Climate Change: A boost for northern wines?

There are plenty of serious stories about the detrimental effects from climate change. One group who may actually benefit from continued climate shifts in the coming decades ?

Northern wine growers.

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Northern wine grapes at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's Horticultuaral Research Center in Victoria, Minnesota. Paul Huttner/MPR News

Over the past year I've been fortunate to expand my education into how climate change is affecting northern viticulture with the help of some dedicated experts. These vine growers, researchers and breeders are creating new northern hardy vine varieties right here in Minnesota, and spreading them across northern regions throughout the world.

Minnesota: Epicenter of a northern wine revolution?

John Thull is the Vineyard Manager at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's Horticultural Research Center in Victoria, Minnesota. I took advantage of the opportunity to visit with John on-site at the HRC on a mild autumn afternoon in October.

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John Thull is Vineyard Manager at UM Horticultural research Center in Victoria, Minnesota. Paul Huttner/MPR News

John and his wife Jenny are part of a team that develops and tests new 'northern hardy' grape varieties in one of the most extreme climates in the world.


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UM Landscape Arboretum

The University of Minnesota's Horticultural Research Center is famous among apple enthusiasts for varieties like Honeycrisp.  Northern wine growers know HRC for developing successful winter hardy grape varieties like La Crescent, Frontenac and Marquette.

The HRC develops and tests hundreds of grape varieties on site. Like viticultural secret agents in the field many varieties do not yet have names, just numbers.

The trick to growing good wine grapes in northern latitudes like Minnesota? Develop vines with the right mix of northern hardiness and favorable acid and tannin balance to make tasty wines. That's a tall order in northern climates.

There's a reason why what many consider to be the finest wines in the world come from specific Mediterranean-style climate zones. As John and other northern wine experts tell me, you need just the right mix of summer heat and enough cold season temperature stability to produce successful wines in places like Minnesota. Extreme climates like the Upper Midwest are challenging places to produce quality wines.

The good news? If you can produce grape varieties that work in Minnesota, you can probably grow them just about anywhere soil conditions are favorable in northern latitudes.

Into the lab

Once the grapes have produced fruit finds it's into the lab for testing, production and eventually tasting.

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Horticultural research Center Laboratory. Image: Paul Huttner/MPR News

The finished products wait patiently in the cold room. Is the next great northern wine sitting on these racks?

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UM Landscape Arboretum. Image: Paul Huttner/MPR News

Minnesota vine breeders making progress

Meet Tom Plocher. He's a Minnesota vine breeder that's developed what some consider to be one of the better new northern hardy grape varieties.

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Del and Tom Plocher(right) develop and grow wine grapes in the twin Cities suburbs. Image: Paul Huttner/MPR news

It's called Petite Pearl, and it was developed on Tom's acreage near Hugo, Minnesota in the Twin Cities' northern suburbs.

Petite Pearl clusters Photo: Bevens Creek Nursery

Northern wine experts I talk to say Petite Pearl seems to be a bright spot in the continuing process of developing higher quality northern wine varieties.

Climate Change: Overall benefit to northern wine regions?

Last week I was honored to give the keynote address at Vitinord 2015 at Lied Lodge in Nebraska City, Nebraska. I was asked to speak at this international northern viticulture conference with about 250 wine industry growers and experts from northern wine regions across the globe.

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Viti NS wines cropped
Paul Huttner/MPR News

The conference featured winemakers from northern climate around the world. Many regions in Europe, the northern US and Canada are now producing quality vintages, even in previously too harsh northern climates.

Viti Nova Scotia wines
Paul Huttner/MPR News

My research into how climate change is affecting northern wines reveals some interesting trends. The overall background hum of warming at northern latitudes is very likely a good thing in the long run for northern wines. But extreme temperature swings in fall, winter and spring can cause damage to these extremely sensitive vines.

Viti CC implications

Here are a few bullet points from my talk and from research talking to northern wine growers in the field.

  • Vines are extremely temperature sensitive & react to temperatures changes quickly. Best scenario-most productivity for grapes acclimating vines or hardening off the vine's wood  for winter hardiness is a warm summer growing season.

  • Climate stability and slow seasonal and temperatures changes are best. Not exactly the hallmark of mid-continent northern climates like Minnesota & the Upper Midwest.

  • Rapid and extreme temperatures changes are still the most challenging and stressing for most grape varieties.

  • Extreme temperature swings are bad for vines in any season, but abrupt swings from warm to extreme cold in late fall and spring can be the most damaging.

  • Physical mitigation for collar season cold events is difficult. Large land areas. Fans, sprinklers, local heating all problematic and of limited effectiveness. 'High tunnels' have shown promise, but require constant management as temperatures change.

  • Local, meso-scale site selections is critical to maximizing productivity. ‘High & dry’ seems best combination. Anecdotally, a SE facing slope with morning sun exposure and northwest wind protection may provide the most moderating temperature profile by quickly warding off any morning chill/frost potential, and limiting extreme heating of soils, leaves, fruit, and trunks in warmest late afternoon sun, followed by rapid temperature drops in colder seasons after sunset.

  • Wind protection in winter can be important. Winter dew points in the Northern Plains can be much lower than the desert southwest. Dew points often reach single digits above or below zero in the Upper Midwest in winter. Compare to dew points in the 20s and 30s in places like Arizona. Think ‘Arctic Desert.’ Windy conditions in extreme cold/dryness can rapidly leach moisture from vines causing damage. Wind protected areas from northwest winds may offer greater protection.

  • Ideal vineyard mesoclomate? High ground. SE facing slope, significant wind buffer to the north and west. Modifying body of water adjacent to site could also help in fall season?

  • Warmer winters will help northern wine culture overall, but limiting factor is still rapid extreme temperatures changes in fall, winter and spring.

Arctic Amplification: A limiting factor?

The overall background hum of climate change is a good thing for northern viticulture. The already documented shifts toward milder winters overall and fewer bouts of extreme cold in winter are already giving a boost to northern wine growers. The best climate science says that trend of warmer winters is very likely to continue, even accelerate in the coming decades.

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Climate Central

One evolving feature of climate change is the growing body of research around Arctic amplification. As climate warms faster at northern latitudes, many researchers are finding it may trigger changes in jet stream patterns.

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NOAA data with interpretation by Paul Huttner/MPR News

The wavier jet stream produced by Arctic amplification can still produce extreme temperature swings ( rapid warm and freeze cycles) that can impact northern vines in fall, spring and winter.

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Arctic amplification triggers a wavier jet stream? NOAA

The bottom line on climate change and northern wines?

Climate change will likely continue to provide a boost in the overall picture for northern viticulture. While extreme temperature swings will still be a challenge to growers, warmer northern climates overall will likely yield more quality wine varieties on your table in the coming decades. Important research is being done right here in Minnesota that may produce the next generation of excellent winter hardy wine grapes.