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Wine from Alaska?

Did you know that there is at least one commercial winery in every US state including Alaska and Hawaii? Grapes don’t grow in Alaska . . . yet. The wine makers there have to use imported grape juice to make their wines. However, it won’t be long before grapes can be grown in Alaska according to www.optimistmag.org.

There is the danger that climate change could crush the wine industry in California. A 2° rise in temperature could make Napa Valley Chardonnay a thing of the past. A couple more degrees and Napa would no longer be prime territory for wine of any kind.

Warmer winters would hinder bud development, changes in rainfall patterns and increasing pressure from pests that thrive in hotter weather would also threaten the Californian vines.
Many crops will be affected, but the state’s prized wine industry may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. Grapes, particularly those used for premium wines, require a delicate balance of climatic conditions.

“Wine grapes are especially vulnerable because they have a sensitive temperature range in which they can grow,” said Stanford University ecologist Kim Nicholas Cahill, who studies the effects of extreme heat on grapes.

Although wine grapes might not suffer major declines in yield, quality rather than quantity is the issue with this crop. Too hot, and grapes may ripen too quickly and produce flabby wines with too little acid and too much alcohol. Too cold, and a wine’s character will tend toward less desirable green flavours such as grass or bell pepper.

The Napa Valley region is blessed with a 64° average temperature that falls smack in the middle of the comfort zones of many popular varietals, including merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
But Napa just barely tags the range for chardonnay grapes, which thrive in 57° to 63° temperatures. A small bump up in the average growing season temperature, even just 1°, could push Napa into questionable territory for chardonnay.

John Williams, owner and winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley knows some growers who are hedging their bets by buying property in cooler areas with an eye to growing wine grapes there in the future.

Some farmers are seriously considering relocating to Canada or Alaska. A narrow band along the northern Central coast may maintain a good climate for wine, and farther north the coast could warm up enough to become suitable. But problems with high humidity and excess precipitation will persist along the coast. And climate projections don’t take into account the “terroir,” or character of the earth; even if an area gains a climate appropriate for wine grapes, it may never produce premium wines.

The temperatures that the grapes on the vine actually experience can be changed quite a bit by controlling how much leaf cover they have. Many growers in Napa trim the leaves back to give their grapes more direct sunlight, which in turn produces bolder wines. Currently, growers often thin out clusters of chardonnay grapes to keep them cooler and this practice could be used on other varietals as well if temperatures rise.

There are 11 licensed wineries operate in the state, typically using a grape concentrate with Alaska berries. Many say they are experiencing strong sales. From salmonberry wine to honey-based meads, Alaska’s wineries squeezed out nearly 5,000 gallons of wine in 2006, according to the state Tax Division. And while most of the market is generated by tourists, wineries say they have a steady following of local fans and connoisseurs.

Alaska is the largest state in the United States in terms of land area – if a map of Alaska were superimposed upon a map of the USA, Alaska would overlap Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. The climate varies widely throughout the State and temperatures can range from 22ºC (72°F) in high summer to -28ºC (-19°F) in winter.

Alaska has been thawing since the mid 1970s and the Columbia Glacier, big enough to dwarf the mountains through which it flows, is melting. It has retreated 8 miles, leaving a litter of floating ice behind it. The permanently frozen ground which covers most of Alaska is thawing for the first time for 125,000 years. If the thaw persists tens of millions of acres of forest will be turned into swamps. Vines, as you know, don’t like getting their feet wet but it could be viable to grow grapes in Alaska’s milder areas like Anchorage in the future.

Images Courtesy of www.flickr.com and www.yotophoto.com

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2 Responses to Wine from Alaska?

  1. mike mosesian says:

    I am a trained viticulturist from UC Davis (MS -1967 in viticulture) and worked in my families vineyards for many years before coming to Anch. Ak. in 1972 to grow hot house tomatoes and have been growing grapes in my greenhouses for many years. At present I am growing Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling and hope to have limited fruit in the summer of 2013 and a real grape winery here in Anchorage. Also plan on expanding my vineyard next summer in my nursery –Bells Nursery.

    • Nick says:

      Thanks for getting in touch Mike – please keep me posted as to how you get on! Wishing you success with the winery and vineyard expansion at Bells Nursery :-)