Climate Change Brought a Cabernet Sauvignon Boom. Now It Could Cause Winegrowers to Co-Plant New Grape Varieties with Cabernet.

NAPA VALLEY—Disruptive new information about future varietal makeup in Napa Valley emerged when climatology, grape growing and wine economic experts prognosticated about the effects of climate change on California luxury winegrowing. Enologix, Inc., held an executive conference called "Bordeaux in America: The Climate Disruption" on June 7, 2018 at Ramekins Event Center in Sonoma, California, just 20 minutes outside of Napa Valley. Napa is the benchmark region by which California Cabernet Sauvignons are judged by buyers. Currently luxury priced high scoring Cabernet Sauvignon wines are largely grown in regions with average Growing Season Temperature (GST) below 66ºF (19ºC)—consumer priced regional wines are grown where GST is above 68ºF (20°C). The conference offered the solution of co-planting new grapes.

"What is hidden from the prying eyes of buyers of high scoring and luxury priced Cabernet Sauvignon wines? That quality scores of Cabernet may peak below 66°F (19°C) GST," says Doug McKesson, "and that Napa Valley’s GST is projected to rise above 68°F (20°C). One solution may be to co-plant heat loving Bordeaux varieties to maintain quality. This creates the need for new marketing."

Several hidden narratives were presented at the climate conference. McKesson offered up the case history of California Chardonnay. His opening remarks were, "Optimum temperature for luxury Chardonnay may be 61ºF (15.5 to 15.75 °C), which is lower and much cooler than Napa’s average. Was temperature the proximal cause of decline of luxury priced Chardonnay sold in large batches after 1997?" He said, "New York media are now discovering Oregon is the new luxury. Do they know why?" "In retrospect, California Chardonnay luxury prices were in jeopardy due to temperature and the industry was unaware and could do nothing about it. Today, no region in California is producing luxury Chardonnay. 54% of California Chardonnay hails from central valley districts with average GST over 68°F (20°C), at roughly $500 per ton. 17% of Chardonnay tonnage is from Monterey County at $1,500 per ton and 63°F (17°C). Finally, the highest priced districts of Sonoma and Napa command $2,500 per ton, where the coolest areas in these districts average 61°F (16.8°C).

In the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, we want to act now. There is general consensus, that spatial distributions of temperature across California’s interior valleys are higher than the optimum temperature for luxury Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a widespread belief temperatures may be very good for consumer priced wines. What is hidden, given the prognostication of Napa Valley GST is currently above 19°C and will be higher than 20°C for 2039, is that winegrowers may begin to co-plant new varieties to meet the demands of winemakers.

"Today, the business problem is how do we predict the performance outcome before we spend the capital to create vineyards to thrive 30 years from now" says Doug McKesson, Program Chair for the conference. "There is a paucity of meaningful information, such as projections for future GST or optimum temperature standards for varietals, to inform winegrowers what they are up against in Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon to continue thriving for the next 30 years."

"The historical spatial distribution of temperature shows the average GST is rising in the western United States. However, nobody is reporting just how fast it will rise in the future. Given the RCP8.5 greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, we must ask the ourselves if luxury wine scores and prices will be supported in Napa Valley when GST is 21ºC? What’s troubling is that there is no luxury wine made at scale, or volume in regions with GST of 20°C."

To learn more about Bordeaux in America conference and Enologix, contact Doug McKesson at 707.938.9463 ext 2.

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