By: Marianne Lavelle
Publisher: The Daily Climate
Published: December 30, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Gabriele Rausse tends to grape vines that are thriving on the same high slope where Thomas Jefferson tried, and failed, to launch a Virginia wine industry more than 200 years ago.
As one of the newest of the New World wine regions, Virginia also may be one of the best places to witness the impact of climate change on the wine industry.
Rausse is widely hailed as the father of Virginia winemaking, having spent the past 38 years bringing the art and craft of his native Veneto region in northern Italy to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the United States. Now chief gardens and groundskeeper at the 2,500-acre historical site of Monticello, Jefferson's plantation, Rausse thinks often about climate – what it was like during the third president's time, and what it is like as he works the soil today.
He has reached no firm conclusion on how much global warming has contributed to today's viticulture success in the Old Dominion. He has seen vines killed by harsh cold, and likewise has witnessed grape crops fail in unrelenting heat. And Rausse has studied Jefferson's meticulous records of his own extensive agricultural experimentation, revealing that he, too, endured both extremes of Mother Nature.
"If somebody from Italy asked me, 'How is the weather in Virginia?,' I would answer, 'I have no idea!'" Rausse said.
What is certain, however, is that thanks in large measure to Rausse and a few other pioneers, Virginia now is nurturing a successful wine business, surging from just six vineyards in 1979 to more than 235 today – with most of that growth in just the past decade. Government agriculture experts once advised Rausse he'd never grow grapes for anything more than jelly in Virginia, he said. Now, the state ranks No. 7 in the nation for wine-grape growing, with 6,100 tons processed in 2013.
Vanguard of states
Virginia may be still a relatively small player on the U.S. wine scene (dominated by California, which grew 84 percent of the nation's wine grapes last year), but it is among a vanguard of states investing in expanding wine production as a locally important agritourism industry. Nearly all of the wine produced in these states, including Michigan, Texas, and Pennsylvania – where wine grape production more than tripled last year – is sold only in state, often right at the wineries, which lure visitors with tasting events, festivals and creatively mapped wine trails. Virginia's wine industry contributes an estimated $750 million a year to the state's economy, and has attracted a wide array of wine entrepreneurs. Singer-songwriter Dave Matthews and real estate magnate Donald Trump both own Virginia vineyards.
As one of the newest of the New World wine regions, Virginia also may be one of the best places to witness the impact of climate change on the wine industry. Experts may debate how much warming is to credit for the Old Dominion's recent winemaking success – modern disease-control technology and marketing certainly have been crucial, too. But there's no question that these new U.S. vineyards, not bound by the rigid appellation rules of Europe and more nimble than far larger, more established wine-making regions of the U.S. West Coast, are adapting in real time to climate change today. Virginia winemakers have flourished by shifting what varieties they produce and altering management practices to respond to the changing conditions they've witnessed just within the four decades of the industry's brief history in the state.
Altering the shape of industry
It's a microcosm of what's happening in winemaking around the globe. Climate change is altering the shape of the industry, with one published study last year calculating that the area suitable for viticulture in today's major wine-producing regions will decline as much as 73 percent if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their high trajectory.
Civilization shows no sign it intends to surrender the ancient practice of grape growing and fermentation; instead, wine-makers are adapting to changing conditions, often by fording into new geographical frontiers.
Champagne houses in France, facing early ripening, are eyeing land in southern England, where sparkling wine-making is surging. Vintners in drought-battered Victoria, Australia have purchased acreage across the Bass Strait on the island of Tasmania, where vineyards can benefit from the cooling effect of the ocean. As California's interior bakes, winemakers are creeping into coastal forests, potentially threatening redwood stands in the search for more hospitable land.
Climate change was not on the mind of Italian vintner Gianni Zonin in the mid-1970s when he first began eyeing the potential of Virginia for fine wine-making terroir. Rather, Zonin, who now is hailed as head of the largest private wine enterprise in Europe, was embarking on a geographic diversification plan the likes of which had never been tried by another house in Italy's long tradition of wine-making. He became convinced the future of his family's business, which dated back to 1821, was in reaching out into new territories, both at home and abroad.
When you go to Europe, what you see is that viticulture is always done in a marginal area.
