Climate Change Is Already Affecting Wine, and Tasters Are Having Trouble Keeping Up

What’s "flawed" is up for debate

NEWBERG, OR — APRIL 11: Last month, heavy rain drenched Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wine Country, causing serious flooding in much of the state. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

In the summer of 2018, the Klondike fire burned 175,000 acres in southern Oregon, which directly affected the Rogue Valley wine region. After the fire, major out-of-state grape buyer canceled large orders from the Oregon grape growers, claiming smoke taint — totaling about 2,000 tons from 15 growers, tallying losses of $4 million.

“All we know from the testing and sensory is they wouldn’t meet our standards,” said grape buyer Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, based in Rutherford, California. The corporate wine buyer based the decision on the difference in taste — determined by its own in-house tasting experts — compared to previous years.

Faced with such a huge loss, several top Oregon wineries decided to step in and buy the so-called “tainted” grapes. These big-name wineries — including King Estate, Eyrie, Silvan Ridge — also tested the grapes and found that much of the harvest was just fine and could be used to make good wine.

So far, there’s been little research into smoke taint — most of it anecdotal or coming from the taster and buyer side. Fires are known to produce free volatile phenols that can attach to grape sugars, but where and when those phenols are released, whether it’s during fermentation, barrel aging, bottle aging, or the mouth, is really unclear.

In the end, the Oregon winemakers made 7,500 cases of a collaboration wine called Oregon Solidarity, with proceeds of all sales funneled back to growers. In essence, the whole of idea of what’s “tainted” or “flawed” was reconsidered and revalued. In a small way, the wine community of southern Oregon defiantly reclaimed its shifting terroir from corporate-dictated taste standards.

The whole affair raises fascinating issues of taste: As we move deeper into this era of severe climate change, the notion of what is “standard” and what is “flawed” may also have to evolve.

Climate change is affecting the tastes of wines around the world. Grapes that once struggled to gain ripeness in cool-climate Germany or wouldn’t grow at all in freezing Vermont now grow plump and ripe. One day in the future, some regions of Spain or Italy might face the reality that it’s simply too hot for certain wine grapes altogether.

We’ve seen a revolution in taste over the last decade. What was once too funky, too elemental, too stinky, or too weird, has now become popular, attractive, coveted, trendy.

Look to beer as an example. When hazy, juicy New England IPAs came onto the scene several years ago, the craft beer establishment railed against them for being “flawed.” Now those New England IPAs are among the most popular styles. It’s happening with wine, too: Natural wines have become coveted among younger wine lovers, but established critics and people in the trade regularly rant about them as being full of “flaws” and “taint.”

“Flawed” or “tainted” labels are often an attempt by vested interests — influencers, sommeliers or buyers, trade groups, corporate beverage conglomerates — to control taste. What is positioned as “standards” excludes flaws that may not be flaws at all.

Last year, I served as a judge at the nation’s largest cider competition, the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with dozens of fellow judges, we tasted through more than 1,400 ciders from all over the world.

During our blind tastings, we encountered numerous ciders that clearly had been made with wild crab apples, which are abundant in the Northeastern United States, particularly in upstate New York and New England. In ciders, crab apples offer sharp, complex, telltale aromas that often don’t match up with the typical, expected smells of apple pie or apple sauce or a fresh red dessert apple that you might bite into.

Just as a wine isn’t necessarily “grapey” and can have sought-after, but strange, aromas and flavors like asphalt or tobacco or petrol, cider made with crab apples can be confounding to someone who’s never experienced it. In researching my book on cider, I’d spent a lot of time with northeastern cider makers, and I grew to love this style of cider. But I soon was met with the same sort of backlash that natural wines and New England IPAs faced.

Throughout the competition, I was paired with judges from the Pacific Northwest and California, where crab apples are not as prevalent in cider making. Some judges — several of whom were experienced cider makers — immediately dismissed the entries with crab apples as “flawed.” One expressed his disgust by saying he hated a particular cider that I loved. Throughout the judging, I kept repeating the same things: This is what cider made with crab apples from the Northeast smells like; this is not a flaw; it’s a regional difference. “This is terroir,” I insisted, only to be met with eye rolls by these gatekeepers.

The idea of terroir, with its snooty wine connoisseur baggage, is too often seen as pretentious in the U.S. I find this weird since, to be clear, terroir is not any more pretentious than other French words that we use every day, such as café, omelet, cliché, entrepreneur, encore, fiancé, or toilet. Terroir is simply a fact of agricultural life.

But there’s more to terroir than just soil and climate, and that’s likely why it’s so misunderstood. A true sense of terroir is intertwined with the local culture and reveals what tastes that the people living in a place value. It’s a sort of shared heritage.

Rural New England and New York, for example, have a long tradition of cider made from wild apples. Even Henry David Thoreau, in a late-life essay called “Wild Apples” that he wrote in 1862, wistfully paid homage to the wild fruit he’d grown up foraging. “Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectations thus, somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise,” Thoreau wrote.

Terroir, just like taste itself, is not a static concept. It evolves, especially as environmental realities change. In places like Oregon, as wildfires become an expected annual event, the wine from certain harvests could very well become a little smoky. Take it or leave it: Smoke will become part of the terroir. Whether it will mean those wines are flawed should continue to fuel debate.