Is Pinot Noir Wine’s Polar Bear?

Pinot noir earned its nickname “the heartbreak grape,” long before climate change came along, tossing another flaming ball into the air for winemakers to juggle. Though tolerant of both frost and drought, pinot noir’s grapes are thin-skinned and tightly clustered like the pine cones the varietal was named for. It’s prone to bunch rot, pests, powdery mildew and sunburn, and from a temperature standpoint, has more in common with cool climate whites than most reds.

Thriving in the warmish pockets of cooler places, pinot noir has a diva-level picky window of agreeable temperatures – the narrowest range of the top 15 varietals. That’s what makes it the quintessential “canary in a coal mine” for wine grapes, to quote Adam Lee, a pinot noir oracle and co-owner with wife Dianna Lee of Siduri Wines, which sources grapes throughout most of the varietal’s North American range.

Movie lovers got turned on to pinot noir 10 years ago, when it starred as the de facto love interest of Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, in the winery-road-trip movie Sideways. His soliloquy about the varietal still rings true:

These pinot noir vines at Chehalem’s Ridgecrest Vineyard are burgeoning, unshaded   by a neighboring row. In 1980, Harry Peterson-Nedry was the first to plant in what   was then considered too cold and too high of ground. Beaux Frères, Archery   Summit, Adelsheim, Bergström and other wine luminaries have since become   neighbors in what is now the Ribbon Ridge AVA.

It is not, he said, “a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected…. No, pinot noir needs constant care and attention….and in fact it can only grow in these really specific little tucked away corners of the world.”

Those traditional niches are growing steadily warmer on average around the world. Meanwhile, vineyards that had struggled with climates too cool to fully ripen pinot noir most years are finally enjoying success. In California and Oregon, 2014 will go down as the warmest vintage on record, beating out 2013, the next warmest. Not all recent growing seasons have been hot – 2011 was remarkable cool, for example – but the overall warming trend is clear and troubling for many winemakers, who are already having to adapt to earlier and more compressed harvest seasons and sometimes bringing in higher sugar grapes with suboptimal acidity. One of the magical, cult-inspiring things about pinot noir is how nakedly it expresses both where it’s grown and what conditions it was grown in. Now some winemakers are feeling the pressure to affix a fig leaf through their winemaking.

In fall 2014, I set out to document the intersection of pinot noir and climate change, following the North American pinot noir wine harvest from Northern California’s Sonoma Coast to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Click here for a general overview story recently published by Slate.com and please also follow this blog with your email address (in the left sidebar) to be notified when additional stories are posted, including profiles of some of the dozen-plus winemakers I interviewed. Elsewhere on the site are photos and insights from the trip. Thanks for checking it out!

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