How climate change affects Oregon wine
OPB, Think Out Loud, By Elizabeth Castillo, April 25, 2022
As new weather patterns linked to climate change emerge, what does that mean for Oregon’s wine industry? We check in with Greg Jones, a wine climatologist and the CEO of Abacela Vineyards & Winery in Roseburg.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. About 30 years ago, Greg Jones got a PhD, and soon began a career in wine climatology. At about the same time, his family was starting the Abacela Winery in the Umpqua Valley. Jones spent years studying and teaching wine climatology. Last year, after his father retired, Jones stepped in to become the CEO of Abacela. He joins us now to talk about climate change, and the future of winemaking in Oregon and around the world. Greg Jones, welcome.
Greg Jones: Thank you very much. Good to be with you today.
Miller: Oregon has some real variation in its climatic zones. Just to take two examples, the Willamette Valley is pretty different from southern Oregon. So let’s take these two places one by one in terms of what you’ve seen over the last three decades in terms of climatic changes, first in the Umpqua Valley.
Jones: Well, if you look at trends and temperatures, you know, the whole entire state has warmed over the past 3 to 4 or 5 decades. The warming has been roughly about the same, although it’s a little bit more in some of the eastern areas of our state than it is in the south and the west, but overall the temperatures have trended roughly about the same in the state. If you look at the region here in the Umpqua Valley, we’ve warmed upwards of 1.5 to 2°F in that period of time.
In terms of precipitation, we haven’t seen dramatic changes. The Western United States is just prone to summer droughts, and sometimes those summer droughts extend themselves into the winter. We’ve been in a relatively dry period right now, but the overall trends in precipitation are not quite as evident as those in temperature.
Miller: What have the changes that you have seen in temperature, and whatever changes there have been in terms of precipitation as well going back a number of decades, what have those meant in terms of the qualities of the fruit you get on any particular vine?
Jones: Well, I mean, I think if we’re talking about Oregon, I think it’s really good to go back to, let’s say the 1950s, when there really were no people growing wine grapes in the state for commercial production. And that was largely because our climates were just not conducive, they were quite cold, growing seasons were shorter, a little bit more rainfall in the wrong period of time. And it was a challenging place to grow grapes in the 1950s.
The early pioneers that started in the 60s, you gotta give them just a tremendous amount of credit for wanting to come and do something that they thought was very feasible. But they did it in a challenging climate. But boy, you fast forward to where we are today, and those pioneers, you’ve got to really look at them and say, boy, they were right that we’re in a place today where our climate is very suitable to growing grapes. It’s a little bit different in the Willamette Valley, which is a little bit cooler and wetter than parts of southern Oregon or eastern Oregon. But in general, the entire state has become more suitable since the 1960s, when we first started.
Miller: Is the Willamette Valley of 2022 more like Burgundy of 1970?
Jones: No actually, the Willamette Valley today is very similar to Burgundy of today. And I think what’s happened in Burgundy is that Burgundy was always a little bit more suitable than the Willamette Valley, but today they’re more similar overall. Burgundy and the Willamette Valley are best known for pinot noir, and both of them are kind of in the sweet spot for that variety in terms of the types of temperatures and growing season that they like.
Miller: To go back to this question about the fruit, has it changed? And I know obviously we’re talking about a bunch of different microclimates and different hills facing more southerly or more easterly or whatever, so maybe it’s hard to make super broad generalizations. But have the grapes responded to warmer seasons?
Jones: Sure. I mean, there’s quite a few different ways of looking at this. But in general, number one, the plant system, the grapevine itself has shown us over time worldwide, in every wine grape region that I’ve done research, including Oregon, the grapevine is going through its growth cycles a little bit earlier, whether it be bud break or flowering or the changing of color, or even harvesting. The grapevine is telling us that climates have trended.
In terms of fruit, what we typically look for in the industry is we’re looking for grapes to ripen to ideal characteristics to make a high quality wine. And in doing so, there’s really four things that are happening. I call them ripeness clocks, and the ripeness of sugar of course is number one, but there’s also acid, and then there’s also flavors/aromas that tend to come into play, and then phenolics that happen. And so all of those things are happening simultaneously in the grape. But in a warmer climate, sugar ripeness has a tendency to accelerate. So you get more sugar quicker within the fruit. At the same time, you tend to metabolize or respire acids. And so in a warmer climate, and we’ve seen this, there’s a lot of research out there in the world that has shown this, we’re more sugar rich earlier than we’ve been historically. And that has a balancing effect on issues of acid and flavors and phenolics.
