UC Davis has been working with Constellation Brands in the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 60% of the wine grapes in California come from, on finding varieties more suited to the hot climate. They have grown 56 different grape varieties not commonly found there now, including grapes you've heard of like Garnacha, Roussanne and Arneis.
All but one of the criteria outlined by Oren Kaye, winemaker at Constellation's research and development department, make a lot of sense viticulturally. Varieties must:
* Be economically viable, with a minimum of 10 tons/acre, but preferably closer to 20
* Be able to be farmed mechanically
* Can be harvested early (so lower risk)
* Reds must have high anthocyanins; i.e., have good color (and we thought it was all Mega Purple)
* Whites must have spice and character
* Low pyrazines (herbaceous flavors)
* Produce good mouthfeel
* Have desirable flavors that blend well
BUT -- there's a giant but, and I mean a but so big that it blocks the sun --
* "There needs to be market cachet"
This, of course, pretty much ends the need for the experiment. But they soldiered on anyway.
From the reds, Kaye liked Pinotage. (Eek! When asked to name varietals I don't like, that's usually first on my list.) He also liked it as a white wine, so maybe that's better.
He considered Ciliegiolo (a genetic parent of Sangiovese) a backbone blender because of its tannin, which is interesting because in Chianti it's often used to soften Sangiovese. He thought Bonarda (aka Charbono) -- a variety that does well in Argentina -- tasted good, but the crop was too small.
Among the whites, Fiano from Campania was the big hit, especially because it ripens early. "Our winemakers were all over it as a blender with Sauvignon Blanc," Kaye said.
But then, Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, rains on the parade, saying, "Do the wineries want the new plantings and do the marketers feel they can sell it?"
And that's the problem. Maybe Fresno farmers can grow great Fiano, but the best they can hope for is to use it to make supermarket Sauvignon Blanc -- grown in wayyyy too warm a climate -- taste a little better.
This is a major reason the California wine industry can't intelligently respond to climate change. They have taught people to drink Chardonnay and Cabernet.
One step in the right direction that nobody is talking about as such is the growing popularity of red blends, particularly sweet red blends in the $10 supermarket range. They're not wines for connoisseurs, so the wine writing world (me included) ignores them. But they're actually a sensible response to global warming. Wineries can put anything in them, including climate-appropriate grapes like Nielluccio and Corvina. And they don't need to worry about the grapes getting overripe because they can leave some of the sugar unfermented.
But is the industry doing that?
UC Davis extension specialist Matt Fidelibus says, "Just because we can grow them well doesn't mean that we can produce something the industry wants."
So the upshot is, when the San Joaquin Valley finally gets too hot for Gallo's and Constellation's scientists to keep the Chardonnay viable, they won't simply switch over to Arinto and Cortese. Instead, they'll grow almonds, and Americans will buy our wine from ... who knows? Assuming we stay the world's largest wine market, somebody's going to be selling us a lot of cheap wine in 25 years. And you wonder why French wineries are investing in China.