Looking South from Sancerre cc by sa 4.0 — Brian Burger

Could climate change make your Loire wine better?

How winemakers in the Loire are adapting to changing conditions

In the sweltering June heat, it is easy to forget that just over a month ago, much of Northern Europe was battling with frost — Muscadet, Anjou, Savennieres, Chinon, Montlouis and Touraine in the Loire were especially hard hit for a second year running despite valiant attempts to prevent damage through the use of helicopters, fires and water spraying. In addition to extreme weather patterns like these, even small changes in average temperature and rainfall can greatly affect grape yield and quality, requiring the majority of winemakers to employ a strategy of adaptation.

Yesterday, Vinexpo 2017 kicked off with its much-awaited “Fire and Rain” panel discussion, hosted by Wine Spectator magazine. This forum brought together key experts such as John P. Holdren, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and international expert on energy and climate change and Miguel A Torres Sr. of Bodegas Torres, to draw a picture of how climate change is affecting the wine industry.

Flagged as an opportunity for winemakers to learn, share their challenges, and develop strategies to succeed — such as how to delay the ripening of grapes, prevent soil erosion and recover and reuse CO2 gases from fermentation — the talk was also attended by many who were eager to know how climate change might affect the taste of wines.

In the Loire, grapes are reaching maturity earlier and earlier, however, being a cool climate region, winemakers fortunately do not yet have to worry about implementing techniques to delay ripening, which was one of the “hot” topics of the Fire & Rain discussion.

More appealing Muscadets
 For the Loire Valley’s Couillauds Brothers (Frères Couillauds), whose wines include a range of Muscadets and IGP Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, climate change, in part, has offered them the opportunity to experiment with a number of grape varieties not normally associated with the area, such as Viognier and Petit Manseng.

For Muscadet, riper grapes at harvest means wines naturally reach 11.5 to 12° abv, which is the ideal level of alcohol for Melon de Bourgogne to express itself well. “We have slightly lower acidity, however [the wine] is still very refreshing”, said Vincent Dugué of the Frères Couillauds estate. He believes this is part of the reason for the growing consumer appeal for Muscadet: “We’ve seen in a number of countries that this light and fresh character is increasingly sought after”.

Of course, adaptation is still key — he says: “You need to watch the harvest date carefully to not go over the top. Last year, for example, we started [harvest] a little earlier to be sure to keep the freshness.”

At Château de la Roulerie in the Layon district of Anjou, winemakers Marie and Philippe began noticing a change in the climate pattern about 10 years ago.

More than rising temperatures, they have observed a shift to what they describe as a “new cycle” with more abrupt changes in season. They have been having very warm, wet winters, but extremely cold springs. Autumn, though, tends to bring long periods of warm, dry weather, which is a significant advantage for making their sweet Coteaux du Layon wines.

They say that they still have no problem making vibrant wines showing minerality and complexity, but are also aware of the need to adapt — as well as preparing themselves for extreme climate events, they are picking earlier and earlier to ensure that they keep the freshness and acidity desired for their wines.