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FROM TIME TO TIME, I have been known to shoot the slings and arrows – reliably supplied by a well-stocked armoury of superficial thought that typically grasps only immediate effects – as a reply-guy to certain commentary online. I have also been known to liberally apply the all too often misused term ‘sustainability’ to anything even glimpsing green, often while failing to give sufficient consideration to both the pros and cons, positives and negatives, and especially the often unseen, and thus unaccounted for, unintended consequences. These are the obscure second and third order effects that emerge over a more medium- to long-term time frame, which time uses profusely to make fools of us all.

Yet, wielded wisely, time becomes an important tool for one’s own personal growth and development. This allows new ideas to contest and stretch the mind, where thesis and antithesis clash in a confusingly complex cascade of factual and counter-factual informational combat, in order to reach a new synthesis for mediating the world. 

For instance, winemaking in the UK is being celebrated, once again, with the re-emergence of viticulture on the North Atlantic island. Often cited is the historical fact that wine-growing was practised on the island throughout the Middle Ages, but stopped because it was apparently forgotten (never mind that the written word had existed for some 3,000 years’ prior). The real reason had to do with a change in the climate, where UK growing season temperatures averaged between 0.7˚C and 1.0˚C higher than contemporary measurements, before gradually falling over the course of the next five centuries.

During the so-called Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from the 9th to the late 13th century, there is evidence to suggest that annual rainfall in the UK was higher, but that the summers were drier, similar to a Mediterranean-type climate. Sea ice was largely absent around Iceland and southern Greenland. Here, Viking settlers grew cereal crops, while in the UK, viticulture flourished. The Domesday Book (written in 1086) records 45 instances of vineyards over the southern third of the country, with Henry of Huntingdon describing Winchester as being “rich in wine”. Later, around 1150, William of Malmesbury wrote of the vale of Gloucester: “No county in England has so many or so good vineyards as this, either for fertility or for sweetness of the grape. The wine has no unpleasant tartness or eagerness; and it is little inferior to the French in sweetness.”  

Despite higher temperatures sufficient enough to ripen wine grapes over the course of an English summer, CO2 levels were much lower compared with today (0.0210% vs 0.0418% atmospheric concentration). Moreover, CO2 was declining throughout this period, up until the onset of industrialisation in the 1800s.  

Agricultural scientist, Dr. John Gladstones – credited with being the first to recognise the potential for Margaret River as an ideal winemaking region – contests in his book Wine, Terroir, and Climate Change, that rising CO2 emissions are not the bogey-man they’ve been made out to be. At the very least, we ought to be open to this type of research – if only to try to refute it, such is the nature of science.

In the book, he notes that the present grapevine (vitis) species evolved in the Cretaceous period, 136-65 million years ago, under much higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations of around 1,500-3,300 ppm (0.15%-0.3%), and he suggests that “with such ancestry, they could be expected to respond positively to current rises”.  

Strikingly, Gladstones also suggests there may be an unrealised benefit between an increase in atmospheric CO2 and a grapevines ability to better express the coveted notion of terroir. 

Higher CO2 may increase vine yield potential that corresponds to stronger, deeper, and denser root growth in the soil, thus improving better mineral uptake from contact at the deep root-tip to the berries during ripening, which plays a key role in terroir expression. Therefore, he says, an increase in atmospheric CO2 could improve the overall quality of a wine made from grapes grown in a mindfully managed vineyard.

After deep deliberation, it appears unreasonably egotistical to think that humans can control the climate through our emissions of an essential trace gas. The problem of climate change is a near infinite gradation of nuance and complexity that no one person, group, or government could ever hope to completely comprehend, let alone solve. To do so demands unencumbered open minds to tenaciously investigate and examine it, so as to fully appreciate and understand it, in order to inform and empower prudent recommendations for a resolution to the problem we face; that of the seen and the unseen consequences of a changing climate. Anything less is just catastrophising. 

Reference: Dr John Gladstones. Wine, Terroir, and Climate Change. Wakefield Press, 2015.