“Cool climate regions are going to launch a challenge”

Thursday January 01 1970 by Vitisphere

Until recently, a cool climate was considered to be more of an obstacle to growing grapes successfully than an advantage. However, as the planet continues to warm, cool climate is increasingly being seen in a much more positive light. The emergence of new producer regions, introduction of suitable techniques and change in wine styles all reflect the rise to prominence of a category that has often been disparaged in the more extreme cases. The choice of Brighton in England as the venue for the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in May is a sure sign that a turning point has been reached. Professor Steve Charters, director of the research centre at the School of Wine and Spirits Business in Dijon, is one of the symposium’s speakers. He talks to Vitisphere about the challenges faced by cool climate wines from a marketing perspective.

We often think of the challenges posed by global warming for hot climate wine regions. Would you say the challenges are lesser or greater for cool climate regions?

They are as great, in different ways. The big challenge for a warm region is that it could become too warm to make wine, leading to the disappearance of the local wine industry. With a cool region, the challenge is that styles may change. Champagne is a really good example of this. What happens if it gets so warm that in fact the sugar levels are pushing up and the grapes are getting riper – are you going to make wines that are fruitier and more full-bodied as sparkling wine, perhaps more similar to wines we see in the New World and lose the finesse of Champagne? In thirty years time, will Champagne actually be better off making still wines and making what Burgundy used to make? Champagne is synonymous with sparkling wine and in no way am I suggesting Champagne must change! But in the broadest marketing terms, climate change includes the management of appellations, of terroirs and their image, just as viticulturally, people have to think about what happens to their vines.

We often talk hypothetically, about what happens if – but have there actually been significant changes in wine styles already?

Over the last twenty or thirty years, there has been a change in wine styles, so it is not hypothetical. In the UK, grapes are getting riper and rubbish vintages occur less often. If you look at Champagne, the wines have been getting richer and producers need to chaptalise less. In 2003, for the first time ever, Bollinger didn’t declare their standard vintage ‘La Grande Année’ because they said it was too hot and they couldn’t make a standard Bollinger vintage. So they did something completely different – 2003 by Bollinger – partly to explore how they might cope with climate change in the future. What is hypothetical is that we don’t know what the long-term effect of climate change will be. Some climatologists say that climate change will shift the Gulf Stream, which is what keeps Europe warm. The UK is on the same latitude as Newfoundland. If the Gulf Stream shifts, northern Europe becomes much colder and wetter. Maybe in twenty years time it will be too warm to make sparkling wines in Champagne but in one hundred years’ time, it will be too cold and wet to have vines at all. It’s clear that the short to medium-term effects are a sense of warming in Europe but no one really understands what the long-term effects will be.

Has any research been done into consumer acceptance of changing wine styles of cool climate wines?

This is a very good question and would make a good research project. There hasn’t been any research into this, partly because the shifts are very subtle. In Bordeaux, over the last 25 to 30 years, wines have shown increased alcohol and ripeness. But how much of that is climate change, how much is changed viticultural practice to aid the ripening of the grapes and how much is the influence of critics, particularly the likes of Robert Parker, who favour richer, more alcoholic and more obviously fruit-driven wines? Also, the reason no research has been done is because there has been no one year when suddenly, the wines have changed, it’s gradual. Champagne is another special case: ultimately, people don’t buy Champagne because of its finesse, delicacy and fruit, they buy it because it’s Champagne. Until the style of Champagne gets to a point where opinion formers refuse to drink it because they don’t feel it’s Champagne any more, consumers will continue to buy it. In the UK, increased sales of sparkling wines are not only due to climate change and better quality, there is also the impact of the momentum of a growing industry, the marketing hype that came out of Nyetimber in the 1990s when they managed to produce one or two really good wines. It is also about partisanship and national self-identity, particularly vis-à-vis Europe and Champagne.

In terms of emerging cool climate regions, what comes next after Tasmania and Southern England?

Is it going to be new regions or the expansion of existing regions? I feel that what will happen first is that places like the UK will establish themselves more and more, northern Germany may regain its place because it can more consistently, every year, produce good Rieslings, and the Okanagan Valley and Niagara in Canada will again, more consistently produce good wine. So I think the first phase will be consolidation of the regions that are currently on the margins of wine production. In the longer term, we may see Belgium or Denmark for instance becoming important wine producing regions, though I’m sceptical about how much people are going to embrace these regions. The other big place is China. Some of the Chinese regions, like Ningxia, are cool climate. They have planted a lot of vines and have to bury them each winter to protect them against the cold. Just as China is beginning to explore its own terroirs, climate change may allow even more terroirs in the country to become available.

