There’s no imposing wall of ice rising to mark the winegrowing boundaries of the ‘Far North’. The truth is much more mundane – an academic distinction between what is “inhospitable” and what is merely “cool climate.” And that line is constantly moving. But the general public, and even many members of the wine industry, have yet to really notice. The only wall is in our heads, and it’s high time to tear it down.
During the 20th century, common wisdom recognized 50° North as the effective northern limit of experimental and commercial viticulture. The border has now migrated well to the north, and not just because of climate change. Winemakers now possess the technology to better understand factors like ripening times, and cultivate hybrids better suited to severe conditions making winegrowing reliably viable closer to the 55° North (England) and 58° North (Denmark). It seems likely to continue rapidly on towards 60° North (Oslo/Norway) as well.
Behind the front lines, classic cool climate regions such as northerly France and Germany now find themselves picking consistently ripe vintages (the last German harvest with widespread green flavors was 1987!). In North America commercial winemakers exist in all 50 states – even the snow-besotted ones that we see through movies and TV shows like FARGO. Below are a few examples of regions seeing successful plantings that a mere 20 years earlier seemed impossible.
Grapevines respect geological borders far more than political ones. Thus one of the keys to understanding emerging wine regions is to consider what is happening beneath the soil as well as on top of it. In the case of Great Britain, the same geological basin that gives Champagne its characteristic chalky soil extends across the channel to form the famous white cliffs of Dover, and nearby south-facing slopes in Kent and Sussex. With improving technology and temperatures in the south of England that now mirror those of Champagne in the 1980s, the longer growing season has allowed the UK to rise as a real player on the quality sparkling wine market.
According to the English Wine Producers (EWP), the UK has experienced 135% growth in the number of vines planted in the last 10 years (current total 1821 ha), as well as a steady increase in sales of English wine both at home and abroad. “2017 will see the largest number of vines ever planted in a single year in the UK,” said Stephen Skelton MW, regional chair at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017. While the larger, more established players such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview continue to produce excellent premium sparklers, a growing number of newcomers are making a name for themselves as well. Take for example: the honeyed stylings of Cornish-based, Camel Valley or the floral intensity of Hush Heath estates prized Rosés. Taste for yourself the diverse range of one of England’s largest vineyard, Denbies Wine Estate (Hall 9, Stand B39). And if you need still further convincing, renowned French Champagne house Taittinger (Hall 12, stand E07-15), among others, has been investing heavily in English land (40 ha) with the first vines planted in 2017.
Poland’s winegrowing tradition stretches back to the 9th century, but a number of political and environmental events throughout the 18th century conspired to bring it to its knees. Thankfully, a thriving renaissance in EUs coldest winegrowing region (A) has emerged in the last decade with hundreds of amateur plantations and a robust 197 officially registered commercial wineries (compared to just 6 in 2008).
Much of the recent success in this harsh continental climate can be attributed to disease- and frost-resistant hybrid vines such as Solaris and Seyval Blanc, rising temperatures and a growing expertise as winemakers freedom to travel exposes them to modern winemaking advances across Europe.
While there remain a number of challenges – the severe climate and expensive cost of production for starters – the stars are aligning for Polish wines to soon move beyond the niche and curiosity market and become a real player in the New North. Winnica Turnau (Hall 15, stand K62) is a good candidate, working 28 ha of predominantly Solaris and Johanniter vines in the northwest of Poland to produce wines of fruit purity and elegant harmony. In central Poland, Winnica Plochocki has long been the benchmark for what Polish wines could achieve. In recent years, however, they have given a resounding voice to varietals and methods unique to their region.
Denmark was the first of the Scandinavian countries to start producing wine, with over 100 vineyards now pursuing frost-resistant hybrids such as dark-skinned Cabernet Cortis and blueberry-redolent Rondo. Oernberg in Sjaelland for example bottles with masterful sweet wines often compared to a German Auslese, and the tropical fruit aromas and considerable power of its dry Solaris.
Yet accepting the concept of a New North may demand a certain open-mindedness to traditional assumptions, down to even the most basic of definitions of what wine is. Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries have actually traditionally focused on fruit-based wines, and the past fifteen years have given rise to an impressive new breed.
Fruit wines from Cold Hand winery (Hall 7, stand D15) for example routinely demonstrate sophistication and balance with a distinctly Danish flair. “There’s a lot happening here,” says Billy Wagner, proprietor of Nobelhart & Schmutzig (1 Michelin star), and an early advocate of the new age of fruit wines. “In large part because the region’s agricultural tradition and resources make it so worthwhile. Advances in fruit grafting have benefitted not only grape cultivation, but also rhubarb, quince, apple, cherry and pears – with a watchful eye toward quality plantings that continue to honor the Nordic heritage and countryside.”
The effect is not limited to Europe. Countries where it is possible to plant vineyards ever further in the polar direction like Chile, Argentina and New Zealand are looking to be amongst the major winners of climate change, and those unable to do so like South Africa face serious challenges in the coming years. It is no coincidence that the cooler corners of regions like the Côte Chalonnaise in Burgundy/France (Domaine Faiveley (Hall 11, stand J36)) and the Saar in the Mosel/Germany (Weingut Van Volxem (Hall 13, stand C110) have flourished in recent vintages such as 2015 and 2016 where good ripeness and stellar quality have replaced the green aromas and tart (malic) acidity of only a generation earlier.
Even so, the rise of the New North is mirrored by a crisis in the Old South. Traditionally ‘warm climate’ regions such as Bordeaux and Chianti are more likely to be fighting drought and sky-high alcohol levels than the low ripeness level issues of 40 years and more ago. ‘Hot’ regions like La Mancha in Spain are at real danger of slipping out of viability due to both climate change and changing markets (demand for cheap dry whites from the traditional Airen grape has sagged). Adapt with temperature-resistant varieties or perish. And consider popping open a wine from the New North while you wait for the vines to grow.