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Climate Change Upsets Tradition, Demands Winemaking Flexibility

January 2017
by Jim Gordon

Stuttgart, Germany—Climate change so far has been good to northern European winemakers, allowing them to make internationally acclaimed red wines for the first time and riper dry white wines in regions traditionally considered to have cool climates. But enology professor Dr. Monika Christmann of Geisenheim University told a group of mostly German winemakers and researchers Nov. 29 that climate change may also necessitate more technological intervention in winemaking.

One example is that German winemakers now frequently harvest wines with pH readings several tenths higher than they did 20 years ago. “Now it’s become an option in Germany to add acid,” she said. “You would have been pilloried for this if you suggested it back when I was in school, but now it’s a real consideration.”

Christmann’s address was the keynote of the 62nd German Winegrowers Congress in Stuttgart. The four-day meeting runs simultaneously with the Intervitis Interfructa Hortitechnica trade show, both at the Messe Stuttgart expo grounds in southern Germany.

Christmann is also the president of the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV), which approves enological practices such as acid adjustment and membrane filtration before they can be used in the 46 OIV member countries. The members include most of the traditional winemaking countries and produce 80% of the world’s wine. Notable non-members include the United States, Canada and China.

Still, many of Christmann’s points are also relevant in North America. Regarding climate change, she said that temperature change in central Europe may be held to a few degrees, but temperature variability could be severe—and in some places it already is.

The coming years will be more unpredictable, and when a hot year is also a rainy or humid one, it will bring extra challenges to wine growers.

For one thing, Christmann argued, winemakers will need to be flexible. While tradition is good, she said, all wine traditions were established because they were the best methods at the time, and traditions change as new technology becomes available.

“Wine has never grown in bottles hanging on trees. It’s a natural product, yes, but it has always been produced with technology,” she said.

Christmann pointed out that crossflow filters were once forbidden for health concerns, but now they are widely accepted. Then came electrodialysis, ion exchange and other new methods of adjusting wine. “Certainly we will not turn back the wheel,” she said.

The crux of the matter is consumer demand and attitude. “Wine is supposed to be traditional, consistent, high quality and not too expensive, but some of these things contradict each other. Consumers tend to ask for everything, and some of these challenges can only be met with technological methods.”

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