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Wines of England

 

History

Roman Origins

 
It is said that Julius Caesar brought the vine to England. Nice though that story is, some scholars think it apocryphal - wine was certainly brought to Britain by the Romans, but it is less certain whether the vine was grown here, or if it was, whether it was in sufficent quantity to satisfy the local requirement for wine or just as an ornament to remind Romans of home and wealthy Romano-Britons of the source of their civilisation and prosperity.
 
 
 

Domesday & Middle Ages

 
It is more certain that by the time of the Norman Conquest, vines were grown, and wine made, in a substantial number of monastic institutions in England, especially, southern England. The legacy of street names (such as Vine street or the Vineyards) in London and provincial towns and cities - suggests that vines and vineyards were certainly no great rarities.
 
 
At the time of the compilation of the Domesday Survey in the late eleventh century, vineyards were recorded in 46 places in southern England, from East Anglia through to modern-day Somerset. By the time King Henry VIIIth ascended the throne there were 139 sizeable vineyards in England and Wales - 11 of them owned by the Crown, 67 by noble families and 52 by the church.
 
It is not exactly clear why the number of vineyards declined subsequently. Some have put it down to an adverse change in the weather which made an uncertain enterprise even more problematic. Others have linked it with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Both these factors may have had some part to play but in all probability the decline was gradual (over several centuries) and for more complex reasons.
 
 
 

Eighteenth & nineteenth century experimenters

 
In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century there is evidence of various noblemen experimenting with growing grapes and making wine - such as the Hon. Charles Hamilton who grew vines at Painshill in Surrey (a garden which has in recent years been restored).
 
 
In the late nineteenth century, the Marquess of Bute established a vineyard on a commercial scale at Castell Coch in South Wales - this is very well documented. The Marquess died in 1900 but in 1905 there were 63,000 vines at Castell Coch and Swanbridge superintended by the Marquess's 19 year old son who had succeeded him, but no wine making seems to have been carried out after the First World War.
 
 
 

Twentieth century gap

 
The period from the end of the First World War to shortly after the end of the Second World War may well be the only time in two millennia that vines to make wine on a substantial scale were not grown in England or Wales. Doubtless, during that time, there were some vines being grown on a garden scale by amateur growers, but for more than 25 years there was a total cessation of viticulture and winemaking on a commercial basis.
 
 
 

Post-war pioneers

 
After the Second World War, two men seem to have been the inspiration for the re-establishment of the English Wine industry. One was Ray Barrington Brock (who died only this year). He was a research chemist and set himself a private research mission to discover which varieties of grape would grow and ripen well in Britain. The other was Edward Hymans, a writer on garden matters who planted a vineyard and researched for a book he was writing on the history and practice of grape-vine cultivation in England.
 
The work of these two pioneers inspired others: Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted a vineyard at Hambledon, north of Portsmouth, in Hampshire. He initially planted 4,000 vines on a 1.5 acre site in 1952 and in 1955 the first English Wine to be made and sold commercially since the First World War went on sale.
 
 
 

Exponential growth

 
The rest, as they say, is history. An ever-increasing number of pioneers followed these leads and especially during the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was a rapid increase in the number of English vineyards to a figure well over 400 by the late 80s/early 90s. The total area under cultivation rose to more than 2,000 acres.
 
Look carefully - a superb crop of black Rondo grapes at Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard in East Sussex (1996)
The vast majority of these vineyards were small (5 acres or less, many less than 1 acre), whilst a few much larger vineyards emerged, such as Three Choirs near Newent in Gloucestershire. Denbies at Dorking in Surrey has, so far, marked the apogee of size in English vineyards, with around 250 acres under cultivation. Clearly such vineyards have been very serious commercial developments, but many small English vineyards have been retirement or "second-career" ventures, quite often by individuals or married couples wanting to escape the urban rat-race whilst still pursuing an occupation requiring both manual and intellectual challenges.
 
 
 

A mature industry?

 
In the 1990s the increase in the number of vineyards and the acreage under cultivation has levelled off, maybe even declined a little. There are a number of reasons for this - many English vineyards have undoubtedly been established with little knowledge of, or even concern for, their financial viability. A saying has grown up that the best way to get a small fortune is to have a large fortune and buy an English vineyard. Whilst this is cruel, it is also pretty certain that it is true.
 
