European Winemakers Reconsider Still and Fortified Wines Amid Climate Change

Still wine collection from Quinto do Noval, Portugal / Photo courtesy Quinto do Noval

For years, Bollinger’s La Côte aux Enfants was Champagne’s most prominent still wine. In summer 2019, however, Charles Heidsieck launched a limited-edition range of Coteaux Champenois still white wines. It was followed by Louis Roederer’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir releases last February, and by a trio of Drappier still wines a few months later.

This unprecedented range of still releases in the preeminent sparkling wine region might seem odd, but it is a symptom of a wider shift in the world of wine. A warming climate and drinkers’ changing lifestyle choices are leading sparkling, sweet and fortified winemaking regions to develop or scale up the production of still red, white and rosé wines.

Bollinger still wine
La Cote aux Enfants Bollinger still wine / Photo courtesy Bollinger

Making the Most of Rising Temperatures

Champagne’s northerly location has traditionally translated into austere still wines. In their raw, unaged and uncarbonated format, these wines may be unapproachable to the average consumer palate, but they offer the ideal base upon which to build flavorful sparkling wines through the méthode Champenoise. With Champagne’s warming climate leading to increasingly riper, richer and fruitier expressions, however, still production has become more viable.

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Champagne houses are seeing the challenge of riper vintages as an opportunity to offer wine lovers a more diverse portfolio, capable of catering to a wider range of drinking occasions and palates.

“From a consumer’s point of view, Champagne’s still wine is something that allows producers to up their portfolio and diversify their offering,” says Françoise Peretti, director of the Champagne Bureau’s U.K. chapter. “At the time when consumers want high-quality still wine products, [Champagne houses] want to play in that arena.”

Currently, the region is estimated to produce about 75,000 bottles of still wine each year, equating to less than .1% of Champagne’s total production, or 300 million bottles per year. Peretti believes that the figure is bound to grow.

“What we are seeing is a trend to release more still [alternatives] and I would expect that we will see increasing interest in those wines,” she says.

A Changing Palate

While the world’s most prestigious sparkling wine region looks beyond bubbles as a result of rising temperatures, other areas known for sweet and fortified wines are evolving in tandem with market trends. From Jerez to Madeira in Spain and Portugal, and from Maury to Marsala in France and Italy, winemakers are creating new bottlings to coincide with consumers’ interest in less sugary, alcoholic drinks.

Portugal’s Douro, once known exclusively for Port, is currently leading this trend. Its wineries have embraced dry wine production to offset Port’s declining business, which dropped whopping 26% between 2006 and 2015. In 2020, its unfortified still wine sales were up 130% compared to 15 years ago, and in just a decade, the number of companies involved in still winemaking has nearly doubled.

“There has been an extraordinary explosion of quality of these red wines in the last few years,” says Christian Seely, managing director of Port house Quinta do Noval.

“When I first arrived in the Douro, [27 years ago], we were just producing Port. Then, during the ‘90s, we started making experiments with unfortified wine.”

Seely believes the category will continue to evolve.

“Commercially, premium Port is very dynamic,” he says, “but the lower end has had some difficulties for quite some time. We’re going to keep producing great Ports, but high-quality reds are developing fast, and the whites also have enormous potential.”

Donnafugata winery vineyard
Donnafugata winery / Photo by Fabio Gambina

Endangered Regions

The race to create quality still wine could threaten the very survival of outstanding yet lesser-known appellations. The list of endangered regions includes one of Italy’s most revered sweet passito wines, made on the small island of Pantelleria just 37 miles east of the Tunisian coast.

For Donnafugata’s Baldo Palermo, director of public relations and communications, modern society is incompatible with a wine that should normally be enjoyed after a long meal.

“Sweet wine is a shrinking niche,” he says. “People tend to drink less, so clearly the easiest thing is to give up the wine you would normally have at the end of a meal. It’s an inexorable trend that winemakers just have to accept.”

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Benedetto Renda, whose Cantine Pellegrino is responsible for about 80% of all the grapes grown on Pantelleria, says the area’s dry wines are growing.

“Pantelleria is witnessing the same trend seen in the Douro,” she says. “We began three years ago with our still wine and now we’re putting a lot of work into it. Even if it started from a very small base, dry wines are booming and we’re expecting a significant volume increase.”

In just four years, Pantelleria’s table wine grew twofold. It now represents just under a tenth of total production, or approximately 650 hectoliters. Renda believes it will soon account for three or four times that amount.

Published on October 5, 2021
Topics: Climate Change