Which international event taking place every four years brings together some of the best in the world, in a number of disciplines? If you answered the Olympics, you would be right, but another correct answer would be the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium, whose ninth edition took place in Brighton, England on May 26-28.
The event was, from many standpoints, a resounding success. Over 570 participants from 30 countries attended the event and the level of research and expertise presented in breakout sessions was truly extraordinary. A remarkably wide range of topics were addressed over three days: how to market cool climate wines; discussions of vineyard diseases (and how to fight them); biodiversity in yeasts and bacteria involved in winemaking; new grape varieties adapted to cool climate conditions; phenolics management; optimizing wines from cool climates through innovative methods; cover crop use; and various approaches to winter protection, or methods for producing appassimento wines in a cool climate context. (Some of the scientific and technical topics from the ICCWS will be presented in greater depth on this blog over the coming weeks.)
From the host country’s perspective, it was a great opportunity to showcase the success of English sparkling wine, as well as an array of English still wines. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that there would be 133 wineries in England and Wales and over 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of planted vines (a number set to rise to 3,000 hectares, or 7,413 acres, by 2020)? Or that English sparkling wine (which makes up two-thirds of the country’s production) would be exported to over 20 countries?
Cool Climate: A Moving Target?
A recurring subject that was mentioned in a number of sessions throughout the symposium was the effect of climate change on cool climate regions and winemaking in general. “English wine has been a major beneficiary of climate change,” pointed out Jancis Robinson in her opening keynote. She added that sparkling wines have had the chance to reliably develop a well-defined, distinctive style (“It’s not a copy of Champagne,” she added) and have it come out ahead of Champagnes in some international competitions and challenges.
While some traditionally cooler regions might be slipping away from that definition, with climate change, it is also an opportunity for new regions to try their hands at winemaking, pushing the limits ever further north. Quoting regions like Kamloops, in British Columbia, or Quebec City, in Eastern Canada, or the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan as examples, professor Reiner Hans Schultz, president of Geisenheim University in Germany, pointed out that vineyards now are cultivated well north of the 50th parallel, traditionally seen as the northern limit to winegrowing. Today, Gotland and Göteborg in Sweden are flirting with the 60th parallel, something which would have seemed downright impossible a couple of decades ago.
Refining the Definition?
With this shift in climate conditions and vineyards sprouting further and further north, in new and unexplored areas, how is the definition of cool climate wines going to evolve? The question remains a somewhat elusive one, as the conditions in what are defined as cool climate regions in one country may seem pretty comfortable if not warm in others.
In the conference’s closing remarks, as the last keynote speaker of the event, Jamie Goode pointed out that some measures often used to determine whether or not a region qualifies as “cool climate” show significant limitations. Degree days, which counts the number of heat units available for plant growth (usually degrees above 10°C/50°F), are especially problematic: “Napa Valley in California and the Niagara region in Canada have essentially the same number of degree days, yet I don’t think anyone would argue that Napa is a cool climate region—or that Niagara isn’t,” said Goode.
The relative shortness of summers and the coldness of winters, as well as factors like the risk of spring and autumn frost, might be better counted to define regions as cool climate. In terms of style, a certain consensus could be felt around certain characteristics like lower alcohol and higher acid levels, favoring freshness and crispness in wines. Variability, due to more powerful vintage effects, could also be counted as characteristic of the cooler regions’ production.
A different kind of question about self-definitions in cool climate regions also had to do with how a specific region should present itself to the world and take its place in international markets. For Jamie Goode, it is essential that regions play to their greatest strength, and not spend too much energy trying to push other styles. Citing the success of English sparkling wine, in comparison with other types of wine produced in England or Wales, Goode had a football (soccer) metaphor to offer: “Promoting other wine styles would be as if Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest football player in the world, found out he was pretty good at cricket, and decided to go play that sport instead. That would be ridiculous.” It’s not that other styles shouldn’t be made, he added, but that focus should be on what a region does best, like German Riesling or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. “Geeks will always seek out something different, but you need something that regular customers will understand.”
Next Stop: Canada
For the next ICCWS, the sports metaphor might have to be changed to Wayne Gretzky, since the 2020 edition of the event will take place in another growing player in the cool climate winemaking game: Canada, a country whose first international recognition in wine came through the decidedly cool-climate style called ice wine, with grapes ripened in a quick and hot summer and picked in the snowy, frozen nights of winter. From that style of dessert wines to the pioneering research produced at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) and to the crisp Chardonnays and Rieslings or fine sparkling wines produced from coast to coast, it’s clear that Canadians will have plenty to show in four years.