 
 

Problems

 
However, there are, fortunately, a good number of vineyards demonstrating that this adage is not necessarily true of all English vineyards and some of the more recently established vinyards and those which have grown from smaller origins have accumulated the professional and scientific expertise needed for successful commercial scale operations.
 
Some English vineyards have clearly been established in less than favourable soils or situations and have selected inappropriate vine varieties and, as a result, have been marginal, or worse, in their productivity in the average year (In England, it is only in about 2 years in every 10 that grape production will be really good, 4 years will be average and 4 years poor or terrible - largely due to weather and/or disease exacerbated by weather).
 
The best of present day vineyards are well sited, grow the right varieties for their situation, are well managed and their growers understand what they are doing in a scientific way. There have been some notable examples of new vineyards being planted in recent years on a very scientific basis - with their owners/developers seeking out the right soils and situations for what they want to achieve. One thinks of Nyetimber vineyard in West Sussex, deliberately developed on the Greensand to emulate the growing conditions in the Champagne region of France. Already Nyetimber's reputation for its sparkling wines confirm the efficacy of this rational, scientific approach.
 
 
 

An un-level playing field?

 
In the 1990s English vineyards, especially those in the south-east of England, have also suffered from the cross-Channel "smuggling" phenomenon whereby it is possible (due to high rates of customs duty and VAT on wine in England) for any UK citizen to take a cheap trip by Channel Tunnel or Ferry to one of a number of French ports (such as Calais) and buy practically duty free wines from vast wine supermarkets. On sheer cost of production it is not possible for English wine producers to compete on such prices.
 
 
 

Re-positioning English wine

 
However this has led the more thinking members of the English wine industry to raise their sights (as, to be fair, many of them have always done) and to aim not at the bottom of the market but at the top. Recurring successes in blind tastings against all-comers from around the world have shown that when given a fair trial English wines can be as good as the best from anywhere else. Of course, some are not in this league and it can be argued that if low quality producers drop out of the market this may, in fact, be a good thing however much it may be a disappointment or even tragedy for individual winegrowers and makers.
 
 
 

A peculiarly "British" confusion

 
The final hurdle that faces English wine producers is ignorance and confusion. A surprisingly large proportion of English people have never ever even tasted English wine - or if they have, they may have tried just one example and been unfortunate in their experience and have never repeated their experiment with a better English wine.
 
The confusion factor comes from a bizarre use of terminology that is allowed in Britain. Look on the shelves of any supermarket and the cheapest wines you will see are described as "British". Such wines are decidely cheap, but generally have little or no character, which, when one knows their origin and method of manufacture is hardly surprising. Unfortunately many people have the impression that they are "English wines". Nothing could be further from the truth. English wine is good honest wine which has by law to be both grown and made in England (Similarly, "Welsh" in Wales). The grapes have to be grown in England and the wine has to be made in England. Often, indeed the English grape grower makes the wine in his own winery at his own vineyard.
 
By contrast, the so-called "British" wine is not made from grapes grown in England (or Wales) but is made, like a giant home wine-making kit from Boots the Chemists, from wine concentrate imported in tanker ships to ports such as Shoreham in Sussex. The wines are "made" in factory scale enterprises inland in towns such as Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey.
 
This low cost/low price "factory wine" for the very bottom of the wine market in Britain developed when there was no native grape-growing and wine-making industry in England or Wales. This is how its manufacturers managed to establish the designation "British wine". One suspects that had there been an established wine-growing industry at the time the designation would never have been allowed and the present damaging confusion in the public's mind would have been avoided. Although it should not be over-stated, it has muddied the waters and confused the public.
 
Successive UK governments have shown little sign of wishing to aid the fledgling English wine growing and making industry - in particular they have been unwilling to abate the high levels of excise duty and VAT which afflict the English wine producers. Although there has been no sign of them being willing to do so, one of the easiest things government could do to help would be to find a new term to replace that of "British" wine to describe wine made from imported juices or concentrates.
 
 
 

Less means better?

 
At the end of the second Millennium it may reasonably be said that England has at least a small indigenous wine growing industry. The realities of climate and latitude probably dictate that it will never grow into the massive industries of France, Italy, Germany or Australia. However, and it may fairly be said to be one of the best kept secrets of these islands, the fact is that though the grapevine is most productive in sunnier, hotter climes, it produces wine of the very highest quality where it is at the very margin of its existence. That is, in England and Wales.
 
