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How to Shop the Wine Market Today, From Avoiding Hype to Supporting Eco-Friendly Producers

As heat waves and icey temps alter oenological maps, one author gives advice on making your next purchase.

Chateau Margaux Illustration Illustration by Lars Leetaru

In April of 2021, oddly beautiful images of vineyards in France, the rows illuminated by fire pots, bounced around the internet. From Chablis to the Jura and beyond, the mercury unseasonably plunged, frost moved in and widespread damage to vines threatened the vintage before it had even begun. Those fire pots were an attempt to heat the air surrounding the vines and prevent ice from forming and hardening. 

As a Texan wine producer told me, the problem is not so much global warming as it is global weirding

She couldn’t have been more right. In October of 2022, my first book, Crushed: How a Changing Climate Is Altering the Way We Drink, was published. It explores how climate change—that global weirding—is impacting not just wines and spirits but also the livelihoods of the people who grow the grapes and grains, craft the wines and distill the spirits. 

For wine collectors, climate change presents plenty of problems but also opportunities. To guide you through this weird new world, I’ve devised three strategies to help you navigate a dramatically shifting landscape. 

Don’t Get Caught Up in the Hype 

In 2003, an extreme heatwave hit France and its neighbors, resulting in a vintage of extreme ripeness, particularly in Bordeaux, with wines that, even early on, were generally opulent, powerful and dramatic. 

Most critics, at least on the American side of the Atlantic, lauded the wine’s decadence and generosity. Demand was high, and many ordinary collectors were priced out of the market. The following year was a return to the norm, with Left Bank reds that were particularly classic—savory, subtle and quieter but no less enjoyable. Coming on the heels of the blockbuster 2003, however, demand was generally lower, and buyers could be forgiven for assuming that these were somehow “lesser” wines. 

As a young collector, I couldn’t afford the 2003s, but many of the ’04s were within reach—so I bought them. Fast-forward 20 years, and those ’04s are giving me more pleasure than I ever could have imagined: They are terroir-specific and elegant and have taken on haunting undercurrents of spice and earth. Many of the ’03s are delicious—a recently opened bottle of 2003 Château Lagrange was stellar, though that one was harvested on the early side—and have evolved beautifully, but the “quality to price ratio” (QPR), it turns out, was very much in favor of the 2004s. 

The lesson is clear: Don’t buy into the hype machine and maintain a collection that includes a range of vintages and wine styles. You never know what will turn out to be a real gem in a decade or three. 

Stay Open to New and Upcoming Regions and Grape Varieties

As climate change picks up steam, the map of the wine world is bound to be revised. In fact, it’s happening now. Sure, Napa Valley is still home to world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux is the source of benchmark blends, but if you look beneath the surface even in those regions, the ground is already shifting. 

In Napa Valley, for example, wildfires have altered the calculus of what happens, and when, each year. If the fires are violent enough toward the end of the growing season, then harvesting decisions are just as likely to be based on when the fruit can be safely brought in devoid of smoke taint as they are on perfect phenolic and sugar ripeness. And whereas a generation or two ago it was the warmer valley-floor parcels that were the most lauded, today there’s an increasing focus on mountain and hillside sites: Altitude brings cooler temperatures, which often means longer hang time and therefore greater complexity. 

In Bordeaux, the Big Five grape varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec—are now legally allowed to be joined by a handful of more warm-weather-resistant grapes for wines labeled as Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superieur. They’re not yet approved for use in the more prestigious appellations, but that day may come. 

Yet a changing climate is also bringing to our attention parts of the wine world that until now had been largely overlooked. The sparkling wines of south and southeastern England are wildly exciting, leveraging the inherently favorable terroir with warming temperatures to ripen grapes in a way that would have been unimaginable 25 years ago. And Israel, which has been producing reds and whites for over 5,000 years, is one of the most compelling wine-producing countries in the world right now, home to a passionately forward-thinking community of grape growers and winemakers and a stunning range of terroirs—from the Mediterranean in the west to the mountains in the east, with deserts, forests and more dotting the landscape in between—which is all resulting in bottles that are ready for the global stage. 

Thrilling wines are being produced farther south in Patagonia and farther north in Europe than ever before. Shrewd collectors will take advantage of this, building cellars of not just classic regions but up-and-comers, too. 

Support Producers Who Are Doing the Right Thing

People can argue about the causes of climate change all they want, but the men and women who grow the grapes and make the wine don’t have the luxury of getting drawn into that debate: They’re living with the very real impacts of it every vintage. Many of the wine professionals I spoke to while reporting and writing Crushed told me that the vineyards that are farmed sustainably, organically or biodynamically are the ones that seem to be able to best withstand the increasingly dangerous effects of climate change. The generally deeper root systems of vines that are grown on land that is worked in an environmentally respectful manner are more resilient, it seems. And vineyards that are subjected to fewer chemical treatments are healthier for the people who work there, exposing them to fewer potentially toxic substances. 

Plus, the wines grown in these vineyards simply reflect the land in a more accurate way. Wine, in my opinion, is the single greatest lens through which to understand a particular patch of the planet. This is why collectors clamor for bottles from different parts of the world, or from specific parts of particular countries or regions, even if they’re made from the same grape varieties: A Pinot Noir, for example, that’s grown in one region will taste different from one that’s come from another. In Burgundy, the contrast is even more dramatic, and the stylistic differences between two neighboring vineyards have, in many cases, been understood for the better part of a millennium. The fewer synthetic herbicides, pesticides and the rest that are dumped into those vineyards, the more the resulting wines will express the essence of that land. 

In the end, supporting producers who work in an environmentally responsible manner is better for the earth, better for the people who work it and better for the liquid in the bottle. And that can be only good for all of us.

Brian Freedman writes about wine, spirits, travel and food. In addition to being the author of Crushed, he’s a frequent event host and speaker. 

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