Friday, April 12, 2013

San Joaquin Valley farmers keep growing cool-weather grapes

Yesterday I blogged about how the California wine industry seems to not be paying attention to projections of global warming. There's a great example in this month's issue of Wine Business Monthly. It's subscriber-only, so I'll quote as much as I think is fair use.

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.

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EC Gladstone said...

I observed much the same when I did a report on Temecula about a year ago: Mediterranean grapes show really nicely there. French=meh. Some good enough, some whatever. But it's tricky to make money with Med grapes because 1) Less demand at the moment 2) They are competitively priced for quality from the heritage source. I think New York Riesling faces an analagous (sp?) challenge. Having said that, if I could put money on the futures of a grape varietal, it would be Bonarda.
Nice post, as always, Blake.

Dan Fishman said...

Just want to make sure I have what you are saying the last two days right: We should rip out vines that are currently producing great fruit and have a life span of 20-40 years NOW, because it is possible that it may be too hot for them to produce good fruit in 40 years?

Dan Fishman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Garnacha and the grape from hot regions in Spain, more Tempranillo.

Robert said...

If the customer can't pronounce the name they won't buy it. Look at Viognier. A few years ago it was the new flavor-of-the-month (year? decade?)and touted to take sales from Chadonnay. Now not many people grow it or sell it (yes I know many people will say they sell the heck out of it). Fanciful names can solve some of this problem. Also hopefully people will become more educated over time and be willing to try some really hard-to-pronounce italian variety. Too bad it will be all for naught since North Korea will have turned the US into a sea of fire by then.

W. Blake Gray said...

Unknown: I've decided my life is better when I don't engage in discussions with people who call themselves "Unknown." You want to tell me who you are, we'll talk.

Dan Fishman said...

Hi Blake,

Sorry, I thought it would post my name as I was signed in through Google. Dan Fishman, aka "Unknown"