Vins D'angleterre?

Spring fell gently over much of Northern Europe this year. There were mild rains but no snap frosts or ruinous hailstorms to threaten the vineyards in bud. Summer followed with a glorious run of toasty days and balmy nights, coaxing the grapes to one of the earliest harvests in memory. Shiny as baubles, now the last of the fruit hangs heavy and sweet on the vines, begging to be plucked and pressed. It looks like another banner year for wine--in England.

That's right, Angleterre. The terroir of the pint and Pimm's has a new habit. Long a hobby at home and a perennial joke abroad--especially to those vintage snobs across the channel--British wine has come into its own. Sparkling whites made there have outscored some of the classiest champagnes at international blind tastings. London's supermarkets are stocking homegrown wine, and British Airways doesn't take off without it. Even the queen has been known to serve Britain's best to royal guests.

The U.K.'s real benefactor comes from an even higher jurisdiction: the atmosphere. Forget computers, corporate consolidation, chemical aromatics and all the other tricks of modern viticulture. What's really got wine makers of the world in a froth is global warming. Italy's Piedmont, home of the stately Barolo, and Germany's legendary Mosel, have been on a roll for the last sunny decade. Although the brutal heat of the past summer took 15,000 lives in France alone, some European vintners are calling this harvest the best in memory. "This year is fantastic," says Ian Berwick, general secretary of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association. "If every summer is going to be like this we should be grateful to global warming."

Don't let the cork popping fool you: wine makers know that weather is a fickle ally, and the warming trend isn't all good news. If climate forecasts are correct, in the next decade the seasons will continue to grow shorter, rain patterns less predictable and sunshine more intense. Soon, some cool-weather grapes, like the delicate Gruner Veltliner, will no longer fare well in their traditional regions (Austria's Kamptal), while formerly useless land will start sprouting superb wine grapes. The news won't be all bad, as this past summer attests. But the relative advantage among vintners may shift radically.

Among those best equipped to deal with climate change are likely to be the New World vintners from Australia, Chile, South Africa, California and elsewhere who've had to find innovative ways of dealing with everything from tricky weather to hidebound consumers. Some vintners, particularly in Chile, also seem to be blessed with climates that buffer the worst effects of global warming. Traditional vintners, who've prided themselves on centuries of wine-making prowess, may find the old rules failing them. "A warming world will make decades of expertise in wine making irrelevant," says Robert Pincus, a climatologist at the University of Colorado. "With climate change no one knows what to expect 25 years from now."

Pincus, a wine lover, recently made a 25-year forecast for prime wine regions of France, Germany and Austria, based on middle-of-the-road predictions of global warming. The outlook is varied, but in any case, changes loom. Balmier weather will favor clammy old England (even Scotland). In Germany's Mosel, where vineyards nestle in a narrow climatic niche, increased rains and flooding could drive some vineyards off their centuries-old plots, and close down others altogether. What will become of Austria's distinctive eiswein (ice wine), pressed from grapes that sit on the vines until they freeze, when the frost comes later, leaving the fruit exposed to rain and wind? No one knows: climate change is turning viticulture into a guessing game.

By most estimates, climate hasn't even warmed by 2 degrees Celsius in the past century, perhaps less in temperate regions like Europe. But it's difficult to overstate the effects of even small changes on vine growing. Grapevines are weeds, but teasing out the sugars just so requires exactly the right amount of sunlight. Too little, and the fruit won't ripen or will be too acidic; too much, and the vines shut down like a thermostat. Grapevines crave water but are also prone to root rot. Heat washes out the colors of red-wine grapes and makes the wines more unstable. As wine makers adapt, their wines also are changing. In France's Alsace region, vintners no longer add sugar to their wines to boost alcohol and control acidity because the grapes are getting sweeter on the vine. The Germans are now making tasty red wines, unheard of in the land of chilly Rieslings. But the future is still uncertain. Bordeaux will continue to make wines, Pincus says, but they may not taste like Bordeaux anymore. It may get so warm in Burgundy that those legendary grapes ripen too quickly or languish from "drought stress." "Beautiful wines will continue to be made all over," says Pincus. "But in an increasingly warm world the particular associations between wine and place are becoming difficult or impossible to maintain."

In many ways, those associations have already begun to crumble. Wine has become a planetary enterprise. Japanese vintners have won prizes for wine squeezed from French grapes, while some of the best Cabernet Sauvignons now come from Chile. The Australians outsell French wines in the United States and the U.K. Many of these upstart wine countries have thrived on innovation.

Since the earliest settlements, Australian wine makers have had to cope with some of the most infertile and worn-out soils on earth. Australian researchers revolutionized vineyard technology and management. One of the newest tools is WineLogic, a computerized vineyard-simulation model that can plot maximum yields even as climate changes from year to year. Another is near-infrared spectrometry, which tells growers how much fertilizer to add and when to harvest. Their biggest breakthrough, however, was in managing water. To beat drought, researchers invented "partial-root-zone drying," a clever drip-irrigation scheme in which one section of the root is wetted at a time. The idea is to "trick the vine into thinking it's droughted," --sending it into water-conservation mode, says Graeme Batten, an irrigation expert at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. The method cuts water use by 80 percent.

The French might learn something from these New World barbarians--if they were allowed to. The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), the French authority that oversees wines that bear the appellation controlee imprimatur, prohibits such practices as adding flavorings or aromas and restricts the use of chemicals. But it also bans irrigation. Last summer, France's Languedoc-Roussillon and Bordeaux regions, which cooked for three bone-dry months, weren't allowed to bring a drop of water to their grapes. Non-AOC vintners, and some AOC ones as well, simply watered anyway. "It would have been catastrophic if people didn't," says Michel Bataille, head of a cooperative of wineries in Languedoc.

Europeans like Bataille face a difficult choice: either they toe the line and risk making inferior wine from inferior grapes. Or else they remake the rules--and so change the wines that have made them famous. Bataille, for one, seems to be leaning to the latter. He's called in wine-making consultants from Spain, Argentina and Australia. "The Australians had no tradition so they have up-to-date equipment," Bataille says, gesturing to his co-op's 1930s headquarters, with its hodgepodge of shiny new and clunky old tanks and tubes. "We should have started over at some point."

Half a world away, Aurelio Montes would be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. His vineyard in the foothills of the Andes, Vina Montes, is part of a new generation that's put Chilean wines on tables around the world, but his success is due only partly to high-tech skills. He's also benefited from a cooling Pacific breeze and the shelter of the mountains. "It's already so difficult to make wines in France, with its unpredictable weather. I feel privileged," he says, scanning his trellises laden with award-winning Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. In the next few weeks, Montes will do once again what Chile and so many emerging wine countries do increasingly well, turn another harvest of Old World grapes into fine New World wine.

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