Climate change turns Canada into a hot spot for wine

The wine grape has been called "the canary in the coal mine of agriculture." There's no question it has gotten far warmer in many of the world's wine regions. In fact, it has become too hot to make truly elegant Chardonnays in some previously celebrated regions like Napa.

Today, the canary has flown 800 miles north all the way into Canada, to what some scientists call the "magical climate zone" for Chardonnay, and that's exactly why I moved there.

CheckMate Artisanal Winery
Source: CheckMate
CheckMate Artisanal Winery
CheckMate Winemaker Philip Mcgahan
Source: CheckMate Artisanal Winery
CheckMate Winemaker Philip Mcgahan

Australian by birth, I was a practicing lawyer before turning my sights to winemaking in 2002, when I began my career in the challenging heat extremes of the Hunter Valley in Australia, located 32 degrees latitude south of the equator. Australia's oldest wine region, Hunter Valley temperatures can exceed 113F (45C) and climate change has been a major issue there since the beginning of the 21st century. During my tenure, our harvests typically began in mid-January, with some years as early as the first week in January. Looking back 30 years ago, the harvest used to start in early-February, a dramatic shift due in part to the effects of climate change.

To make amazing wines, I knew I had to move to a cooler region, so in 2007, I relocated to 38 degrees north of the equator to the Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Here I experienced first-hand the challenges California is facing with drought and dwindling water supplies. Since 1931, temperatures on the northern coast have been increasing by approximately 0.03 degrees Fahrenheit every year. Additionally, the number of growing degree days over 95F (35C) have increased by up to 10 days annually in Northern California. The major issue facing some of these regions is that they are moving into the upper limits in terms of optimal temperatures to produce premium quality wines.

So I continued on my journey, moving more than 49 degrees north of the equator to the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia in early 2013. It is here where I have been involved in a secret project to harness the effects of climate change to make sophisticated wines at a new winery, CheckMate Artisanal Winery.

What I discovered is that over the past 40 years, the Okanagan Valley has become a remarkable new climatic zone with true cool climate viticulture, able to tolerate the impact of climate change. The Okanagan's latitude and length of day, and short, dry summer, with cool spring and autumn, make it ideal for cool climate varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. One of the great things up here is that in summer we get 18 hours of sunlight per day, which is actually 3 hours more than Napa. This results in more subtle flavors in our wines as the season is less protracted.

My first clue that this region was optimal was when I tasted the most remarkable apples, peaches, cherries and apricots grown in the Okanagan. If you've ever picked a gorgeous looking apple only to bite into it and find that it is mealy, it was probably grown in a hot climate. It has all the sweetness but the fruit's natural acidity, essential for flavor and taste, has been burned away by the heat. You absolutely need to strike the right balance naturally between sweetness and retained acidity for apples and grape varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. For the Okanagan Valley, climate change has increased the region's suitability to grow and ripen fruit, including grapes for wine production.

When I received the phone call from Anthony von Mandl, who pioneered making high-end wines in the Okanagan Valley, I was taken by his vision to make new world Chardonnay with old world elegance in North America.

It was really an intellectual challenge to craft five distinct, high-end, $100 a bottle Chardonnays. I started out by selecting micro-blocks within meticulously farmed vineyards, some more than 40 years old. I matched this with time honored, old fashioned wine-making methods, utilizing wild yeast and extensive barrel aging without recourse to fining and filtration, with the goal of maintaining the most complete expression of the micro-blocks and their grapes, now enabled by climate change.

In mid-November when we premiered Checkmate's Chardonnays in New York City, we shined a light on a subject that is rarely spoken about in the wine industry: Climate change has made it harder to produce sophisticated Chardonnays in regions like Napa, that have, to this point, been recognized for them. Gregory Jones, PhD., of Southern Oregon University, one of the world's preeminent scientists and researchers on climate change in viticulture, came with us to present the research on how climate change is shifting the world wine map. Dr. Jones' research shows how the world's climatic band for wine-making is shifting ever-steadily north, favoring regions like the Okanagan Valley, with true cool climate viticulture, that can now produce competitive Chardonnays.

This was a major event for Canadian agriculture. Climate is enabling British Columbia to produce luxury wines at the highest standard in the world. We use the most advanced technology in our vineyards, including drones and our dedicated viticulture R&D center to achieve these standards. These significant investments will alter how the world thinks not only about our wines, but about Canada becoming a country known for the production of agricultural luxury brands.

Our inaugural vintage at CheckMate Artisanal Winery features between 7 to 17 barrels of each wine so they will be hard to find, but I believe they are game-changers. It's an incredible start of a journey I expect will be transformative in the wine industry.

Commentary by Philip Mcgahan, winemaker at CheckMate Artisanal Winery, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada.