“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





13 September 2017


Bushfire-scorched wine grapes on the Southern Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia, vintage 2013 ... contrary to common myth, vineyards will burn if the weather's hot enough ...  and as its patterns hang about long enough to be climate, weather's getting hotter and wetter and it moves around quite a lot quicker than it used to do

'This shit is real' California Cabernet king talks of vintage in the New Heat

"How much warming, then, can justly be attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gases? Taking all evidence into account, the proven amount is: none ... from a viticultural viewpoint we can conclude that any anthropogenic changes to mean temperatures will be small and, for some decades to come, unlikely to have major effects beyond those of natural climate variability." 

That's the revered grandfather of many dogmas in Australian viticulture, the Western Australian Dr. John Gladstones, writing in his Wine, Terroir and Climate Change (Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2011). 

Dr. John has many fervid disciples in positions of power in Australian wine superstructure, even on its bridge. At the wheel. These gubernators have gone a shade quiet on the topic this year.

As most grapegrower-winemakers tend to do, Raymond Haak, a representative of the vignerons of the Gulf Coast wine region, in Texas, rather blithely dismissed the fact that their vineyards 40 kilometres from Houston had just taken nearly 1,500 millimetres of rain.

That's almost the height of the average human if you need to measure it on the gulp scale. But most of the Gulf region's grapes were already picked and in the tank. 

Whew. Close one!

"We had a little bit of water in the cellar, and lost power for about 16 hours," Raymond told Wines & Vines when the rain stopped. 

"But now we’re doing great; we’re back on our feet. The crop was all off the vines, and that takes a load off the vine. They can have wet feet for several weeks if the crop is off." 

If the crop is off.

It's only started coming off and there's no wet feet in California. While the south seemed to sink, the north of the USA was glazed in bushfire haze while the west sweltered and burnt. Cross to Chris Carpenter, maker of some of the best - and most expensive - Cabernets in California. He makes wine from the peaches-and-cream mountaintop vineyards of the Jackson Family: Cardinale, Lokoya, La Jota and Mt. Brave, as well as their prime Hickinbotham Vineyard at Clarendon on the Onkaparinga Gorge south of Adelaide in South Australia.

Chris Carpenter with Cabernet sauvignon from the Jackson Family's Hickinbotham Clarendon Estate in South Australia

"Two days before the heat hit," he responded to my query, "as we were watching that high pressure system roll in, two of my irrigation pumps went out, on two different mountains in vineyards that desperately needed a drink. 

"Fitful days ensued: earnest pleas to colleagues, pump engineering wizards and friends and foes alike just to make sure that we got them fixed. There was not a doubt in my mind that the heat was coming.

"How could it not be?  There were killer hurricanes, one heading to desperate souls in Texas and right behind it was another, its eye on Florida.  Los Angeles and much of the West was on fire. Northern California wasn't going to let the rest of the country have all the fun. Somewhere Hal Lindsay was smiling.

"Three days of 45-46C.  Three days of hiding indoors, as even the coast didn't offer relief.  Three days of watching trees, shrubs and ornamental plants meant for climates in places like Canada lose their grip on their time on this planet. Three days of contemplating mother nature's feverish attempts to rid her body of the virus that is humanity. The planet is an organism, and like all organisms it reacts to changes in its health with heat and we are living that reaction. 

"Mother nature's flu virus is us and the massive fever we are experiencing is meant to eradicate it."

Annika Berlingieri, who usually cooks bounteous weekend long-table lunches at the Petagna-Piombo families' Sellicks Hill Wines in McLaren Vale, reported from Tuscany that superfrost followed by superdrought had severely limited the crop. The Vinosalvo Shiraz and Sangiovese vineyard established there by Alison Hodder, third woman to graduate from the Roseworthy Winemaking College, with her partner Claudio Berlingieri, was not spared. 

Alison Hodder surveys the survivors of her sparse 2017 crop at De Vinosalvo vineyard in Tuscany ... photo Annika Berlingieri

"Yields are very low and it's depressing," Annika reports. "The Shiraz vineyard last year produced 14 tonnes. This year 2.5! Alison has purchased a bit of fruit to top up but no one really has much to sell, especially Shiraz, here! I've seen some pretty dry shriveled vines and grapes the last week. But what she crushed is looking beautiful so fingers crossed!" 

As most of the great vignobles of Europe can testify. Some of the biggest, and most famous are whispering about a harvest that could be the smallest since 1945. France, overall, is looking to be around 20% down on last year; Italy 24% lower. 

This is all directly related to climate changes.

