Champagne may be in trouble, but climate change has sparkling wine from England on the rise

The World

It can be hard to find a silver lining to the climate story. But here and there, climate change is bringing some benefits and creating new opportunities.

Take the case of southern England, where one day last fall migrant workers snipped picture-perfect clusters of plump, juicy pinot and chardonnay grapes at Ridgeview Winery.

Ridgeview has become internationally respected for its sparkling wine, especially since winning the only contest in the world to judge other sparkling wines and Champagne together.

It was an amazing moment, says winemaker Simon Roberts, but the truly amazing part was that this sparkling wine was from South Downs England, hardly a place known for its fine wine.

But a warming climate here is bringing some big changes where viticulture is concerned.

British author and vineyard consultant Stephen Skelton says that 40 years ago, “we could have never envisioned growing pinot noir and chardonnay successfully.”

But Skelton says climate change has helped make that possible. He says the area 'under vine' in England has doubled since 2003, and that most of these new vines are for sparkling wine.

The days of English sparkling wine growers being scrappy underdogs are hardly over, though, because the weather here hasn’t just been warmer. It’s also been weirder.

Just as those grape pickers were setting to work last fall, local residents were being warned about a massive storm heading straight toward southern England, the latest in an unusual series of storms in recent years.

Jeff Knight, a climate scientist at the UK’s weather agency, the Met Office, says the UK had six bad summers in a row between 2007 and 2012, and that scientists are trying to figure out whether there’s a link between this bizarre weather and climate-related changes elsewhere in the world.

“There has been a very substantial reduction in sea ice since about 2007,” Knight says, “roughly about the same time the UK started experiencing its very wet summers. So it’s tempting to suggest a connection between these two things.”

The Met Office’s chief scientist has drawn a connection between climate change and the rash of storms that lashed England in the winter of 2013-14. Others aren’t so sure. But while the research continues, the impact of all this wet weather on the grapes is clear.

Ridgeview vineyard manager, Matt Strugnall, says rain is one of the worst things that can happen during a harvest.

“If there is excess water in the ground, the vines will take that up and then it can dilute the juice in the berries,” Strugnall says.

Quality aside, bad weather can completely destroy a whole season of hard work. Winemaker Simon Roberts says that happened to everyone here in 2012, when extreme cold and rain in the spring devastated the vines.

“You basically had very poor flowering so there wasn’t much fruit,” Roberts says. “And then summer forgot to arrive and autumn came and harvest came and it was very, very difficult.”

Roberts recalls how depression rippled through his staff as everyone began to realize how bad the year would be.

That was 2012. Fortunately, last fall’s harvest wasn’t a repeat of that disaster.

Of course as a farmer, Roberts knows weather will always bring surprises. But what climate change giveth here in warming, it also seems to taketh away in even more uncertainty.

Still, vineyard manager Strugnall says Ridgeview will keep doing everything it can to produce top-quality sparkling wine in England despite the more unpredictable weather.

Among other things, that will mean keeping an eye on their rivals across the English Channel in France, to see how growers in Champagne deal with climate change.

“We still have a very similar situation here in terms of growing conditions,” Strugnall says, but that “they may see the change a bit earlier.”

So if growers in the hallowed vineyards of Champagne start running into difficulty, Strugnal says Ridgeview wineries and its neighbors in the fledgling English sparkling wine industry will have a few years to get prepared for the same changes.

This story was produced in partnership with the online news service The Daily Climate.

Part one: With a changing climate, the French see trouble ahead for champagne