Miller: So it would be up to a winemaker to recognize that and to plan for it or correct for it?
Jones: Sure, sure. And you’re very right, I think that the one thing that we’ve seen over time that’s been pretty clear from records is that more sugar equals a little bit more alcohol. We’ve definitely seen trends in alcohol going up. But some of that could be due to wine writers, and how they tend to like a bigger bolder wine today than in the past. But you’re right, a winemaker’s key is to work with the vineyard grower to make sure that the fruit gets to them and the kind of characteristics that they’re looking for. But then the winemaker is the one who massages that, and applies essentially their art to the product.
Miller: So as you noted, it seems like if I understand you correctly, things have gotten even better over the last five decades in the Willamette Valley for growing pinot noir. But we also understand that climate change is accelerating, and things are going to get even hotter and even more extreme in various ways, there will be more extremes at various times, whether that means temperature related or precipitation. Based on the direction we’re going, is the Willamette Valley going to remain ideal for pinot noir?
Jones: This is largely what I’ve been studying for 25 plus years now, is trying to better understand what the thresholds are for optimum conditions for any given variety, pinot noir or chardonnay, or cabernet sauvignon, whatever it may be. Of course pinot noir is much more of a cooler climate variety. But we know that it has what I call a climate niche of roughly about 4°F within the growing season, from the coolest places to the warmest places doing it. So if we consider where the Willamette Valley is today, back in the 60s and 70s, we were on the cooler limits of pinot noir suitability. Today we’re centered within that suitability. So a few degrees of warming has put us into a much more goldilocks, for lack of a better term, framework. We’re the sweet spot, so to speak.
However, if we continue warming, since 1980 the trend has been almost linear, and if we continue warming at that rate, we will at some point in time pass what we know to be the threshold for really warm conditions for pinot noir. Now, that doesn’t say that there can’t be some form of adaptation, whether it be in the vineyard or in the winery, to kind of massage that a little bit or make it a little bit more elastic over time. But the issue is that given what we know about pinot noir today, another 20, 30, 40 years of warming could mean that pinot noir is questionable in some places in the Willamette Valley, and maybe even more suitable than others.
Miller: Like maybe British Columbia or something?
Jones: Exactly. If you look at the framework behind all of this globally, what we’ve basically seen as we’ve seen is a warming that has produced latitudinal shifts toward the poles in both hemispheres, a shift toward the coastal zones, and then also a shift toward higher elevations. And so if there is more elevated areas to plant, then there is the potential to mitigate those kind of changes in climate.
Miller: What does that mean in terms of the bottom line in marketing, if in general wine drinkers around the world associate, say, Burgundy and the Willamette Valley with pinot noir, but if decades from now those grapes don’t really want to be there?
Jones: I do think that there’s this kind of this push/pull between the production system and the consumer system in terms of thinking about this. And I think in Europe, part of the challenge there is that they have hardwired these legal frameworks behind what varieties can grow in what regions. And so in Europe, the ability to adapt and change maybe to a new variety, a new style, is quite a bit more challenging than we see in new world in viticulture. So, if we warm and need to think about changing the way we grow the grapes of the varieties that we grow, we don’t have the same policy or legal framework that they do in Europe.
But then getting back to the consumer question that you had, I think as consumers, we also need to be very aware of this puzzle. There’s a little bit of this idea that we all think that everything will always be the same, whether it be a cheese or a coffee or a chocolate or whatever it may be. But in a changing climate, we should never expect things to always be the same. And that’s why I think consumers, and myself included, we need to be aware of these kind of changes, and embrace what changes that the producers will put together within whatever agribusiness it is, and embrace those changes. And I think there is of course going to be a marketing challenge and a timing challenge with all of this, but it’s not going to happen overnight or within a year or two. It’s a longer term kind of framework that I think has both producer and consumer awareness being at the heart of it.
Miller: We just have a minute left. But what’s a varietal that you think could be one of the grapes of the future in the Willamette Valley?
Jones: Well, I think people are already playing around a little bit with different varieties. At least for red grapes, you’re hearing more people planting gamay noir. There’s a few people planting syrah, a few people planting tempranillo. So there’s other varieties that people are working with, and that’s an example of a changing climate, where growers are seeing that potential, and they’re seeing how well those varieties can do today. So I think that all of those have a very interesting place in the future.
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