Back in California, Chris reports extra damage from critters. He says that heavy rains of winter produced "a huge growth of the cover crop plants between the rows. So much growth that it was nearly impossible to keep up with the mowing needed ... the rodent population exploded.  Gophers, ground squirrels and voles made their way through the cover of grasses ... undetected by owls, hawks, falcons, snakes, and the occasional feral cat. None of these combatants could see or smell their elusive and prolific prey. When the heat hit [the rodents] took to the plants to suck what water they could from their roots and graft unions, exacerbating the devastating affect of the heat.

"Merlot is the preferred variety of rodents: I have seen this effect in our vineyards most on this particular variety.  Take that Miles."

That unusual winter rain had Chris's favourite vineyards 10 days behind in picking. "With the amount of water in the soil we were looking at a late harvest and it was likely that it would happen all at once. That is no longer the case as we began picking almost immediately after the weekend. The sugars shot up but the acid metabolism stalled. Again a good thing as we will likely be picking with pretty high acids. And the phenolics are outstanding in the berries I am tasting.  I have yet to figure out that part of the equation. 

"Speaking of variety the thick skinned varieties seem to have fared better, and are bouncing back a little better as we have tried to rehydrate some of the shriveled berries post heat." 

While I write this, I'm enjoying a lovely white from 700 metres up the mountains east of Tokyo and directly north of Mount Fuji. Grace Gris de Koshu 2016 ($45, 12% alcohol; compound cork) is from the Koshu variety, which found its way along the silk route from the Caucasus, where it's been for over a thousand years. 

Beautifully floral, rich with nectar and fine honeydew melon flavours, with really refreshing steely high-country acidity, this baby shows no warming unless you refer to the wine losing some of its crisp chill and growing a little muscaty as it warms in the glass: it's more or less along the lines of the Mediterranean French Picpoul, which is beginning to appear in smart vineyards around McLaren Vale. 

It's simultæneously comforting and bracing. Yin and yang. They say it goes well with sushi, but I reckon, more to the point, its slightly sweet flesh is perfect for counterbalancing the sharp ammonia of wasabi. You can't do that with Sauvignon blanc.

My point being that rodents and pumps aside, we're gonna have to get used to a lot of our vineyards moving to the mountaintops, in places like the Americas and Japan, like countries that have the big cold white pointy things, or grow them closer to the melting poles.

"Ultimately we got our pumps fixed, Chris writes. 

"It was 11th hour heroics and we had several relationship casualties along the way but we were able to get water everywhere it was needed.  We lost some fruit both to shrivel as well as sunburn but overall it could have been a lot worse." 

Things are changing faster than anybody seems to grasp. Forget Gladstones and his zealots. Or, better still, seek them out and remove them from positions of power. 

"This is just the beginning my friends," Chris Carpenter concludes. 

"There is a new paradigm and the fucks in political office better start paying attention. Too many of them have viewed their food from the aisles of a grocery store wrapped in flashy packaging and always available. Food is grown in a set of conditions that have a very small bandwidth. We are disrupting that bandwidth to a degree that Silicon Valley 'disruptors' would be jealous of if it wasn't ultimately going to starve them. Now more than ever those who grow our food need to sound the alarm. This shit is real and if we don't start facing it in drastic ways we are done." 

PS: Chris Carpenter on vine physiology in excessive heat:
That heat was ponderous. One of my friends who is not in the business asked me why I wasn't in the vineyard. I laughed. Why? So I can stand there sweating, angry and absolutely not able to do a thing? 

Vines stop transpiring around 39ᵒC.  Their stomates close, which are the kidney bean shaped cells on the leaf surface that open and close allowing water to move through the vascular system of the plant, simultaneously moving water and nutrients around the plant and cooling the surface of the leaf. Stomatal closure is like heat stroke in animals. It is not good. Plants start to fail quickly as the surface area of the leaf gets hotter and hotter which ultimately causes the leaf to more or less burn from the inside out. Plants with bigger leaf surface areas like grape vines do not fare as well as a plant like the olive tree with its smaller leaf area and lighter overall color. 

For those who did get water on the vine, who maybe had not been as aggressive with leaf pulling and who had trellises that were not designed for what was once considered a cooler climate they fared better as the stomatal closing effect probably only lasted for about 3-4 hrs each day leaving the rest of the day with a bit cooler understory. 

Remember it’s still shaded under the canopy and up until the plant reached the 39ᵒC threshold there was some cooling going on.  Most did OK.  A lot of vines did suffer though, those that were weak in the first place particularly.

Hickinbotham Clarendon vineyard photographed by Maynard James Keenan ... apart from the Tuscan image, all other photos, including Fleurieu vineyard fires by Philip White

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