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The Apocalypse is coming: what shall we drink to?

Bedbugs, politicians, and balmy weather seem to be everywhere at the moment, stirring up trouble wherever they go. However, closer to home some new research has been discussing the future of our alcohol. The University of East Anglia published a paper last week suggesting that increasingly widespread and severe drought and heat may cause substantial decreases in barley yields worldwide. Barley is brewed to make beer, and hence academics warned of “dramatic” falls in beer consumption with steep potential rises in beer prices. So what should our college bars, pubs, and restaurants turn to instead of the golden ales?

Well, last week our very own Oxford researchers found that warm temperatures and higher rainfall are the secret to producing good wines, a weather pattern likely to increase with climate change. The research, published in iScience, concluded that changes in climate will likely result in improved wines. 

The study, led by Andrew Wood, a DPhil student in the department of Biology, focused on Bordeaux. Admittedly the city of wine is not near the city of dreaming spires but given the quantity of its wine in our cellars (hundreds of thousands of pounds at the last guess) it’s safe to say that there is a piece of Bordeaux right here in Oxford. Bordeaux’s reputation for wine precedes it, and its phenomenal wines are matched by equally verbose wine critics – critics who will debate the subject with as much intensity as can be found in the Union on a Thursday evening. In this most recent study, over 70 years’ worth of international wine critic scores were analysed against the weather conditions which made them and found that the conditions that make a good red in the south of France are those most likely to prevail with climate change.

So where should the average drinker in Oxford turn?

Well, there is always French red wine. Red wine grapes thrive in warm dry summers, but Mr Wood was keen to emphasize that “we are not saying that climate change is a good thing, and there are lots of caveats to this research. But, on average, the conditions which make good wine are hot and dry summers, and cooler wetter winters. We have seen these conditions increase in frequency more recently, and so we have seen more and more better vintages, a trend we suggest will continue into the future.” 

Château-Figeac, one of two “Premier Grand Cru Classe A” chateaux in the Saint-Emillion region of Bordeaux, also remarked “With climate change this type of year comes more often and therefore great vintages come more often. But this has to be balanced against the more extreme weather conditions (frost, hail, extreme drought) which are very expensive to manage”. So, we can remain cautiously optimistic about a good future claret, but it is not the only option with a warming world.

If you’d rather something more ‘Brexit’, there is the potential for better future English wines too. Natasha Rompante, an English wine maker is seeing the impact that changes in weather have on wines. She says that “it is clear to winemakers that climate change is having a dramatic impact on wines globally, and especially here in the UK. 2020 was a stand-out year with and we even achieved ripeness levels to produce red wine”. An interesting prospect and perhaps an English red would make a delightful vintage to toast the end of the world.

For those who like fizz there is something special on the cards too. “The new harvest is exciting for winegrowers like us who work in an artisanal way, the juices are magnificent with a nice balance between acidity and fruit” says Aurore Soret of Champagne Soret-Devaux. Who can argue with the idea of quaffing delicious boutique artisan champagne while relaxing in the sun on an Oxford rooftop bar?

“You never want to say a climate change story will be a good thing,” said Mr Wood “But as a wine drinker, it might get a bit better.”

The wine paper is available for reading online at iScience. Andrew Wood can be reached at @connectingvinestowines on Instagram. The beer paper is available for reading in Nature Plants.

Image Credit: Fhynek00 // CC-BY-SA-4.0

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