 
 

A reading list

 
 
There are a number of books about the history of English Wine. "A Taste of English Wine" by Hugh Barty-King (Pelham Books 1989) and "A Tradition of English Wine", also by Hugh Barty-King (Oxford Illustrated Press, 1977) are particularly informative and comprehensively researched. Stephen Skelton's "The Vineyards of England" (published by S.P. & L.Skelton 1989) is a superb guide both to the history of English Wine and also the state of the industry and a comprehensive gazeteer of individual vineyards. Unfortunately it is now 10 years old and lots of changes have, inevitably, taken place, but it is believed that a successor volume bringing the picture up-to-date will be published in mid-2000. I acknowledge with gratitude the assistance I have gained from these and other volumes in drawing up this brief summary of the history of English wine
 
Robert J. Tarr
Coventry & Cornwall, England. © 199

 

Grape varieties

 

According to the English Wine Producers over 1300 HA had been planted by 2009, and with further major plantings of sparkling wine varieties the total is likely to be in excess of 1500 HA by 2012. As of 2004, Seyval Blanc was the most grown variety, with Reichensteiner next, with Müller-Thurgau and then Bacchus following closely behind. However, Müller-Thurgau, which was one of the first to be grown during the 20th century renaissance (see below), has recently lost favour, dropping from 134.64 ha (1st) in 1996 to 81.1 ha (3rd) in 2004. Other widely grown varieties of white grape include Chardonnay, Madeleine Angevine, Schönburger, Huxelrebe and Ortega. Red varieties include Dornfelder, Pinot meunier and Pinot Noir, and a few others, but red grapes tend to be lesser grown, with 20184 hL of white wine and only 5083 hL of red wine made in 2006.[9][10][11]

 

 

The Main Grape Varieties Growing In The UK

 
 

WHITE VARIETIES

 

Auxerrois 

Valued for its low acidity and produces exciting and long lasting wines if yields are kept low. It adds ‘body’ to blended wines. Also grown in Alsace, where it is usually blended into ‘Edelzwicker’, and found in Luxembourg, Burgundy, Canada, New Zealand and USA. As a neutral Pinot Blanc/Chardonnay style variety it is also useful for barrel ageing or as a sparkling wine base.

 

Bacchus 

(Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau

Its grapes have a strong and distinctive aromatic flavour, with high sugar content. It is regularly made into a single varietal wine and although common in Germany it is also very successful in this country. Some wines produced from this grape develop good New World Sauvignon Blanc characters. When riper, tends towards Sancerre. Well made Bacchus wines age well and develop interesting flavours. This is one of the UK’s better varieties, capable of producing world-class wines. Third most widely planted variety in UK (2003).

 

Chardonnay 

Grown largely as a fundamental ingredient of the finest sparkling wines, with plantings on the increase, along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, for production of sparkling wine. There also occasionally some gems when produced into still wine.

 

Faberrebe 

Pinot Blanc x Müller-Thurgau 

Not extensively planted in this country but seems to blend well with Müller-Thurgau. It develops good must weight and, in Germany, can qualify for ‘spätlese’ status. Produces wines that are very fruity with crisp acidity.


 

Huxelrebe 

Chasselas x Courtillier Musqué

Bred in 1927 in Germany. Has a rather ‘muscat’ style and is a good cropper with good sugar levels. It needs careful management and can be used for dessert wines because of its susceptibility to ‘noble rot’. It has a high natural acidity and strong aromas of elderflowers, producing very fruity wines that age well.

 

Kerner

Trollinger (Black Hamburg) x Riesling

Bred in 1929, this is a very successful grape that ripens reliably and produces excellent fruit. It has a style similar to Riesling and is popular in Germany. It may well have a good future in England. A variant, ‘Kernling’ ripens earlier than Kerner but produces virtually identical grapes, with wines that are fruity in a steely, Riesling style.

 

Madeleine Angevine (or Madeleine x Angevine 7672)

Designed for northern planting, it flowers late is an early, reliable cropper. It is useful for blending since it ages well and its relative low acidity will blend well with higher acid varieties. On its own it produces wines that are light and fruity with a pronounced muscatty bouquet.

 

Müller-Thurgau (also known as Rivaner)

Uncertain parentage, though now generally thought to be Riesling x Riesling

Bred in 1882. The main grape in Liebfraumilch, and was used in Germany to restore the fortunes of their vineyards after the war but is now seen as bland. This grape was among the first planted in the U.K when grape growing resumed and was the single most widely grown variety for many years. It is now less popular being seen as a producer of unstylish wines. It is popular in central and eastern Europe. A vigorous early ripening variety, but can be a poor cropper. 

