The fruity future of wine
Posted on 21 Jan 2022
“I cook with wine, and sometimes even add it to the food”. - W.C Fields.
This ancient fermented fruit drink, discovered by Egyptians, is enjoyed by millions of people today. It lubricates conversation, compliments food, and adds that special sparkle to celebrations.
The winemaker’s skills, honed over centuries create a drink as complex and subtle as the drinker. ‘Le Terroir’ encapsulates the artisan skills needed to produce such a beverage. The soil, grape, climate, terrain, and undiluted enthusiasm of the grower combine to create a distinct drink, whose character and provenance are fiercely protected by those who produce it.
Although the French word ‘Terroirs’ literally means ‘earth’, to the wine grower it means so much more. It is one of those terms that means something different to everyone, but most agree it is the combination of the soil, climate, geology and the complex ecosystem that surrounds the vines.
The soil is critical to the character of the wine. However the best wine does not come from the best soil. Thoroughbred vines thrive by having to work hard at burrowing their roots to discover the nutrients deep below the surface. Vines can take many years to produce grapes that will even remotely mirror the winemaker's vision. This long-term vision is as important to the winegrower as any other artist. They need to consider their audience, their image, character and style.
Terroirs is the paint and canvas of the winemaker.
The character of the soil can dictate the character of the wine. A clay soil can produce a rich and full bodied wine such as Rioja, whereas the more sandy soils produce a light and aromatic variety such as Beaujolais.
The interesting aspect of winegrowing is that soil types can vary dramatically within just a few meters of the same vineyard. A skilled winemaker understands this, and can use it to create a complex wine with different tones.
As well as soil, climate is an integral part of ‘terroir’. The subtle, non-human aspect of nature that is unique to each vine. Whereas the vintage relies on human interventions such as viticulture and harvest, terroirs can be less predictable, and very subtle.
The winegrower needs to juggle three levels of climate - macroclimate, mesoclimate and microclimate.
Macroclimate refers to the average temperature and degree days (sun irradiance) of a particular region during the growing season, with different grape varieties suiting different macroclimates. This is why the Burgundy region of France is more suited to growing Pinot Noir grapes at an average temperature of 15C, whereas the Nebbiolo grape that relishes a warmer 19C is now starting to be planted in areas of California and Australia.
Mesoclimate drills down to the unique character of the areas within a region. Some may be closer to a river that creates a cooler and damper morning environment, while others may be situated on an elevated slope that bathes the grapes in the afternoon sun. This reflects the way certain areas such as the Napa Valley region is divided into 16 different areas known as ‘American Viticultural Areas’.
Finally, there is the Microclimate that surrounds a particular vine. This can be certain characteristics of where the vine is in relation to the rest of the vineyard, the shade, airflow, soil characteristics and natural geographical variations. It is ultimately the microclimate that influences the quality of the grape.
The Growth of the Grape
Climate change has had a dramatic impact on the wine industry. Winegrowers around the world have faced both challenges and opportunities like never before. A combination of unpredictable weather conditions, along with a global rise in temperatures have prompted a very traditional industry to reexamine some of its core beliefs.
Areas of the world that were thought to be too cold to produce wine of any great stature, have now crept into a previously exclusive group of winemaking regions such as Pinot Noir and Riesling. These regions exist on the very edge of viable winemaking, and present vines with the challenging conditions they need to create low yields and ripeness that are the hallmarks of a truly great vintage.
Southern UK regions have flourished. Areas such as Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Cornwall and Wales are producing consistently high quality wines to rival those from France and Italy. The UK winemaking industry has grown from 1.3 million bottles in 2008, to 15.6 million in 2018.
Cornwall’s Camel Valley vineyard was started from scratch in 1989, by 2005 it had won the prestigious ‘Wine Challenge Gold Medal’ for a sparkling wine. It was up against the finest wines in the world, and was the only non-Champenoise wine to be awarded a gold medal. As several of the wine growing regions of the UK have the same chalky-white soil as the Champagne region of France, some of the most famous French organisations such as Taittinger have invested heavily in UK winemaking. The UK acreage dedicated to wine growing has tripled since 2000, with over 2000 people employed by the industry - a figure estimated to increase to at least 20,000 in the next 20 years. A recent academic study has shown that there are a further 70,000 acres of UK farmland that are suitable for wine growing.
