine industry. She emphasizes that instead of focusing solely on adaptation, the discussions should also include mitigation and achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Her mitigation strategy involves halting global temperature rise. Among her plans, she proposes that winemakers in regions like Burgundy’s Côte d’Or could sequester the large amounts of CO2 produced during fermentation. Beyond the wine industry, maintaining this global awareness is vital for humankind. Wine growers exemplify the global situation on a smaller scale: either stick with current practices and face drastic changes, or dramatically alter practices to preserve their values. This reflects the timeless reality of constant change in the world of global politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *