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Is Early The New Normal?  Virginia and Maryland Winemaker’s Perspectives on Global Warming and Possible Effects on Grapevine Phenology

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in a media tour with the First Lady of Virginia, Maureen McDonnell, as part of her FLITE program — First Lady’s Initiatives Team Effort. (A detailed recap of the tour is forthcoming).

The day started with a visit to Delaplane Cellars (on Twitter: @DelaplaneCellrs), then an amazing lunch at The Ashby Inn, and an afternoon visit to Linden Vineyards for a tour and tasting with Jim Law, one of the early pioneers of the Virginia wine industry.  A grape grower since 1981, Jim is one of the most respected vintners in Virginia (and beyond), consistently producing some of the most highly regarded wines in the Commonwealth, which makes any visit with Jim a treat for the vinously inclined.

View of Linden’s vineyards from crush pad.

On the day that our FLITE group visited Linden, the entire Mid-Atlantic region was in the grasp of an oppressive heat wave with temperatures in the mid to upper 90′s each day, and many more sweltering days in the forecast.  With the temperature nearing 100 degrees on the afternoon of our visit, the climate, and its effect on Linden’s vineyards, was a topic of conversation.

It was during the discussion about viticulture trends that Jim made a statement that shocked me — ‘early is the new normal.‘  It’s not so much what Jim said that surprised me — I’ve heard this same thing many times before in other places — it’s the fact that ‘he‘ said it.

Early, as in early bud break, early fruit set, early veraison, and early harvest — ‘the whole cycle of growth has become early,’ says Law, which he attributes to global warming.  In a subsequent exchange, Jim noted that the average date of bud break for his Chardonnay in the 1980′s and 1990′s was April 20, and the last few years bud break has ranged from April 7 to April 20.

Others in our group of media and industry folk seemed unmoved by Jim’s ‘early is the new normal‘ statement.

Jim Law in the Linden cellar

Perhaps they are all more aware and plugged in to matters of the environment than I am.  Given the many global warming opinions masquerading as fact coupled with the staggering amount of information on the subject, I’ve avoided lingering too long on this topic and have not formed an educated position — especially in the context of the impact to vineyards in Virginia.

However, when someone with the experience (~ 30 vintages) and street cred of Jim Law makes such a statement, I’m inclined to believe that global warming is indeed having a direct impact on grapevine lifecycle here in Virginia.

Many other Virginia vintners have similar viewpoints, including Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards (on Twitter: @GlenManor), another of Virginia’s most experienced and respected winegrowers.  Jeff echoed Jim’s thoughts on the effects of global warming in the vineyard;

‘As someone who lives very close to nature/weather, I have noticed over the last 20 years changes that I attribute to global warming.  And for the record I do believe that man is principally the cause of this change, from our emission of greenhouse gases… yes “early is the new normal” sounds about right.  Migratory birds appear earlier in the spring and stay later in the fall.  Budbreak, flowering, veraison and harvest dates all are moving early.  Part of the problem, I think, is Earth is in a transitional phase of this phenomenon, demonstrated by the tug of war going on, with very hot seasons and still very cool ones too and storm systems seeming to be much more severe than I remember just a few years ago, but maybe in another 20, 50, 100 years it will be more clear.  I have also read that growers in Champagne are buying up land in England because it’s becoming too hot in France for their style of wine.’ 

Jeff makes an excellent point about the seasonal tug of war.  Though I don’t have the same farming experience and perspective as Jeff, I have noticed these weather extremes in our corner of the state — significant snow fall in the winter (like 14 inches of snow in one day) followed by severe heat in mid-spring and throughout the summer.

Sharing this view of seasonal extremes is Mark Fedor, co-owner and winemaker at North Gate Vineyard (on Twitter: @NorthGateWines) in Loudoun County, who says, ‘the wild extremes from one season to the next (2010 and then 2011) are what drive you crazy.  If there is a gradual change over time then that is much easier to deal with.

Seasonal weather extremes have become more common in the U.S. as illustrated on the graph below from the Climate Extreme Index maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).

This chart shows that in the last several decades, the prevalence of extremely warm low temperatures has overwhelmed extremely cold low temperatures. Source: NOAA CEI

Jon Wehmer, owner and winemaker at Chatham Vineyards (on Twitter: @ChathamVineyard) on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, adds, ‘there is no doubt, we have seen extreme weather conditions [on Eastern Shore vineyards] from droughts to floods to mild winters and hurricanes. The trend has been earlier rather than later in terms of vineyard conditions. This has been a trend that we have observed over a short period of time. Historic weather data has shown these fluctuations for hundreds of years. It is difficult to comment because I can only speak on my experience of growing grapes for 14 years and perhaps 10 years with my parent’s vineyard that was planted in 1970.’

It is these weather extremes — prolonged record-setting heat followed by consecutive days of torrential rain from severe storm systems that is then followed by more record-setting heat — that causes the most concern for many winemakers.  One vintner from Oregon told me that the increasing temperatures across the globe is not ideal, but is manageable since the increases are gradual; however, the extreme fluctuations in weather conditions from one day or one week to the next is what negatively impacts grapevine health right now.

Just north of the Virginia border at Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Maryland, west of Baltimore, winemaker Ed Boyce notes a similar experience with early grapevine lifecycle conditions:

‘Everything is earlier than it used to be.  I think you can add the fact that 30-50 years ago most growers did not think growing vinifera was possible in our region; now it is the norm.  No one can say it is Global Warming for sure, but it is hard to explain it any other way.  The vines are the first to know when the climate changes.

Interestingly, I think most growers in this region (maybe not Southern VA) would agree that the changes have helped them so far, although clearly this may change in the future.  I am already thinking of finding more North facing land to plant whites so that they ripen more slowly.’

