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Kimberly Nicholas - Stories of Change

Updated Monday, 16th November 2015
Kimberly Nicholas' 'Stories of Change' interview with Roger Harrabin. 

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Kimberly Nicholas Kim Nicholas is an Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) in Lund, Sweden. Her research is on sustaining food and wine systems under climate change. In other words, she seeks a more sustainable, fair, healthy and delicious food system- and good wine to go with it. Her interest in sustainable food is rooted in five generations of farming history in her hometown of Sonoma, California.

Follow her on Twitter: @KA_Nicholas

©  The Open University


Stories of Change Project 

Kimberly Nicholas Interview


RH:    = Roger Harrabin, interviewer

KN:    = Kim Nicholas, Associate Professor, Lund University, Sweden.  Researcher into climate change, sustainable food and ecosystem services, participant.


RH:        So I’m standing on a street corner in Paris. It’s a damp evening, looks like its just about to start to rain, and I’m waiting for my climate date, and she’s standing right next to me. I’m Roger, I guess you’re Kim?

KN:       Hi I’m your Climate Date.

RH:       Where are we going and what are we going to do?

KN:    We’re going to a wine bistro and we’re going to drink some wine and talk about how wine is affected by climate change

<restaurant sound effects>

KN:    I’m Kim Nicholas I’m an associate Professor at Lund University in Sweden 

RH:        You also do stuff with wine?

KN:       I do - I studied wine in California, which is where I’m from, I grew up on a vineyard first of all, in a wine-growing area called Sonoma, north of San Francisco, and that led me to study wine when I was in grad school and beyond. So, at one point I also thought I might work in wine, and facing a dismal academic job market, thought I might go into wine consulting, which I was doing on the side in academia, but low and behold I got a job and found myself in Sweden.  So we’re here at the Our Common Future under Climate Change Conference in Paris and  ….

RH:    You’re going to tell me about climate change and wine.

KN:    Yes, so wine is a really tangible way of experiencing climate change, it’s climate change we can taste, and climate change is affecting all of our lives every day, whether we realise it or not, wine is the way that makes it really concrete, it’s climate change on your dinner table.

RH:       So lets make our order - well if we can find a waiter - what are you having? I’m having a Brouilly

KN:        I think I’ll go for the Cotes de Provence.

<restaurant noise>

RH:    So we’ve got the wine now. Mine’s a Brouilly yours is a…Cotes du Rhone? 

KN:    So when you’re tasting wine, I have learned that actually what we think of as taste is almost entirely smell. We can only distinguish five tastes, sweet, sour, salty, bitter etc. Umami, which is savoury. But our noses are exquisitely sensitive so we can distinguish millions and millions of smells and most of what we’re experiencing when we drink a wine is actually our brain perceiving those smells that have been delivered either through our nose or through the back of our mouth retro-nasally. So it’s really important to stop and smell the roses in the case of wine tasting. You really wanna give it a good whiff and enjoy the smell before you go for the taste. And some people like to try to identify the characters that they find when they do that and that can be a nice way to appreciate the qualities of the wine.  You wanna give it a go?

RH:    Cheers. Salut. 

KN:    Salut. 

    So these glasses are quite small and there’s not much space at the top so it’s not very safe to swirl the wine, but usually I’d recommend that so that you volatilise the chemicals in the wine so we can more easily perceive them with our nose.

RH:    Tell me specifically about climate change. What can we tell with that wine about climate change?

KN:    So wine, like all plants, reflects the place where it’s grown, but wine is especially sensitive to climate, so the timing when it ripens, the way that it ripens, and especially the chemistry that’s contained in the wine grape that gets made into the wine is really affected by climate change.  

RH:    You’ve got a Cotes du Rhone.

KN:    Yes.

RH:    Tell me about that then. What are you tasting now that you couldn’t have tasted before, or you wouldn’t have tasted before? How’s that wine changed because of climate.

KN:    In general with wines, they tend to lose aroma and flavour compounds that accumulate during ripening, and this is because as it warms those compounds are lost during the ripening process, and if you don’t have it in a grape, you won’t get it in the wine.  

RH:    So the wine you’re drinking now, does it taste the same as it would have tasted ten years ago?

