The heat is on

The heat is on People & Places Articles
  • Monday 1 April 2002

With global warming a hot hopic, British vineyard owners are hoping that in future they will be able to produce more quality wines from a greater variety of grapes. SUSAN LOW investigates

The weather has long been a source of complaint and bemusement in Britain, and over the past decade we've had another meteorological phenomenon to obsess about: the 'greenhouse effect'. The warming up of the Earth's atmosphere owing to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, has become a cause for concern. But could it be that, as Britain grows warmer, viticulture will become increasingly viable in our marginal climate? Some experts are predicting that the main areas for viticulture may shift latitude from warmer to cooler regions as soon as the mid- to late-21st century. In the northern hemisphere, that means Oregon, Washington State, British Columbia, Germany, northern France and England could become the main sources of quality wine. In the southern hemisphere, the focus could shift to southern Chile and Argentina, southern New Zealand and Tasmania.

At present, however, 'might' and 'could' are important terms when discussing climate change. According to a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, climate change is 'extremely unpredictable', because of what may or may not happen with the Gulf Stream. Without the Gulf Stream, Britain's climate would be considerably cooler, similar to that of Canada's Labrador Peninsula, which is at about the same latitude (50–60°N). Some climate-change models predict that the warming of the atmosphere could cause the Gulf Stream to be 'shut off' as occurred at the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. However, Dr Mike Hulme, a climate researcher with The Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia, believes that, for the next 100 years at least, it is unlikely that the Gulf Stream will cease to function, although its strength may be somewhat diminished. What's more, Hulme says, even if a diminished Gulf Stream does bring less warmth to the UK, 'increased greenhouse gas heating would greatly exceed this cooling effect'. Hulme believes all possible scenarios 'indicate a warming of the UK climate, not a cooling'.

David Carr Taylor, managing director of Carr Taylor Vineyards in Hastings, has been in the winemaking business for 30 years. During the 1990s, he has noticed that ripening times have been slowly creeping up to earlier in the season. Reichensteiner grapes, which used to ripen around 20 October, are now ripening around 30 September. 'It's a time factor more than a quality issue,' he says. But he believes that those changes are the result of natural cyclical weather patterns, rather than global warming.Would global warming necessarily be good news for English winemakers? Most believe it would. Taylor believes that global warming would be of enormous benefit to this country: 'Many more areas would become arable. And in the more northerly latitudes I think the quality of wine would improve enormously.'

Mark Sharman, head winemaker at Beenleigh Manor Vineyard, the only English vineyard to specialise in red wines, says: 'I would greet warmer temperatures, although it might undermine our competitive advantage a little bit. We make the only Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend in England. On the other hand, it means that we wouldn't have to grow the grapes under poly-tunnels.' Sandra Moss, director of sparkling wine specialist Nyetimber Vineyard in West Sussex, is not certain it would be an advantage for her wines: 'At some stage, warmer temperatures might make it more difficult for sparkling wine production.'

So, are English winemakers banking on a warmer climate in future? According to Julia Trustram Eve, director of English Wine Producers, the generic promotional body for English wine, no contingency plans have been made as yet. If weather patterns are to change, viticulturalists will have plenty of time to adapt. At least one English vineyard is looking at the possibility that red varieties may start to play a more important role in English vineyards, however. At Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, Surrey, assistant vineyard manager Sue Osgood says that, 'with increased global warming, we are looking into the possibility of planting more red vines, specifically Dornfelder and Pinot Noir'. No one knows for certain quite how, if, or to what extent climate change will affect viticulture in England, but it just may be that, in England anyway, the future is red.

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