Gregory Jones can see the future…of booze. A climatologist at Southern Oregon University, Jones is an expert in why wines taste the way they do in the places they do. But as global warming recalibrates the world's wine regions, he has set his sights on figuring out how those wines will taste 50 years from now, when all the polar bears are dead and Mount Hood has been transformed into a year-round water park. So what will happen to the humble Oregon pinot when we crank up the mercury? Jones let us peek into his crystal ball.
WW: Has the wine industry been receptive to the whole climate-change idea?
What can we expect to see in Oregon wines as the climate changes?
In the 1950s and '60s, when people began looking at Oregon, many within West Coast wine production said Oregon was just too cold. It was too risky. And it was. If you take some of the data from the 1950s and '60s, you would arguably see there was too much climatic risk—in terms of frost, rain and not enough heat to ripen fruit. Yet there were still people who came here, and they took the risk and they were the pioneers. In the 1970s, you were lucky to get one good year out of four or five. Today it's flipped: you get four or five out of five. And it doesn't mean there's still not challenges, but the baseline conditions for growing grapes in Oregon today are completely different.
If climates continue to change at the same rate they've changed over the past 50 years, then we'll be in a completely different place. The cool-climate production areas of the Willamette Valley will likely be able to grow and ripen warmer climate varieties than they do today. The warmer regions like Eastern Oregon or Southern Oregon will, of course, move up that ladder even further to be consistent with some of the warmest varieties that are being grown today, [such as] cabernet sauvignon, syrah, malbec.
So could we see a situation where pinot noir is no longer the defining wine of the Willamette Valley?
The Tamar Valley of Tasmania represents the coolest and the Russian River Valley [in California] the warmest high-quality pinot noir wine regions, albeit with very different styles of pinot noir. Cool end: lighter body, less color, lower alcohol, a more finessed style. Warm end: fuller body, darker in color, higher alcohol, bolder style.
For the Willamette Valley, the climate conditions are currently centered near the middle of the pinot noir bounds, similar to Burgundy. So 1 degree of warming would likely push the average Willamette Valley producer to a different style of pinot noir, but [it would still be] suitable. But 2-plus degrees of warming places the region in a climate that today does not produce stylistically correct, high-quality pinot noir wines. However, 2 degrees of warming would put the region in a better climate for ripening other varieties. All this presumes the bounds are correct, given what we know today; however, adaptation in the vineyard, in the plant material, in the winery, etc., could stretch the upper bounds…and allow producers to maintain the system. But again, [only] up to a point.
Are there upsides to climate change for some regions—at least short-term? Less frost, for instance?
Oh yeah, there clearly are. But it depends on the adaptability of those regions and those growers. We always look back to Europe, because there's history there, but Europe has largely been about protectionism. The Burgundies of France or Bordeaux, or even parts of Germany or Spain, have always looked to protect their abilities to produce a crop that's identified with their region. For example, Burgundy grows pinot noir and chardonnay. And I know that pinot noir and chardonnay can be grown in other areas in France. But legally, to protect the Burgundians, the laws there say that pinot noir and certain chardonnays are suited to Burgundy, therefore they're the ones that can grow those varieties and produce it. So what happens if the climate changes such that Burgundy cannot do that any longer? Well, then here's a situation where the government has to get involved. If you're growing pinot noir or chardonnay in the Willamette Valley, and you're seeing the crop not being as suitable because the climate's warmed over time, you have the ability to adapt to a different variety without the government saying you can't.
What are some places that will become even better wine regions?
Parts of the Puget Sound in Washington. There are places in the inner sound in Vancouver and British Columbia. If you move inland, in [British Columbia's] Okanagan Valley—they have had a burgeoning wine industry for 25 or 30 years—I would see that could only get more suitable.
GO: Gregory Jones will speak about wine and climate change at T.J. Day Hall at Linfield College, 900 SE Baker St., McMinnville, on Wednesday, Sept. 11. 7:30 pm. Free.