– Gabriele Rausse, Monticello
Last year, by the time Zonin received a lifetime achievement award from Wine Enthusiast magazine, he had nine estates in seven regions of Italy, and more than 5,000 acres under vine. But Zonin's most risky gambit, for which he has been likened to his countryman Christopher Columbus, was his purchase of a rolling hillside estate in the Virginia's "Piedmont," which means, literally, the foot of the mountains. The estate, Barboursville, neighboring Monticello, had been owned by Thomas Jefferson's friend, one-time Virginia governor James Barbour.
To run his pioneering Virginia winery in 1976, Zonin hired a young man from his hometown who had winemaking experience, who could speak English, and who longed to travel: Gabriele Rausse. Rausse remembers well the skepticism they encountered, even though by their estimation, the conditions were very like those in Veneto. "Virginia is a marginal climate, and a marginal soil," not suited for producing high yields of corn, for instance, Rausse said. "But when you go to Europe, what you see is that viticulture is always done in a marginal area." Grapes are believed to need stress – particularly, cool temperatures at night – in order to develop the complexity that yields fine wine.
'The problem is the grafts'
Of course, there's stress, and then there's stress. Although average temperatures at Barboursville were the same as that in Rausse's hometown, the highs and lows were far more extreme. In their first year, 50 percent of the vines at Barboursville died.
Rausse looked carefully at the plants they had purchased from a nursery. "I told my boss the problem is the grafts. The grafts are not good," Rausse remembered. Grafting is an important step to prevent disease (see sidebar), and winters in Virginia were too unforgiving for the grafting techniques that worked in places like the California wine region. "If you are in a warm climate, the graft will survive. But if you are in a cold climate, the graft has to be perfect. My boss said, 'Should we graft our own vines?'" And so Rausse adopted a careful grafting technique to ensure the grape vines would survive the harsh Virginia winter and thrive in summer.
Even so, Rausse and Zonin initially faced doubt and even opposition to their efforts to cultivate Vitis vinifera, the classic European wine grapes, in Virginia. Rausse remembers one U.S. Department of Agriculture official telling him he might have luck growing the grapes for jelly, but not for wine. "I said, 'I don't know what jelly is,'" he said. Rausse also recalls an uncomfortable day-long meeting in the capital of Richmond, where he said state officials tried to dissuade him from his experiments. "I said, 'I'm in the land of freedom! If I don't bother anybody, why shouldn't I continue to do what I am doing?'" Rausse recalls. "They said, 'The moment you get a Virginia farmer excited about something that doesn't make sense, we have a moral duty to stop you.'"
Rausse now believes state officials simply were trying to avoid embarrassment. Like many U.S. states, Virginia had supported research into development of new hybrid grape varieties that had attributes of consumer-preferred vinifera varieties, but were hardy enough to weather the North American climate. As Barboursville was trying to grow vinifera, a handful of other vineyards had been established in Virginia, growing hybrid grapes at the recommendation of state agricultural experts. That would have seemed a foolish choice, Rausse now believes, if Barboursville proved Virginia could grow the much-preferred noble wines.
As it turns out, vinifera can indeed thrive in Virginia, and they are somewhat easier to grow today than when Rausse was planting his first vines nearly 40 years ago. "Vitis vinifera are fairly tender from a cold-hardy perspective, and the principal limitation of growing in Virginia was the frequency and extent of low winter temperatures," explained Tony Wolf, professor of viticulture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Virginia Tech, a state-funded educational and research institution, has several agricultural experiment stations dedicated to supporting and advising the farming industry.
In the 1980s, he said standard practice was for vineyards to take steps to insulate the vines from cold in winter, by heaving soil up to cover the graft unions in fall. But most vineyards now forgo that autumn plowing, which was labor-intensive and increased soil erosion by disturbing the hillside. "We've had so many years of relative warm temperatures that growers have pretty much given up doing that," says Wolf. "And they were right to do so. It was an insurance practice, and the premiums were very expensive."
A hybrid grape
If a grape ripens too quickly, you lose acidity, you lose aromatics. In reds, you lose color. For everyday wine, that's fine, but if you're trying to make higher quality wines, it suffers.
