With global temperatures rising, Burgundy’s climate might be pushed out of the ideal range for pinot noir. If this region disappears over the next half century, from where can we buy the rarefied red? The answer, however, is not so straightforward.
Tai-Ran Niew, an Oregon-based, Singapore-raised winemaker warns that it is simplistic to think of Burgundy as a whole because the region has different styles and quality. Factor out the heritage and cultural standing, and most of Burgundy’s good-to-great wines can find peers in both the old and new worlds.
As Niew points out, the mystique of Burgundy lies in the rare wines that are “not necessarily better in a linear sense, and is something one has to prepare for.” These are wines that one has to taste their way up to since their terroir-specific expression requires a wide array of comparisons. In other words, the average wine drinker probably will not be able to pick out a Romanée-Conti blind.
The “next Burgundy” should be able to produce pinot noir that is balanced, finessed, and elegant in the face of climate change without the burden of requiring the same stories or mystique as Burgundy.
An Immediate Challenger: Oregon
Pinot noir has become a signature variety for Oregon since its introduction in 1965. Oregon is one of the closest to Burgundy in terms of style, producing a more elegant, delicate wine. It’s common to compare top pinot noir from Oregon with Grand Cru Burgundy, but the state’s winemakers are moving away from the comparison—especially since the soils and climate of the two regions are so different—to make contextual wines that are drawing attention and commanding prices.
Pinot noir is primarily produced in Willamette Valley, which lies on the 45th parallel, slightly warmer than the Cote d’Or on the 47th. When it comes to global warming, this might seem like a disadvantage, but Oregon has more geographical protection. As a result of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Willamette Valley enjoys the effects of a moderate climate. In contrast, Burgundy is more susceptible to spring frost, a situation exacerbated by climate change. This is bad news for early-budding pinot noir.
Additionally, Oregon’s topography is more varied compared to Burgundy, providing a buffer against global warming because wineries have the option of seeking higher elevations (though at higher costs) as the climate warms. Niew, whose eponymous vineyard is located in Willamette Valley, first planted on a site “everyone said was way too high and too cool”, but is now no longer.
As with much of the new world, growers in Oregon are not constrained by the myriad of appellation laws found in Burgundy. Here, vineyards aren’t confined to certain plots of land, and methods like irrigation are permitted.
Moving Margins: Southeastern UK and Champagne
Despite the threat posed by global warming to some regions, others have benefitted from it. Marginal climates like the UK and Champagne have been more viticulturally friendly. The chalky soils of areas like Sussex and Kent have led to the former becoming one of the most successful producers of traditional method sparkling wines in the past few decades. Champagne has seen better harvests in the past decade. A warmer climate in this notoriously challenging region has led to earlier harvests, allowing for better ripening before rot sets in as well as a lower incidence of frost damage.
In recent years, temperatures have increased to the point where still wines from the regions have emerged. Still wines labelled Coteaux Champenois have always been a niche product of Champagne, but large houses have recently released their own, like Louis Roederer’s Hommage à Camille collection, consisting of a pinot noir and chardonnay. Although the first vintage of these wines were made in 2014, cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon found them to be ready for commercial release only after four years of experimentation. In its 2020 release, Hommage à Camille 2018 received good reviews, but Lecaillon believes more fine-tuning should be done to reach a more precise, site-specific style.
There is a similar phenomenon happening in the UK, where the potential for aromatic, high-acid pinot noir lies in the south’s well-drained greensand and chalk soils. Sommelier Vinodhan Veloo believes that a Burgundian range is possible within the next 30 years, although whether the region can match Burgundy’s “cult- like obsession with small parcels of vineyards, minuscule productions and fanaticism for individual producers…is anyone’s guess”.
Although the UK and Champagne both have climates and geographies that are conducive to pinot noir, what differentiates them from many other regions is what Niew calls the “aesthetic framework”. He says, “The English have been drinking wine for as long as the French have been making it. Some other regions of the world don’t have that depth of cultural capital.”
In short, to make good wine, one must know what it tastes like. While there are winemakers with well-trained palates all over the globe, the kind of wine an estate makes is typically determined by its idomestic market.
Dark Horse Running: Canada
There is plenty of wine in Canada beyond ice wine. Milder temperatures and a longer growing season have made pinot noir more viable across the country’s viticultural regions.
In Nova Scotia, in the east, where mainly hybrid vines like vidal blanc thrive, vinifera vines like pinot noir have also flourished. However, the area to watch is Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario. With the influence of the lake and limestone bedrock resembling Burgundy’s, the region produces a substantial amount of well-received pinot noir. At Exultet Estates, owner Gerry Spinosa makes widely-acclaimed pinot noir that he says, “could confuse most connoisseurs” into thinking it’s quality Burgundy.
With 18-year-old vines and just as many years of growing experience, Exultet still has plenty of room to grow. To improve the vineyard and winemaking techniques, Spinosa says, “we want to see how our older wines age, and make even better stuff.”
The Rest of the World
Climate change is benefitting some regions, while others are looking for ways to adapt. In Australia, warmer and drier weather will force producers to consider warmer-weather vinifera varieties. According to a study released by Wine Australia in 2020, if climate change continues on its current trajectory, growing conditions in Tasmania’s east coast, which produces some of the best pinot noir in the country, will look more like Coonawara with its warm and dry microclimate suited to cabernet sauvignon.
New Zealand will likely face the same issues with warming, although sources including Jancis Robinson and The Buy, a wine trade publication indicate that Central Otago is currently enjoying some of its best pinot noir vintages, thanks to both the industry and vineyards maturing over the past 30 years.
Therein lies vinifera’s hope. Similarly to how Thomas Malthus, an 18th-century economist, failed to account for advancements in agricultural technology when he predicted that food production would outpace population growth, viticulture practices may eventually be able to overcome climate-related obstacles. Like life, wine finds a way.
A Double-Edged Sword
Despite the global rise in temperatures caused by climate change, the real risk is an increase in volatility. Winemakers and estate owners alike face unpredictable weather: excessively hot and dry summers and late spring frost. Extreme temperature changes are also becoming increasingly common regardless of the region.