 

Optima

(Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau

First registered in the early 1970’s. An early ripening variety that achieves high must weights, and therefore suitable for ‘late harvest’ wines.

 

Orion 

Hybrid. Optima x Seyve Villard 12-375 (Villard Blanc)

Crossing in Germany first registered in 1984. One of a new generation of hybrid varieties bred both for wine quality and disease resistance. Being a recent introduction to the UK it is currently too early to tell whether it has a future. Early reports are encouraging and wines can be fruity and quite aromatic. The increase in area shows that it is achieving some limited popularity. One to watch with interest.

 

Ortega

Müller-Thurgau x Siegerrebe

First introduced to the UK in 1971. This vine suits our climate, although is prone to disease, and is planted widely. It produces very full flavours and high natural sugars and has been used for late harvest wines. When ripe it produces wines that are rich and zesty with good balance. Good for blending with more neutral varieties.

 

Phoenix 

Hybrid. Bacchus x Seyve Villard 12-375 (Villard Blanc)

A recent cross and one of a new generation of hybrid varieties bred for quality and disease resistance. Currently planted in a few vineyards, but one to watch. Wines from Phoenix are also quite Bacchus-like, sometimes Sauvignon Blanc in character.

 

Pinot Blanc 

This is a mutation of Pinot Gris (see below). There are various strains of this grape. The wine has a strong nose and, where planted, seems to ripen its fruit well and produces wine with good and full fruit flavours and crisp acidity. It crops heavily in most years. Can produce a style similar to Chardonnay.

 

Pinot Gris 

Widely grown in France, where its main home is Alsace and known there as Tokay Pinot Gris. It is also grown in Germany, Italy and Switzerland and known by various names including Rülander, Malvoisie and Pinot Beurot. It is not widely planted in the UK, and does not produce such exceptional flavours as found in other countries.

 

Reichensteiner 

Müller-Thurgau x (Madeleine Angevine x Calabreser Fröhlich)

A popular variety in the UK – currently the second most widely grown variety after Seyval Blanc (2002). It ripens early and performs reliably, and is capable of producing large crops of relatively neutral grapes, high in natural sugars. It is reliable but a little bland and is often used for blending in both still and sparkling wines, having good sugar levels.

 

Regner

Luglienca Bianca x Early Gamay

Proves itself capable of good yields, ripens early with good sugars and relatively low acids – in short an ideal candidate for our climate! Wine quality can be excellent.

 

Rivaner Another name for Müller-Thurgau (see above)

 

Rülander The German name for Pinot Gris.

 

Schönburger 

Pinot Noir x (Chasselas Rosé x Muscat Hamburg)

This grape is very successful in the UK, producing white wines with low acidity but high sugar levels and good Muscat tones (some resembling a less powerful version of Gewürztraminer). When fully ripe it has a pink tinge. Its wines are distinctive, full-bodied and delicately flavoured.

 

Seyval Blanc 

Seibel 5656 x Seibel 4986

Developed in the 1920’s in France. Now the most widely grown variety in the UK (2002). It crops heavily in this country, even producing good crops in cooler years, and has effective disease resistance. It is a good ‘all rounder’ - often used for blending, and is well suited to oak aging and used for still or sparkling wines. Single varietal wines offer crisp acidity, with quite neutral flavours.

 

Siegerrebe 

A small berried and intensely aromatic variety. One of its parents was the famously spicy Gewürztraminer grape. It ripens sometimes to excessive levels and has a very dominating flavour. It is often used to bolster blended wines and a few growers use it as a varietal in its own right – some for late harvest and dessert wines.

 

Würzer 

Müller-Thurgau x Gewürztraminer 

This crossing was developed in 1932. It is not widely planted. An early ripening variety that does not carry a heavy crop and produces quite strong, spicey flavours. It has low disease resistance.

 

RED VARIETIES

 
Dornfelder 
Helfensteiner x Heroldrebe
Created in Germany in 1955, the product of a long process of vine breeding. Helfensteiner is early Pinot Noir x Black Hamburger and Heroldrebe is Portugieser x Limburger. 
The wine is notable for its colour and good acidity and grows well in the UK, having been introduced in the 1980’s. In Germany it is quite widely grown and capable of producing some very fine wines. Over here it is one of the grapes that shows that good red wine can be made in the U.K. Wines are usually fresh and fruity more like Syrah or Gamay than Cabernet Sauvignon.
 
