A changing climate means an evolving Long Island wine industry

In addition to soil, geography and tradition, terroir — the intricacies that influence the character of wine — relies heavily on climate. It’s what sets a lighter, cool-climate pinot noir apart from a full-bodied one grown in a warmer region. Those ideal climatic conditions — warm and temperate with refreshing Atlantic winds and a lengthy growing season — that make the North Fork an optimal location for grapevines to thrive.

While discussions about climate change often evoke images of melting ice caps and dying coral reefs, winemakers, who are intrinsically in tune with changes in weather patterns, are concerned about the industry’s viability in the face of a changing climate.

“Wine has been recorded for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars. “We have weather data, harvest data kept by the early vintners in the Old World.”

An analysis of that data was completed by Dr. Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute. It shows, for example, that since 1981, as temperatures have risen, grapes in French wine regions have been harvested an average of 10 days earlier than at any time in the previous four centuries.

Dr. Cook’s study also examines the relationship between temperature and precipitation. Before 1980, early harvests were a result of warm and dry conditions. Now early harvests occur as a result of warmer temperatures, despite France having more rain. 

“With the increased magnitude of the greenhouse effect, you don’t need drought anymore to generate the heat that you need to get these early harvests,” Dr. Cook said during a recent lecture at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998 and the four warmest since 2014. Several models predict that by 2020, the global surface temperature will be just about a full degree warmer than the average from 1986 to 2005, regardless of initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.

That doesn’t sound seismic, but Dr. Cook warns that the slightest shift is akin to a human fever. 

“Your normal temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Two degrees warmer than that, and you’ve got a significant fever. Two degrees colder, and you’re at risk for hypothermia. So it doesn’t take that much of a change in the global average temperature to lead to big changes at the regional and local level.”

Olsen-Harbich said the effects are well-documented in Europe and attests to seeing impacts locally over his 38-year career. 

“We have a longer growing season now than we did back in the ’80s,” he said. Although fruit is being picked one to two weeks earlier, the grapes are just as ripe and, in some instances, nearing over-ripeness. 

“For us, initially, we’re seeing a benefit in the quality of the wines we’re making,” he said. “The kicker is that we can expect a lot more torrential rainstorms.”

Warmer temperatures encourage ripening and can lead to higher quality wines, however, increased moisture presents challenges with mold, mildew and pests.

“If things start to get too warm, or too wet, or too dry, these regions within which we’re actually growing the grapes and producing these high-quality wines will no longer be suitable or will be less suitable [for vines],” Dr. Cook said.

That doesn’t mean the North Fork wine industry will collapse — but it must adapt. 

“It reinforces the need for good management,” said Alice Wise, viticulturist and education specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. 

This means changes to irrigation frequency and canopy management practices, such as removing leaves around the grape clusters to promote air flow. If it gets too hot, clipping away the leaves can leave the fruit sunburned and damaged. 

“We’re not there yet, but we may eventually have to be a little bit more moderate in this practice,” Wise said.

All agreed that the industry cannot remain stagnant.

“The classics, the noble grapes — chardonnay, cabernet, riesling — carry the market,” Olsen-Harbich said. But as the climate changes, so too must consumer palates.

It’s why Wise is so interested in hybrids and lesser-known varieties as she evaluates them at the research center in Riverhead.

“You can argue that the public wants the standard wines and nobody is going to buy hybrids,” she said. “But then you see reports that millennials don’t want to drink their parents’ chardonnay. They want new, interesting and different wines.”

Wise welcomes the challenge. 

“Who would have ever thought wine would come in cans?” she said. “Exploration will continue.”

Some varieties being trialed at the Cornell Cooperative Extension vineyard in Riverhead include Spanish albariño and verdejo and a French variety called auxerrois.

There, Wise evaluates their field performance: what pests they’re susceptible to and whether they can produce the quality and yields that are economically feasible, before businesses invest tens of thousands of dollars to plant acreage in their vineyards. 

“You want to make sure you’re planting a variety that has hope,” Olsen-Harbich said.

Dr. Cook, addressing wine industry stakeholders, said there are multiple opportunities for adaptation. 

“The only losing move is to pretend that it’s not an issue,” he said.

A group of wineries on the North Fork has been on top of the issue since 2012, when the group Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing was formed. Today, 22 members account for 1,000 acres in the program — representing roughly half the planted vines on Long Island. 

“The issue of sustainability was becoming part of the public lexicon. It’s about coming up with ways to not foul your own nest,” Olsen-Harbich said of the group’s initiatives, which focus on minimizing impacts on the land and aquifer.

For their efforts in sustainability, the group was recently recognized by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. As a group, it’s committed to minimizing the use of chemicals and fertilizers, encouraging practices that promote biological diversity throughout the vineyard, maintaining fertile soils and protecting the estuary from runoff and leaching.

“A lot of the effects we won’t see in our lifetime. But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about what we should do,” Olsen-Harbich said.

As a climate scientist, Dr. Cook said he doesn’t see a “silver bullet” solution to reversing the impacts of climate change. Instead, he called for a broad range of solutions: a carbon tax, transitioning away from fossil fuels and so on.

To do that will take leadership and policy, he said. 

“We went to the moon in the 1950s and ’60s. We’ve done big things before. It just requires the [political] will to invest in it and put those resources in it,” he said. “Across the political spectrum, people like clean air.”

And great wine.