Other winemakers have told me they too are looking for north facing hillsides for future plantings, but no winemaker told me that climate change has been beneficial.  An interesting point to be sure since climate change is normally framed in a negative context. If there are grapegrowers reading this that feel climate shifts have been beneficial, please leave a comment on this post, or send me an email.

Jordan Harris, winemaker at Tarara Winery (on Twitter: @TararaWinery) located in Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, told me that he does believe global warming exists, but doesn’t believe grape production has been altered as a result.  Jordan continues,

‘Global Warming can just as easily bring long masses of cold air.  The reality of the “Greenhouse” affect is that it sort of locks in climatic cycles.  I do think we have been in a long warm cycle, but that has happened before all over the world.  Just looking at wine vintages that can be seen.  Very often the top vintages of a particular region are crammed together while there will be long stretches of less then ideal vintages.  To me this is all about climate cycles, which takes years to reverse themselves.  I am sure that global warming does intensify these cycles, but I will not be making any rash decisions based on this thought.

There are other factors that I believe have led us all to believe climate change has affected viticulture more than it really has.  Ultimately there are too many variables in my opinion to say that climate change has created early [bud break, veraison, harvest] to be the new normal and I have not even accounted for changing winemaker and vineyard managers.  For example we have harvested on average about 1.5 weeks later since 2007 when I arrived from when we ever did before.  It was a stylistic thing.  In fact, 2010 was the latest we have harvested any fruit in our Nevaeh Vineyard, not pulling some Cabernet Sauvignon and all of our Cabernet Franc until October 23-24.  Last year our Mourvedre saw snow, but that was an odd circumstance and an odd grape.

Another example looking the other way would be to put your eyes on California.  It really seems this discussion is bigger in Virginia because of the hot years 2007, 2010, 2011 (was hot and dry, just crushed by the harvest rains) and 2012. In California they have had some of the coolest years in 2009, 2010, and 2011.  

I think Global Warming exists and will likely get worse, however there is a lot more to when the grape harvests have been happening than simply climate change.’

Jordan is correct in that there are many other variables to consider before concluding definitively that climate change is responsible for earlier bud break, veraison and harvest.  Nevertheless, the amount of evidence in favor of global warming as the primary culprit is close to the convincing stage.

I must however respectfully disagree with Jordan that the global warming discussion — early is the new normal — is bigger here in Virginia.  Extreme weather conditions and early phenological events are a hot topic across the globe.  Across the pond, about 4,000 miles east-northeast of Virginia, the impact of global warming is a reality as some of France’s most storied Champagne houses consider land in England — yes, England — as an option for potential production as the changing climate becomes a larger ‘worry point‘ for vintners.

Further east of England in Germany, a recent study found that bud break occurs already 7 days earlier… veraison 12 days earlier as compared to the average conditions over the last 40 years.’  In Australia, a similar story published in The Week reported that on average, Australian wine grapes are ripening 20 days earlier than in 1985.  Here in the U.S., a recent study by scientists at Stanford University in California, report that the amount of land suitable for cultivating premium wine grapes in areas of Northern California could shrink by 50% by 2040 as a result of global warming.

Nationwide, temperature statistics track with the findings of the aforementioned studies.  According to the latest weather normals (1981-2010) reported by NOAA’s NCDC, temperatures across the U.S. were on average 0.5 degrees (F) warmer than the 1971-2000 time period (Ed. Note:  30-year normals are used by NOAA to compare current climate conditions with recent history).  And, the climate of the 2000′s is about 1.5 degrees (F) warmer than the 1970′s.  Warm is becoming the new norm.

Source: NOAA

Nearly every state experienced warmer temperatures, including Virginia, which was slightly warmer than the average increase (ugh, the loss of acid pains me to even think about).

Although these studies along with anecdotal vineyard observations make a compelling case for the effects of global warming, it is, in the spirit of balance, important to note that many other factors can potentially impact the lifecycle of a grapevine — mesoclimate, macroclimate, clones planted, vine management, vine health, and winemaker stylistic preferences.

These other factors may be why the effects of climate change are not evident (yet) in all vineyards.  ‘We have not seen any new trends in our viticultural conditions here at IPV [Ingleside Plantation Vineyards]. We continue to have normal variation in our timing of budbreak and harvests‘ says Doug Flemer of Ingleside Vineyards on Virginia’s Northern Neck.   Tony Champ from White Hall Vineyards (on Twitter: @WhiteHallWinery), just outside of Charlottesville, VA, reports that ‘last year (2011) the harvest was about three weeks earlier than normal but this year it appears it will be on our traditional schedule.’   

Given the number of differing experiences along with so many other factors like mesoclimate, vine health, and winemaker style preferences to consider, it’s impossible to definitely conclude whether or not early is the new normal.  There is however, a growing body of evidence — a staggering amount actually — that global warming is impacting grapevine phenology.  All indicators appear to signal that warm is the new norm.

Editorial Disclaimer:  I feel the need to state the obvious — I am not a vintner, not a farmer, and definitely not anything close to a scientist.  This blog post, which will be edited for publication in a print magazine, is NOT intended to provide a comprehensive treatment of the impact of global warming and extreme climate change on vineyards.  Instead, the intent of this post is to scratch the surface of a deep subject that will be part of the viticulture (and that of daily life across the globe) narrative indefinitely.

Winemakers, does climate change have you rethinking future plantings or site selection(s)?

What say you?

A special thank you to Stephen Ballard of Annefield Vineyards (on Twitter: @AnnefieldWine) for providing an editorial eye for this piece – much appreciated!

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