Dunkelfelder
Unknown parentage
First appeared in UK in mid-1980's. Few varietal wines are made from it. Its strong point is deep colour, which is useful when blended in with other grapes. Dunkelfelder has fairly low vigour and does not usually run to large crops. On its own, the wine is fairly neutral with low acidity and is best blended with other red varieties.
 
Pinot Meunier 
A black grape now planted as an essential constituent of the finest sparkling wines, along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as in Champagne and many other sparkling wine regions. Although it has been grown for over 40 years in the UK (it has been referred to as Wrotham Pinot over here), it has never shone as a variety capable of making interesting wine as a single variety.
 
Pinot Noir 
One of the most ancient and noble of all grape varieties. It is the classic grape for red Burgundy but is also an important element of sparkling wines in England. It is at home in the English climate and in good years some excellent quality red wines have been made with this grape. It takes new oak well.
 
Regent 
Hybrid. (Silvaner x Müller-Thurgau) x Chambourcin
Another one of the new generation of hybrid varieties bred for wine quality and disease resistance. It is a relatively new introduction to the UK, and those wines produced have shown real promise, with low acidity, high sugar levels and good yields.
 
Rondo 
Hybrid. Saperavi Servernyi x St Laurent
Originally just named Gm 6494/5 this hybrid vine has very different parentage from Regent but some similar characteristics. It has adapted to UK conditions very well and plantings have been increasing since was first planted in 1983. Rondo produces wines with very good colour and style and overtones of classic red varieties. It blends well with other varieties (such as Dornfelder and Pinot Noir) and can be likened to a cross between Tempranillo and Syrah.
 
Triomphe
Was known as Triomphe d’Alsace, and initially quite a popular grape in this country. It yields well and ripens early but it has low disease resistance. It has low acidity and high sugar levels and may be superseded by other more recently bred vines.
 

 

Medieval warmth and English wine

 

Never let it be said that we at RealClimate don’t work for our readers. Since a commenter mentioned the medieval vineyards in England, I’ve been engaged on a quixotic quest to discover the truth about the oft-cited, but seldom thought through, claim that the existence of said vineyards a thousand years ago implies that a ‘Medieval Warm Period‘ was obviously warmer than the current climate (and by implication that human-caused global warming is not occuring). This claim comes up pretty frequently, and examples come from many of the usual suspects e.g. Singer (2005), and Baliunas (in 2003). The basic idea is that i) vineyards are a good proxy for temperature, ii) there were vineyards in England in medieval times, iii) everyone knows you don’t get English wine these days, iv) therefore England was warmer back then, and v) therefore increasing greenhouse gases have no radiative effect. I’ll examine each of these propositions in turn (but I’ll admit the logic of the last step escapes me). I’ll use two principle sources, the excellent (and cheap) “Winelands of Britain” by geologist Richard C. Selley and the website of the English Wine Producers.

 

Are vineyards a good temperature proxy? While climate clearly does impact viticulture through the the amount of sunshine, rainfall amounts, the number of frost free days in the spring and fall, etc., there a number of confounding factors that make it less than ideal as a long term proxy. These range from changing agricultural practices, changing grape varieties, changing social factors and the wider trade environment. For instance, much early winemaking in England was conducted in Benedictine monasteries for religious purposes – changing rites and the treatment of the monasteries by the crown (Henry VIII in particular) clearly impacted wine production there. Societal factors range from the devastating (the Black Death) to the trivial (working class preferences for beer over wine). The wider trade environment is also a big factor i.e. how easy was it to get better, cheaper wine from the continent? The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the English King in 1152 apparently allowed better access to the vineyards of Bordeaux, and however good medieval English wine was, it probably wasn’t a match for that!

 

However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that climate is actually the dominant control – so what does the history of English vineyards show?

 

The earliest documentation that is better than anecdotal is from the Domesday Book (1087) – an early census that the new Norman king commissioned to assess his new English dominions, including the size of farms, population etc. Being relatively ‘frenchified’, the Normans (who had originally come from Viking stock) were quite keen on wine drinking (rather than mead or ale) and so made special note of existing vineyards and where the many new vines were being planted. Sources differ a little on how many vineyards are included in the book: Selley quotes Unwin (J. Wine Research, 1990 (subscription)) who records 46 vineyards across Southern England (42 unambiguous sites, 4 less direct), but other claims (unsourced) range up to 52. Lamb’s 1977 book has a few more from other various sources and anecdotally there are more still, and so clearly this is a minimum number.

