Napa has cabernet; the Willamette Valley has pinot noir. It’s conventional marketing wisdom that a wine region has to have a “signature variety” to succeed in the market. This conventional wisdom is a climate change denier. Climate change, or as Jamie Goode so aptly calls it “climate chaos,” is playing hell with wine regions with all their grapes in one basket.
Around the world in Bordeaux, Napa, Willamette Valley and many other famous wine place names, growers are searching for alternatives to their famed signature varieties that are facing climates decidedly changed from the conditions that made them famous.
In Bordeaux, they recently allowed six new varieties, including Portugal’s touriga nacional and alvarinho (albarino in Spain). Pinot noir will not be dislodged from Burgundy anytime soon, but once lesser appellations, that had trouble ripening grapes every vintage, are coming into the spotlight as the revered Crus are now too warm to produce Burgundy in the classically elegant style that made the Côte d’Or famous.
Writes Jamie Goode in WineMag.co.za, “The test case here is Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and, of late, Aligoté which is now getting a bit more recognition by the geeks at least). Vintages have been getting earlier and warmer here, which isn’t always a terrible thing, but is a trend that is scaring many in the region. The region built its reputation on its 930 climats, including some of the world’s most revered vineyards, organized in a hierarchical system with the Grand Crus at the top. The careful matching of climat and either Chardonnay of Pinot Noir, which has resulted in such revered wines, is now under threat. Performing at the limits of where they ripen fully, in interesting soils, these varieties have thrived. But with warmer conditions, the danger is that the fine differences that set these wines apart from other examples of these varieties might be lost. Some people might prefer Pinot Noir in a fruitier, richer style, but that’s not why people see this region as a place of vinous pilgrimage. They come here for the exceptional, fine, complex wines that often require some cellar time to show their best. They won’t pay a fortune for fruity pleasure bombs.”
A climate change research vineyard at Larkmead Vineyards in the Napa Valley includes aglianco, tempranillo and, (again) touriga national. “In order to determine the best path forward for the future and for our unique climate and terroir, we need to continue to experiment,” said viticulturist Kelly Mayer in Beverage Daily. “We’re planning on testing different varieties, rootstocks, cover crops, and more. The goal is to have more biodiversity and climate resilient vineyards.”
In days past, winegrowers mixed the varieties they planted in their vineyards to provide insurance against the whims of nature from vintage to vintage. Multiple varieties with different ripening curves gave you a better chance of ripening at least some of your crop increasing your chances of making a consistent blend each harvest. It’s a shame that so much of this wisdom was lost as industrial farming took over the wine world. Biodiversity was the natural way of agriculture in the past, and it is the answer to almost all of the problems we face today.
What we should aspire to as winemakers is a signature style — not a signature variety.
When we learned at Troon Vineyard that we had to replant our entire vineyard, we realized we had a unique opportunity to build both a biodiverse farm and vineyard. On the farm, that has come to include vegetables, cider apples, food forests, hayfields, livestock, pollinator habitats, and grapevines.
We considered the changing climate, which means warmer and dryer here in Southern Oregon, when selecting varieties for the vineyard, and designed everything to use the least amount of water. All of the varieties we selected were native to Southern France. Late-ripening red varieties like carignan, grenache, counoise, and mourvèdre and high-acid whites like bourboulenc, clairette blanche, picpoul, and grenache blanc will represent a significant percentage of the twenty varieties our vineyard will include when we finish our replanting program next year.
We are not planning on producing twenty different varietal wines. Most of our wines will be blends of these varieties as our vision has always been to produce a signature style at Troon Vineyard. Our goal is to produce wines with moderate alcohol, zesty acidity, and rich, complex flavors in every vintage — for decades to come. With a diverse range of varieties long adapted to a warmer, dryer climate, we can craft blends that can be adjusted to meet the needs of both warmer/dryer and cooler/wetter vintages, which are both expressions of the climate chaos that farmers now have to face.
Varietally labeled wines are quite a new concept in the long history of wine. It did not take off until the 1970s as California wines became more popular. In Europe, it is still the exception rather than the rule. A signature style preceded a signature variety.
Change and diversity have always intertwined as nature found its way forward. Biodiversity is nature’s secret weapon, and the move to monocultures has made our farms less adaptable. In just five years, we have dramatically increased biodiversity at Troon Vineyard. We are already seeing improvements on our farm with better soil and plant health and healthier chemistry in our fermenters.
There’s a lot of conventional marketing wisdom in the wine business. It says we need one signature variety to make the name of Southern Oregon in the marketplace. It tells us that you can’t sell syrah to Americans. It says heavy bottles connote a serious wine. It’s hard to find the wisdom of these wine marketing professionals when none of these preconceptions are true. We prove them wrong every day.