KN:    We are already seeing changes in the way that wine tastes, and in France as well as in other countries around the world one way that’s really clear is that alcohol content has gone up. This can also be due not only to the climate but to management as well. There’s a trend towards consumers or at least influential wine critics preferring a more robust style of wine that’s higher alcohol, but there’s new research that has shown that quite a bit of the accumulation, the increase in alcohol, has been due to climate actually and not only to management choices. So higher alcohol wines are one way we can taste climate change and wines with a riper flavour profile, so if you think of flavours going from green and grassy to red fruits like cherries, to dark fruits like blackberries, to jammy dried fruits, we’re moving towards the jammier, more robust end of the spectrum and losing some of the more delicate flavours.

RH:    It’s rather a shame if true.

KN:    I think it’s a shame too. I grew up in a wine-growing area, my family has a small vineyard, wine is a way you can travel without leaving your seat. You can experience different parts of the world and get a sense of what they’re like as a place, and it’s a really important part of the character of a lot of beautiful, special places around the world, and that’s something that we’re changing with climate change.

RH:    Presumably all you need to do is to shift your wine growing north or south towards the poles.

KN:    There are options for adapting and growers and wine makers are doing things to adapt right now to climate change and preparing as well for the future. Moving locations is one of the more extreme ones. Of course there is a lot of investments in both practical terms, infrastructure and expertise, as well as cultural terms, so you need to have a sense of a place and knowledge of a place to really grow great wines.

    I interviewed a wine grower in Sonoma, who told me he thought that the greatest wine of Napa and Sonoma would not be planted for another three generations, and this is because it takes that long to really get to know a place, once you’ve chosen the location maybe your kids find exactly the right varieties to grow there, and their kids figure out exactly how to dial in their management to get the best tastes, and this was his theory on why France and the Old World in Europe have such wonderful wines.We’re not getting that chance with climate change in many regions, where we’re changing the character of a place faster than we can know how to adapt to it.

RH:    OK, well I have a suggestion. Let’s stop talking about it and start drinking it.

KN:    Sounds good.

    Well this wine, like wines in France generally and many wines around the world, have been getting higher in alcohol and that’s a result of warmer temperatures leading to greater sugar accumulation for the grapes ripening in the vineyard, that sugar gets fermented into higher alcohol levels in the winery.  So some of this increase in alcohol can be due to letting the grapes hang longer on the vines and accumulate more sugar, so that’s a management choice. But we know from recent research that actually quite a lot of it is due to increases in temperature. So we’re tasting higher alcohol wines, we’re tasting wines that in general have lower acid levels because the acid is burned off at high temperatures, and with heat accumulation. So as wines ripen under warmer conditions they have less refreshing acid and we’re tasting wines that have shifted in their flavour profile to have more very ripe or even jammy or dried fruit character, rather than more fresh fruit character that many people enjoy.

RH:    Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

KN:    Well those kind of stylistic choices are neither good nor bad; those are simply preferences, but I think it’s a bad thing that we’re limiting our options. It’s good now that we have all these amazing places around the world where we can grow many different styles of wine and as we’re warming the climate we’re limiting the places that we can grow good wine or changing the character of the places where we grow wine now, and we’re closing off options to have this full range of wine styles that we currently enjoy. 

RH:    Why not just shift your vineyard 100, 200 miles up towards the poles?

KN:    Well there are some new opportunities under climate change, and places like England and Tasmania that have been cool are benefitting from warmer temperatures and more consistent ripening, but the story with climate change is there are winners and losers but the majority are actually losers, and that’s true also in wine.  Many of the existing areas, they’ve staked their claim on a particular place and its particular character.  In France, the wine regions are set by law and only allowed to grow certain varieties of grape and those have been determined to be the most suitable for that area. They’re part of the character. If you get a Burgundy, a red Burgundy from France, it’s going to be Pinot Noir, and that is part of the character of that wine. So there are ways to adapt in the vineyard, to provide more shade or cooling through misting or more irrigation, but like everything with climate change it’s possible to manage what we can’t avoid, but it’s important to avoid what we can’t manage, and we’re looking at some really big temperature changes that would be extremely challenging, not just to wine production but to continued food production. 

RH:    Thanks very much. Interesting lesson. Cheers! 

<glasses clink>

KN:    Cheers.


<End of Interview>


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