Will these new cool climate regions, for example southern England sparkling wines v Champagne, seriously start to challenge existing ones?

It is undoubtedly the case that cool climate regions are going to launch a challenge. From the mid-1990s and for the following decade in Australia, for instance, Tasmania was a side issue until just before 2000 when it became clear that Tasmania was the place for sparkling wines. Although some of the key sparkling players such as Chandon had established themselves in Victoria or the Adelaide Hills, even they began to source their grapes from Tasmania. I think that is very much an illustration of climate change. It is not that Tasmanian wine is challenging the rest of Australia – Tasmania still produces less than 1% of all Australian wine – but for sparkling wine, if you were going to Australia to set up a sparkling wine producing company, you would almost certainly go to Tasmania now. In the specific case of the UK and Champagne, UK sparkling wine – albeit some of it very good – is absolutely in a minority situation. There are, I would estimate, less than 20 top sparkling wines made in the UK, compared with some 5,000 brands in Champagne, admittedly, not all of which are good. In the end, people buy Champagne, not because it’s the best sparkling wine in the world, but because it’s Champagne. If climate change continues to warm northern Europe then yes, over 50 or 100 years, the UK might be as or more significant for sparkling wines in terms of volume than Champagne. But that is a long-term process and as I said previously, we don’t really know what’s going to happen on that time scale.

What marketing opportunities are there for cool climate wine regions to make their mark?

The aspects that first come to mind when talking about cool climate wines are elegance, summer and certain grape varieties. But there are also some negatives like acidic, thin or austere, which can actually be construed positively depending on one’s taste. There has been some research on cool climate wines and the ratio between price-quality perception: in a cool climate region, the higher the price, the higher the perceived quality of the wine. In the case of warmer climate wines, that relationship is less evident. When you’re trying to sell cool climate wines, the right grapes are more important when you’re engaging with customers or giving an image of your wine than where you are or how big your business is. There is also an opportunity for cool climate wines in terms of less sugar and therefore less alcohol. Ultimately, from a basic marketing perspective, cool climate is not enough, you need something else to hang it on: because it’s cool climate, it has lower alcohol, more refinement or more elegance for instance. Cool climate may be a reinforcing factor. It may be an issue that is significant but part of a bigger brand identity for the wine.

Is it fair to say that sparkling wine has opened up whole new prospects for cool climate wines in general?

Some cool climate wines have certainly opened up possibilities for others. The other great example would be ice wine. But of all the wines that can open up possibilities for cool climate wines, sparkling is one of the most useful: it is recognisable, due to the ultimate template of Champagne; also because of the opportunity it gives for high added value. If you are a small producer struggling in a marginal climate, you need everything you can get to add value so that you can get more profit. Wine tourism is also part of this. On the back of that, you can broaden the identity of your cool climate region by introducing other grape varieties and styles – for example, the Champagne region doesn’t just produce Champagne.

What do you hope will come out of the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton in May?

I will be talking about regional branding and regional identity, which is very important in cool climate areas. I would like to see debate about a lot of the issues I’ve mentioned, particularly debate about the marketing and business aspects of being cool climate, but also of climate change. In the past, much of the focus surrounding cool climate has been about viticulture and wine production. Obviously the impact of being in a marginal climate is important but I think people need to go beyond that and study the relevance of cool climate to the consumer – it is limited but could be important for some – and what relevance it has even for consumers not interested in the climate. How do we market our wines, how do we create a regional brand identity and how will these things change in the next years and decades?

Is cool climate becoming a buzz concept and if so, why?

I think it’s been a buzz concept in different places for quite a long time. Between the mid-1990s and 2000s in Australia, cool climate was very important because it was capable of producing the more interesting, the more focused wines. I think the perceived impact of global warming is having an effect on cool climate wines. Also, the fact that the symposium is being held in the UK is also having an impact on perception. In the end, this is probably something for professionals but it is important that we understand what it means and also what it can mean to consumers. The concept needs to be mediated to consumers – you don’t sell a wine to consumers because it’s cool climate, but there may be things that result from that that you can use to market to consumers.

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