– Jim Law,
Selection of varieties grown in Virginia vineyards also has changed, as winemakers adapt to warmer temperatures. When Jim Law, one of the state's pioneering winemakers, first purchased the abandoned farmland atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, he planted the hybrid grape, Seyval, hoping to take advantage of its cold-hardiness. "Our temperatures in the 1980s were routinely in the negative numbers to the point where it could do a lot of damage to the vine in the winter," he said.
But this year, Law pulled up the last of his Seyval vines. It just wasn't making the high-quality wine he aimed for at his Linden Vineyards. "It was ripening earlier and earlier and earlier, until it took us out of the sweet spot" of mid-September to mid-October ripening, he said. "If a grape ripens too quickly, you lose acidity, you lose aromatics. In reds, you lose color. For everyday wine, that's fine, but if you're trying to make higher quality wines, it suffers.
"To the quality producers, who are really pushing the envelope and making the best wines, earlier and earlier harvests can be a problem," Law said. "We can still get a crop. But the wine quality suffers if the grapes ripen under the wrong conditions."
Slight differences matter
Law's thinking illustrates well why wine is perhaps more sensitive to climate change than other agricultural commodities. Slight differences in temperature and precipitation matter. Grapes grown on east-facing slopes exposed to gentle morning sunlight produce more complex wines, for example, than those made from grapes with a western orientation and the hot afternoon sun, said Antonio Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center of the University of Maryland. He is not only an atmospheric scientist, but an expert on wine quality, with an advanced sommelier certificate. Having grown up in a restaurant business family, Busalacchi turned his lifelong interest in wine into an avocation that dovetails with his day job. He serves as a consultant to the wine industry, offering advice on how vineyards can adapt to a changing climate.
Busalacchi and his colleagues have studied 24 wine-growing regions, from the Old World strongholds of Burgundy in France and Veneto in Italy, to the New World vineyards of Napa Valley in California and Hunter Valley in Australia. Regions at high altitudes, like in Chile and Argentina, or those surrounded by ocean, like New Zealand, may benefit from a more consistent and greater number of favorable growing days, Busalacchi said. But other regions, like the Bordeaux in France, could suffer from a compressed growing season; its wines will lack complexity and be low in acid and high in sugar.
"Acid in a wine is what gives it its backbone," Busalacchi said. When temperatures become too warm, especially at night, the grapes produce a wine that's "flabby."
'Quality is the big discriminator'
And subtle change in temperature matters more to a wine-grower than say, to a corn-grower, whose main focus is maximizing yield. "You don't hear much about the quality of corn – there aren't aficionados or experts," Busalacchi said. "Quality is the big discriminator; climate change will impact the quality of wine in some regions."
For example, records from the Medoc growing region north of Bordeaux, France show that alcohol content, which reflects the amount of sugar in the grapes, commonly 11 to 11.5 percent in the 1940s, increased to about 13.5 percent by 2005. Recently, some Merlots from the region have had alcohol levels of 15.5 percent.
As with nearly everything regarding wine quality, there is vigorous debate on whether alcohol content-creep is a good or bad thing. But in general, high alcohol can cancel out a variety's characteristic flavors, and overwhelm the taste of food.
More attuned to climate change
In his travels, Busalacchi said he often finds that European growers, with family histories in the business and records of harvest that date back to the 1300s, are more tuned in to climate change than are operators of American vineyards. "They are able to draw on this personal history, where we don't have that long perspective," he said. Of course, that may get lost amid the bluster from some European wine experts. In the Bordeaux region, climate change is sometimes called "le bon problem," or the good problem. "We are so fortunate with global warming,"
Paul Pontallier, general director of Bordeaux's Chateau Margaux has said. "Look at the number of great vintages we have had in the last 12 or 13 years." Globe-trotting Bordeaux-based oenologist and consultant Michel Rolland says climate change is not affecting how the French make wine today. "We have more sugar because we want more sugar," he has said.
But Busalacchi points out that Rolland's actions don't line up with his brash words; he recently invested in vineyards in one of the regions best insulated from global warming, high-altitude Argentina. "Let's do a little bit of reality check," said Busalacchi. "If it's that good [in Bordeaux] now, what does it mean for 20 or 30 years from now?"
