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Climate professor risks French grapes of wrath
Donald MacLeod www.about.com

Move the great chateaux of Bordeaux further north! Tamper with the grapes permitted in Chablis or Hermitage! The idea of messing with the sacred "appellation" system of wine areas is enough to make a French vigneron blow a cork. Such an impertinent and outrageous suggestion can only have come from a rosbif in Albion perfidy.

Indeed it has, but climatologist Colin Prentice, of Bristol University , has only the best of intentions when he points out that global warming is already having an impact on winemakers and the effects will soon become too dramatic to ignore.

Prof. Prentice heads a ?21m research programme called Quest (quantifying and understanding the earth system) that draws together the latest science on global climate change. He is also a wine buff.

For winemakers climate change is both a problem and an opportunity, says Prof. Prentice. "The good quality of southern English wine over the last few seasons is not just down to better winemaking - everybody knows it is hotter summers. At the other end of the range it is going to get too hot."

Years of trial and error by wine growers throughout the world have resulted in ideal combinations of grapes, soil ("terroir") and climate. In France , in particular, where the terroir is revered as the key to a wine's character, wines have evolved over centuries.

Prof. Prentice argues that climate change will alter the optimal mix of grape varieties to grow in any one place. For the French system, which in law lays down in detail the boundaries of each appellation - in some cases just a few acres - and the grapes that may be grown there, adapting to climate change will pose a real challenge, he says.

"It's not catastrophic providing the system allows you to adapt. If they don't make it more flexible it would play havoc with the quality of the wine. I'm sure when they see what effect it is having they will become more flexible - but they don't believe it yet," he says.

Climate prediction decades ahead are now becoming possible - "like weather forecasts only longer," says Prof Prentice. Wine growers who made use of the latest science of climate modeling and "bioclimatic envelopes" will be able to see problems ahead and spot opportunities, perhaps with different grape varieties.

"If someone doesn't do it soon, I'll have to do it myself," he adds. "It took an awful long time for Oregon to discover it had the perfect climate for pinot noir. If they had looked at climate details across continents they would have discovered it a long time ago."

Pierre Mansour, a buyer for the Wine Society, which has been shipping French wines to the UK since 1874, says there is discussion of climate change in the wine world. Two superb vintages for English sparkling wines have convinced Champagne houses to look to invest here. The hot summer of 2003 made German reds ("usually rather weedy") taste excellent, he adds.

But Mr. Mansour thinks changing grapes in an appellation would not be countenanced by French winemakers. "I can't see Burgundy agreeing to grow cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir is the grape of Burgundy and always will be," he says.

There is debate in France over the appellation laws but in relation to lifting restrictions to compete with Australia and other new world rivals at the ?4 or ?5 a bottle level. No one has a thought of changing the grand crus classes.

Mr. Mansour comments: "To change the grape variety in the laws would be an enormous step. The amount of history and tradition that is included is massive."

 

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