 

Of the Domesday vineyards, all appear to lie below a line from Ely (Cambridgeshire) to Gloucestershire. Since the Book covers all of England up to the river Tees (north of Yorkshire), there is therefore reason to think that there weren’t many vineyards north of that line. Lamb reports two vineyards to the north (Lincoln and Leeds, Yorkshire) at some point between 1000 and 1300 AD, and Selley even reports a Scottish vineyard operating in the 12th Century. However, it’s probably not sensible to rely too much on these single reports since they don’t necessarily come with evidence for successful or sustained wine production. Indeed, there is one lone vineyard reported in Derbyshire (further north than any Domesday vineyard) in the 16th Century when all other reports were restricted to the South-east of England.

 

Wine making never completely died out in England, there were always a few die-hard viticulturists willing to give it a go, but production clearly declined after the 13th Century, had a brief resurgence in the 17th and 18th Centuries, only to decline to historic lows in the 19th Century when only 8 vineyards are recorded. Contemporary popular sentiment towards English (and Welsh) wine can be well judged by a comment in ‘Punch’ (a satirical magazine) that the wine would require 4 people to drink it – one victim, two to hold him down, and one other to pour the wine down his throat.

 

Unremarked by most oenophiles though, English and Welsh wine production started to have a renaissance in the 1950s. By 1977, there were 124 reasonable-sized vineyards in production – more than at any other time over the previous millennium. This resurgence was also unremarked upon by Lamb, who wrote in that same year that the English climate (the average of 1921-1950 to be precise) remained about a degree too cold for wine production. Thus the myth of the non-existant English wine industry was born and thrust headlong into the climate change debate…

 

Since 1977, a further 200 or so vineyards have opened (currently 400 and counting) and they cover a much more extensive area than the recorded medieval vineyards, extending out to Cornwall, and up to Lancashire and Yorkshire where the (currently) most northerly commercial vineyard sits. So with the sole exception of one ‘rather improbably’ located 12th Century Scottish vineyard (and strictly speaking that doesn’t count, it not being in England ‘n’ all…), English vineyards have almost certainly exceeded the extent of medieval cultivation. And I hear (from normally reliable sources) they are actually producing a pretty decent selection of white wines.

 

So what should one conclude from this? Well, one shouldn’t be too dogmatic that English temperatures are now obviously above a medieval peak – the impact of confounding factors in wine production precludes such a clear conclusion (and I am pretty agnostic with regards to the rest of the evidence of whether northern Europe was warmer 1000 years than today). However, one can conclude that those who are using the medieval English vineyards as a ‘counter-proof’ to the idea of present day global warming are just blowing smoke (or possibly drinking too much Californian). If they are a good proxy, then England is warmer now, and if they are not…. well, why talk about them in this context at all?

 

There is a bigger issue of course. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that medieval times were as warm in England as they are today, and even that global temperatures were similar (that’s a much bigger leap, but no mind). What would that imply for our attribution of current climate changes to human causes? ……. Nothing. Nowt. Zero. Zip.

 

Why? Well, warm periods have occured in the past, and if not the medieval period, then probably the last interglacial (120,000 years ago), certainly the Pliocene (3 million years ago), without question the (Eocene 50 million years), and in particular the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (55 million years ago), and so on. Current theories of climate change do not rely on whether today’s temperatures are ‘unprecedented’. Instead they examine the physical causes of climate change and match up what we know about their physical effects and time history and see which of the multiple drivers or combination can best explain the observations. For the last few decades, that is quite clearly the rise in greenhouse gases, punctuated by the occasional volcano and mitigated slightly by the concomittant rise in particulate pollution.

 

Understanding past climate changes are of course also very interesting – they provide test cases for climate models and can have profound implications for the history of human society. However, uncertainties (as recently outlined in the NAS report) increase as you go back in time, and that applies to our knowledge of the climate drivers as well as to temperatures. So much so that even a medieval period a couple of tenths of a degree warmer than today would still be consistent with what we know about solar forcing and climate sensitivity within the commonly accepted uncertainties.

 

My oenological research project has not then lead me to any profound insights into climate change in the past, but it has given me a little more respect for the dedication of my winemaking compatriots. So next time I’m in the area, I’ll drink to that!

 
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