Law said he has witnessed the concern among his fellow winemakers in his visits across the Atlantic. "In Burgundy and Champagne, to some degree, they are scratching their heads about what to do," he said. "Their main wines are ripening ahead of the sweet spot. In the last 10 years, wines have been flabby, falling apart, not the quality they've commanded in the past.
Blasphemy in Europe
"There's talk of experimenting with other varieties, and that's like blasphemy" in Europe, Law said, where appellation rules dictate what wines can be named based on the region in which they are grown, and govern other characteristics, like alcohol content. Some believe the U.S. wine industry will have an advantage because it does not face such restrictions; and Law believes an upstart region like Virginia may be especially advantaged. "Here, we are just becoming known for a couple of varieties, and we're doing well, but because we're so youthful, we're malleable," he said. "It is not going to be quite as devastating to us."
Virginia currently has the climate to grow great wines, in the view of Rich Kaufman, general manager of Washington, D.C.'s high-end 1789 Restaurant, who keeps several varieties from right across the Potomac River on his wine list. Kaufman said that because there's less supply of top-tier Virginia wine, these bottles cost more than comparable wine from California. "But interestingly enough, I sell a lot of Virginia wines to guests from California," he said. "If I can talk to them about a great wine from a region that they might not get in California, they're usually pretty pleased and pretty excited to try some of the top stuff from the East."
The 2014 harvest in Virginia may end up being a banner year, The Washington Post's wine columnist Dave McIntyre wrote after tasting some of the newly fermented wine. "The summer whites were effusively fruity and aromatic, while the reds were ripe and lush, with none of the green characteristics that frequently plague wines on the East Coast," he wrote.
A stroke of good luck
Interestingly, the grapes benefited because this past summer was cooler and drier than average in Virginia, said Wolf. The weather was a stroke of good luck for the state's wineries, some of which were hard-hit earlier in the year by the Polar vortex. A warm spell followed by a cold snap in March proved particularly damaging in the northern part of the state, with tender vinifera varieties like Syrah and Tannat losing their buds, Wolf said.
He said the volatile weather underscores the complex questions that Virginia's wine growers face as they move into popular but warm-loving varieties that viticulture experts would not have recommended here as recently as 20 years ago, like the popular Merlot.
"While we would not discourage them from planting, we'd remind them they've got to use good sense and understand what we mean when we say you have to look at sites carefully and choose them logically," Wolf said.
"The variability of climate will be a hallmark of climate change as we go forward," he said.
At Jefferson's Monticello estate, Rausse is more conservative than many Virginia growers, still heaving up soil to protect the root grafts of the vines in winter. "It is very possible that one year, we will lose everything," he said.
Planting in the right place
Rausse began helping neighboring Monticello with its efforts to recreate the Jefferson vineyards while he was still at Barboursville, and then moved to the historic estate and museum full-time in 1995. Since 1999, under his guidance, Monticello has been bottling and selling a small number of bottles of its own estate-grown wine each year.
"I really love Monticello," said Rausse. "I fell in love with Jefferson. That may seem like a strange thing. But every time I had a question I couldn't answer, I would look back to what Jefferson had said about it, and his answer, for me, was perfect." For Rausse, there's no better example of Jefferson's foresight than his decision to farm on top of the mountain, instead of in the valley, next to the river, with water and transportation nearby. "If you come up here you realize that the season in the vegetable garden with south exposure is two months longer" than in the valley, he said. "To be able to eat for two months longer made a big difference."
Rausse points out some vines that benefit from the southern exposure – Muscat of Alexandria grape vines, a warmth-loving variety Jefferson tried to grow but lost quickly to frost in May 1774. Rausse lost his first Muscat vine a couple of years ago, 20 years after they were first planted in 1983.
After Rausse began to have success in the late 1980s, he remembers a Virginia Tech expert saying he might do okay, if he planted the grapes in the right place.
"The funny thing about that statement is that it's true of everything," said Rausse. "Everything needs to be planted in the right place."
For wine growers in an era of climate change, the tricky part is that the right place is on the move.
Marianne Lavelle is a staff writer for The Daily Climate. Follow her on Twitter @mlavelles.
Reprinted from The Daily Climate with permission. http://www.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2014/12/virginia-wine-climate.