Bjrn Bergum, a Norwegian winemaker, converses with his vines.
“You must establish a rapport with them. There was 3cm of snow on the ground when I awoke this morning. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be wonderful in the afternoon,’ I was telling them.”
Perhaps Bjrn’s plants need a little additional encouragement; they’re growing at 61 degrees north of the equator, much beyond the conventional wine-growing latitude of 30-50 degrees.
However, as a result of climate change, vineyards are being pushed further north and south, closer to the poles.
According to Dr. Greg Jones, a climatologist who specializes in grape cultivation and wines and is also the proprietor of the Abacela vineyard in Oregon, the patterns are crystal evident.
“Many of our cool climatic boundaries have shifted. In the northern hemisphere, they’ve moved north, and in the southern hemisphere, they’ve moved south.
Bjorn’s Slinde Vineyard, which he operates with his spouse Halldis, sits at the very edge of these new boundaries. The vines grow on slopes that catch the sun while facing snow-capped mountains, and are situated by the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord.
Bjrn recalls the fjord freezing over in the winter when he was a kid, but claims it never occurs today. Over the years, he’s seen other changes in the weather.
“I can see that when it rains, it rains more, but when it’s hot, it’s hotter as well.”
While he is concerned about the health of the earth and his own country, he recognizes that climate change is working in his favor as a winemaker.
However, making wine this far north is still a difficulty.
According to Bjrn, it needs a certain type of devotion and hard work.
“I take care of all of my 2,700 babies. I’ll stay up all night if necessary to help them live if a frost is on the way.”
He uses a range of varietals to produce blends with tropical aromas and minerality derived from the clay soil, according to him.
The unique quality of light thus far north is a hidden ingredient.
“We have a lot of natural light here. That is our benefit. We also experience cool evenings. We’ve also gotten the sun from the fjord’s reflections on the steep mountainside.
“As a result, the grapes and leaves absorb a lot of smells and absorb them into the skin, which we then extract to produce wonderful wines.”
But, as Bjrn points out, persuading everyone that Norwegian wine is worth trying is difficult.
“‘Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve never tasted a wine like this,’ several individuals have told us. It’s fantastic – maybe the finest I’ve ever had.’
“However, when they return to Germany or other countries, they don’t dare to say it because I believe they want to mingle with the wine society, and it’s not very nice to say they’ve tried a really wonderful Norwegian wine.”
Bjrn is eager to compete in international wine contests after winning gold medals in Norwegian events, but believes he will only have a chance if the judging is done blind.
“They would probably not drink the wine if they knew it was from Norway. When it’s a blind tasting, though, they have to taste it, and I believe you’ll get what you deserve.”
This year, Bjrn and Halldis intend to become commercial. It’s early days, and they still have a lot to prove, but Bjrn feels they’re paving the way for a whole new winemaking frontier in Norway, with five producers within a 20-kilometer radius.
“In Sognefjord, we have now developed a winegrowing team. It’s just 20,000 vines, but it’s growing, and I believe we’ll have a little wine area within five or ten years.”
While climate change may present opportunities for producers in previously uncharted terrain, it poses a major threat to those in many of the world’s most established wine-making locations.
“I looked at the long-term historical temperature data of 25 of the best sites in the world that grow grapes,” says Dr Jones. “During the growth season, every location warmed up. There were no spots that were not warm during the winters, and no places that were chilly during the summers.”
According to Sally Evans, owner of Chateau George 7 in Fronsac, this shifting environment is noticeable in Bordeaux.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve experienced three spring chilly spells in the previous five years. They probably hadn’t had one in 20 or 30 years before then. As a result, extreme climatic occurrences appear to be becoming increasingly regular. That is the hardest part.”
She claims that rising global temperatures may be detected in a glass of wine.
“During the weather warms up, the fruit ripens and the grapes contain a lot more sugar, resulting in greater alcohol levels when fermenting.” Over the previous 30 years, the alcohol content of wine has likely grown by roughly two degrees.
“The acidity of the wine is also affected by the sun and temperature. The acidity is necessary for the freshness and overall balance.”
Summers that are hot and dry can also affect the flavor of the fruit, she says.
New grape types have been introduced in the Bordeaux wine area that are more adapted to these circumstances, but Sally believes they will take a generation to develop and mature.
Meanwhile, wineries are adjusting, she adds, pruning late to prevent Spring frosts and controlling the leaf canopy to protect grapes from the sun.
Consumers and producers alike, she believes, will have to accept that certain well-known wines may take on a new personality in the future.
“In terms of quality, what is typical in 30 years may not be poorer – it may even be better – but it may not have the same profile as a wine now.”
According to her, producers must adapt to survive as a result of climate change.
“I believe we’ll witness in the next five to ten years how that affects individuals and their lives in Bordeaux.”