The wine industry is adapting to the effects of a warmer planet and increased occurrences of severe weather, changes that affect farming, the trees used to manufacture wine barrels and, most notably, the vines.
Our Alberta weather affirms that global warming does not mean winters will be milder — it’s about shifting temperatures and climate change. And California has recently suffered extreme drought, wildfires, and declining water resources.
Greg Jones, professor and research climatologist of Wine Studies at Linfield College in Oregon, reported that each degree Celsius of warming can cause vine ripening to occur five to 10 days earlier.
In California, irrigating high-yielding commercial grapes has become challenging, if not impossible, and consumers are responding to the dilemma by choosing more natural wines. On a more positive note, this water stress means that growers will be forced to grow smaller crops, situated in only the most suitable sites, enhancing the flavour profile of the fruit.
Ryan Stirm is a young Californian winemaker from Santa Cruz who is getting noticed for his ‘Californian’ natural wines. If you’ve considered trying natural wine, Stirm’s labels are easy to recognize with what appears to be a grapefruit slice, but it’s actually an enlarged image of a cross-section of a young grape vine stem.
When Stirm acquired the vineyard the vines were very old — dating back to 1902 — but they had been originally planted to make sparkling wines for a large box-wine producer and watered to create high yields. Over time, Stirm stopped all irrigation. Now the vineyard is producing really special and intense grapes.
“The Riesling was resilient, but the Zinfandel are thinner skinned, softer grapes that didn’t fare as well,” says Stirm, noting that’s why he makes Riesling — he refers to it as vitamin R. “Just to make a fun beverage that’s not sweet, but to simply increase the popularity of the grape, especially Riesling from California.”
His goal is to make the most Californian wines possible, using redwood barrels for fermentation, and any new vines are grafted to old California root stock that may contribute to a more California flavour (only time will tell).
Stirm also offers cans of wine, providing a fun, portable — about half the shipping weight of anything in glass — option, with less chance of oxidation by using nitrogen to protect the air pocket in the can (not sulphur) so he can make natural wine in aluminum.
Here are a few wines available in Alberta, although Stirm Wines can be hard to find, with a total production of only 200 cases.
KICK-ON VINEYARD RIESLING $28
Kick-On Ranch is the name of the vineyard that lies about 12 kilometres west of the town of Los Alamos, roughly 22 kilometres east of the Pacific Ocean. This is a refreshingly crisp and minerally white wine with just a hint of sweetness, white stone fruits and lime zest.
COMPANION WINE CO. RIESLING CANS $15
Natural wine in a can! Don’t let the packaging fool you, this is Stirm’s side passion project to display the vast potential of Riesling along with California viticulture — in a half-bottle-sized can. The Zabala family has farmed this land and these grapes for over a century. The vineyard is defined by granite boulders and howling winds, contributing to a minerally crisp and fresh Riesling. Canned with a little residual sugar so there’s a touch of spritz, which also acts as a preservative.
COMPANION WINE CO. MALVASIA CANS $15
The vineyard is situated on volcanic soils of the Vaca Mountain range. Scott Schultz is the winemaker for this can of minerally natural wine with orange zest, peach and citrus notes. The local wild boars prune any low bunches of grapes.
STIRM OLD VINE GRÜNER VELTLINER $28
Grown in the Santa Ynez Valley, this Grüner Veltliner has a little secret as well, a splash of Riesling is added to bump up the acidity and freshness. Riesling is one of the most resilient grapes grown, helping retain that bright acidity. And this is not like a Grüner you would find in Austria, because this wine also went through malolactic fermentation — the process that occurs post-fermentation that softens the tart malic acid and converts it to soft lactic acid. The aromas of artichoke and spice are intriguing, but over time the aromas and flavours of ripe stone fruits became more pronounced. Would love to pair this wine with artichoke and asparagus.
STIRM CIENEGA VALLEY ROSÉ $33
The secret here is to add 3 per cent Zinfandel to the Riesling, which adds a touch of salmon colouring and red fruitiness to the wine. If consumers see Riesling on the label they may assume the wine is sweet, therefore Stirm does not put the name of the grape on the label, to help avoid this perception. “People drink with their eyes,” he says.
LOS CHUCHAQUIS TIBURCIO VASQUEZ $50
A California natural red wine that’s incredibly interesting, it displays the handsome Tiburcio Vasquez — a Mexican resistance fighter who stole from a general store about five miles away from the vineyard in the 1850s — on the label, brandishing his mugshot after getting arrested. Apparently, women found him so attractive that he received many postcards. This natural, dry and complex red wine is from a field blend of vines planted by Portuguese and Italian immigrants in 1895 and 1922. It features a blend of grapes, including Mataro, Carignan, Pais, Zinfandel, Cabernet Pfeffer (Californian grape), Alicante Bouschet, Palomino and Orange Muscat. A wine that’s complex and aromatic, the flavours slowly unfold in the glass with red berries, earth, spice, and some old American barrel influence (vanilla and coconut notes).
Wine selections are available at select Alberta shops. Log onto liquorconnect.com to check availability and give them a call to verify.
Juanita Roos opened Color de Vino, a fine wine and spirits store, with her family in 2014. She has travelled to wine regions around the world and completed the prestigious WSET Diploma from London, England, the prerequisite for the Master of Wine program. Send your questions about wine to firstname.lastname@example.org.