Climate Change, Fermented Blueberries and Wine’s Existential Quandary | Wine Enthusiast
Wine bottle illustration Displaying 0 results for
Suggested Searches
Articles & Content

Climate Change, Fermented Blueberries and Wine’s Existential Quandary

In 2020, winemakers in Oregon, California and Washington were pummeled by deadly wildfires that tore through vineyards and destroyed neighborhoods.

These fires also impacted grape ripening, due to the thick smoke and clouds that blacked out the sun, and some fruit was affected by guaiacol, a smoke taint compound that brings out an ashy, smoky flavor during fermentation. Winemakers attempted to press these grapes quickly to avoid skin contact, where much of the smoky flavor is believed to be held.

Despite these efforts, producers still face questions about how to protect their grapes from rising temperatures, intense drought and smoke taint. And so, a growing number of winemakers now turn to fruits other than grapes in hopes of creating more sustainable business model.

Olivia Maki cider
Olivia Maki pours at Redfield Cider / Photo by Brenton Gieser

Rosalind Reynolds, winemaker at Emme Wines in Sebastopol, California, has watched fellow producers turn to apples and pears as they fight the effects of wildfires.

“Apples and pears do not suffer the same smoke taint, or at least, no one I have talked to has yet to experience it,” says Reynolds. “Whether due to their waxy, thick skins, or some biochemical difference in their juice and flesh, the volatile phenols that we associate with smoke taint don’t show up aromatically in apple or pear juice, nor in the resulting ciders.

“So, while grapes grown in a smoky, wildfire climate can become unusable for wines, due to smoke taint aromas and flavors, apples and pears grown in that same smoky climate remain untainted and perfectly delicious.”

Olivia Maki, owner of Redfield Cider in Oakland, California, is excited for the push toward apples as a hardier product.

“Thinking about smoke taint and climate change, there were so many folks in California who had to throw away a lot of grapes these last couple of years,” says Maki. “Apples are a lot less susceptible to smoke taint. Winegrowers are starting to talk about planting new varieties of grapes that might be better for hotter weather or might ripen faster. They’re also starting to think about alternative fruits to ferment, and apples are one of them.”

In Maine, wineries like RAS and Bluet have turned to wild blueberries, which can produce a terroir-driven product.

“Wild blueberries sure are climate-hardy, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived over the past 10,000 years,” says Joe Appel, winemaker at RAS. “That’s one of the benefits of working with a wild fruit that has grown up in harmony with the soil, water and climate that surround it, rather than a cultivated fruit. Their adaptability is extraordinary.”

Still, he says, no agricultural product is immune to the effects of climate change.

“I’m sure there is a breaking point, and if the arc of humans’ effects on climate continues at this rate, we might reach it sooner rather than later,” says Appel.

Redfield cider
Left: Ciders and apples at Redfield Cider / Photo by Brenton Gieser; Right: Redfield Cider owners Olivia Maki and Mike Reis / Photo by Andria Lo

Other makers have opened their minds to different paths, as they dip their toes into the broader wine and spirits category.

Brianne Day, winemaker and owner at Day Wines in Oregon, is trying to take advantage of the materials at her disposal.

“I did end up with a lot of juice that couldn’t be usable as wine, so I went ahead and got my distillation license and sent it out to get distilled into brandy,” says Day.

She and her assistant winemaker have been brainstorming ways to use their distillate.

“I want to try making an Alpine Oregon amaro using berries and spruce tips, really Oregon focused.”

As the climate crisis continues to alter winemaking and the environment, apples, pears, blueberries and other fruit offer opportunities to expand both palates and the meaning of what exactly makes wine, well, wine.