The future for UK winemaking certainly seems rosy.
As far as marketing their weirs to the consumers, the wine industry is certainly not standing still. Despite the global challenges that 2020 presented, wine manufacturers are finding new and novel ways to promote their products.
The packaging that wine is presented in now goes far beyond the traditional bottle. Bagged wine has been available for many years, but canned wine has seen a growth in popularity. A varied selection of good quality canned wine is now available in most supermarkets. Wine drinkers have the option to impulse buy their favorite beverage in a well understood, convenient non-breakable form - perfect for a picnic or on the beach.
Research is also being conducted into using edible containers to hold the tipple. Non-plastic glasses made from isomalt have been suggested as a zero waste packaging solution.
This is not to say that bottled wines have seen a downturn, quite the opposite. Thanks to preserving technologies, wine drinkers can enjoy wine by the glass, and enjoy sampling classic wines such as Barolo and Mosel. There is also a resurgence in the use of fortified wines such as sherry and vermouth in cocktails.
Online wine purchasing has traditionally lagged behind other forms of e-commerce, partially due to the lack of choice, coupled with relatively high shipping costs. The global pandemic of 2020 saw this dramatically change. In the US, the online retailer Winec saw a staggering 575% increase in signups during one week, adding over 20,000 new customers since the start of the pandemic.
Restaurants are reporting a growing consumer interest in not just the wine itself, but also the values behind the brand. Wines with seals of approval that show the vintage has been produced in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way are growing in popularity, as are those from vineyards with female owners. The type of restaurant can also have an effect on the consumption of wine. A recent study showed that 64% of wine drinkers are very likely to order their favourite vino with Italian cooking, 56% with steakhouse, with Japanese and sushi restaurants proving to be least popular.
Low-alcohol wines are also seeing a growth in popularity, especially with the health conscious millennial generation, who make up 30% of the total wine drinking population. There are brands that specifically offer low-alcohol, low-sugar beverages, such as White Claw. However as it has proven to be a difficult operation to remove the alcohol while retaining the character of the wine, many consumers are opting for the naturally low alcohol varieties such as Vino Verde and many German white wines.
The Future of Vineyards
The UK experienced a near perfect year for wine production in 2018. This, coupled with the fact that six of the top 10 warmest growing seasons over the last 100 years occurred since 2005, might be seen as a green light for new wine growers to start their own enterprises. Unfortunately, as research by Dr Alistair Nesbitt recently showed, climate change not only brings bumper years, but also a concerning level of uncertainty. Fluctuating growing seasons go hand in hand with variable yields and crop quality.
Understanding and managing these uncertain conditions is the key.
Whereas the UK growers may well be forging a world renowned reputation for sparkling Champagne-like wine, the closed-bunch nature of the grape may not be ideal for our unpredictable future. Instead, the open-bunch, still wine varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc may give the industry more resilience. Along with the grape, the location of the site today may also not be ideal for the future.
Terroirs not just encapsulates the ground, grape and environment, but also the people involved in the wine production. The experience and knowledge of the winemaker has always been a deciding factor in the quality of the wine, but today, a skilled workforce is every much as intrinsic in the success of a vineyard as the grape itself.
The wine industry, as with many others, is facing stormy times. But having accurate and detailed weather information enables growers to plan and safeguard their prized grapes.
OpenWeather provides a wide range of products that give growers this valuable information.
The OpenWeather Agro Dashboard uses our rich and full bodied set of APIs to provide nuanced visual data that can be used for the planning of future vineyard locations as well as the daily management of existing ones.
Satellite imagery and machine learning is combined with the latest and most accurate weather forecasting models to give growers a detailed, accessible and easy to use insight into the conditions ahead, as well as those past.