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Climate Change Might Be Good For Quebec Winemakers

Climatologists are predicting that as temperatures rise across the globe, Quebe could eventually accommodate Vitis vinifera—king of grapes—whose progeny include European classics like pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet.

by Nick Rose
Sep 4 2015, 7:07pm

Photo via Flickr user Phil Roeder

Crops are drying out, cattle are too hot to have sex, and the gelato industry is slowly melting away.

But climate change isn't all bad. In a few decades from now, we may be able to watch the world go up in flames while sipping on a subtle, complex pinot noir from Quebec.

Recent research by Canadian climate scenario specialists suggests that as temperatures rise across the globe, the province's climate could eventually accommodate Vitis viniferaking of grapeswhose progeny include European classics like pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet.

Philippe Roy is a climate scenario specialist at Ouranos, a consortium of over 400 climate researchers in Quebec. His research team recently concluded that at this rate, there is a good chance that the province could be growing Vitis vinifera grapes as early as 2050.

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Quebec chardonnay. Photos courtesy of Les Pervenches.

There are a lot of factors that go into a successful harvest, but for their projections, Roy's team homed in on the number of consecutive days without frost and the average heat accumulation, know as "growing degree days."

"We wanted to look at the potential for winemaking in Quebec. So we use a large ensemble of climate simulations and we defined certain climate indexes," Roy says. "You need to have at least 150 days without frost for hybrid vine and 165 days for early ripening Vitis vinifera if you want to be commercially viable. Based on our projections, there is the chance that we could grow early-ripening variations of Vitis vinifera grapes like pinot noir, riesling, and chardonnay."

Quebec already boasts some 130 vineyards and 40 grape varietals, mostly hybrid species like frontenac, vidal and seyval, which were developed by the University of Minnesota to withstand harsh climates like Quebec's. Obviously, a grape which is sturdy enough to survive Quebec's winters are going to have a particular flavour profile.

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Michael Marler buries his chardonnay vines for the winter.

Bill Zacharkiw is a wine expert from Quebec who has watched a fledgling wine industry evolve in a province notorious for frigid temperatures.

"When you grow the hybrid varietals, the quality is just not the same as vinifera. There's no arguing it," Zacharkiw says. "Hybrids generally have higher acidities. They can be really good but part of the problem with being a young wine industry is that you have to discover the best way to work with these kinds of grapes."

"Obviously climate statistics are saying that it's getting warmer summers but the last two winters have been absolutely brutal. Burgundy is a cool climate but their winters rarely go below minus 10 degrees celsius. But if you go below minus 20 without any snow coverage, then you're fucked."

Fucked because the arch enemy of wine is frost. Too much rain and humidity can cause nasty but manageable bacteria and fungus to fester, but frost kills the vine and can severely damage the grape. Needless, to say, this is the main obstacle for winemakers in Quebec, where the temperature in the winter can easily go below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Still, there are innovators shaking their fists at the wine gods and growing Vitis vinifera in Quebec. Michael Marler is one of them. He's not waiting until 2050 to grow Vitis viniferahe's doing it right now at his Les Pervenches vineyard in Farnham, Quebec.

"Most of what we grow is chardonnay. It's not a small plot--it's the majority of what we do."

In order of protect his vines from potentially lethal spring frosts, Marler buries them underground. "We bend the trunks down to the ground and then we hold it down, then we cover it with hay and we put a geotextile cover on top."

It's labour and cost-intensive, but it works.

Another way to combat the cold is using frost towers which are essentially towers which mix the warm and cold air so the warm air, which usually rises, stays close to the grapes and pushes the dangerous cold air higher up. Some vineyards even get helicopters to fly over their vines during the coldest nights. Given the lengths that they have to go to keep grapes alive, it's no surprise that warmer winters would be a welcome change among Quebec wine growers.

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Frost tower.

"For the wine industry, it will be good. Winters will be less harsh most of the time," climatologist Philippe Roy says, "The probability of having a winter as cold as the last two is decreasing. It's not the ideal place to grow Vitis vinifera, but it could become more widespread in coming decades. Still, our winters will remain a problem even in 2050."

Roy is also quick to point out that despite the hard science underlying his climate scenario models, climates are inherently volatile. "We made some predictions but it's always accompanied by uncertainty and the natural variability of climate."

But back at the Pervenches vineyard in Farnham, climate change just means a new set of factors to contend with.

"I've been growing grapes for 16 years here and I do read quite a bit about climate change because it affects us directly," Marler says. "But we don't know what the future is. What we know is what we have now. I'd love to think that when my daughter inherits the vineyard that she can grow whatever she wants, but the reality is that right now you can't do that."

Marler seems more focused on this year's harvest than about climate change models.

"It was a tough spring, with big frost and lots of rain but with the frost towers we got a full crop almost everywhere. I think about the problems that I have today, and I fix them now. If I do that, I'll be that much further ahead if things do change."