wine icon medium

JANUARY 31, 1683

In the winter of 1683, visitors to the City of London would have witnessed a phenomenon that would seem otherworldly by today’s standards but was not entirely uncommon during the seventeenth century. England’s capital emerged as a city of over half a million people, at the heart of a growing empire. Ships from all over the world brought goods up the River Thames to be consumed by its people. But in the winter of 1683, the river was frozen solid. And this wasn’t just a thin sheet of ice. Rather the river on the banks of London was frozen so thick that people were walking freely on it. A ‘Frost Fair’ was even held in advance of the Christmas season. Incredibly a circus was even performing there, the famous Chipperfields.

All of this was the result of the Little Ice Age, a period in world history between 1300 and 1700 that dramatically impacted Europe and led to a severe cooling of the world’s temperatures. Consequently, rivers such as the Thames, which would never be seen frozen today, often froze over in winter.[1] Another consequence of this Little Ice Age was a dramatic alteration in Europe’s wine industry and the geographical landscape of the continent’s viticulture. Here we explore how the Little Ice Age changed the history of winemaking in Europe and further afield and what it can teach us about how climate change will impact viticulture in the not-so-distant future.[2]

What was the Little Ice Age? The Little Ice Age or Mini Ice Age was a phenomenon that has become an increasing subject of study amongst historians over the past thirty to forty years. During it, average temperature levels worldwide fell considerably, by somewhere most likely within 1 degree and 1.5 degrees Celsius. This temperature decline was most intense during the seventeenth century.

The reasons for the Little Ice Age are not entirely understood. Still, the most likely explanations include a dramatic decline in the world population level between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries owing to massive demographic incidents such as the spread of the bubonic plague throughout Europe and Asia in the fourteenth century and the decimation of the native peoples of the Americas following the introduction of European diseases there from the late fifteenth century onwards. Smaller population levels led to decreased amounts of carbon production worldwide and a cooling effect. As this Little Ice Age reached its most intense period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was exposed to rapidly declining environmental conditions.

Today we are already seeing how immense the fallout can be from slightly over 1 degree of warming, so a fall of 1.5 degrees for societies heavily reliant on rather primitive farming techniques could prove catastrophic. As it developed, periodic famines occurred in parts of Europe as crops failed. One element of agriculture which was heavily impacted was grape cultivation and the winemaking industry.[3]

Wine production across Europe in the centuries before the Little Ice Age was substantially different from today. There is substantial evidence indicating that during the warmer centuries between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, which preceded the onset of the Little Ice Age, grapes were cultivated, and wine was produced in more northern parts of Europe than expected.

For instance, while we have known for centuries that the Vikings who terrorized much of Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries were fond of a drink, wine included, it now seems increasingly clear that they didn’t just rob it from their unfortunate victims in France but were able to produce it themselves in Scandinavia. In recent years, studies by archaeologists using advanced scientific methods have revealed details of grape cultivation in Denmark and even as far north as Norway.[4]

Scandinavia was not alone in being a region in more northern climes that had a thriving wine industry before the onset of the Little Ice Age. In eleventh-century England, there was considerable cultivation of grapes. The famous Domesday Book, compiled as a record of English land use in 1085, recorded 42 vineyards.[5] And this didn’t end any time soon. There were well over 100 vineyards across England at the time of the accession of King Henry VIII in 1509. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth, had 16,000 vines of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other grapes planted in Windsor Park. With the onset of the worst of the Little Ice Age in the second half of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries, declining average temperatures wiped out England’s native wine industry.[6]

wine history

The changes seen in England’s wine industry weren’t an isolated incident. The Little Ice Age substantially shaped the modern wine industry in Europe. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the major wine-producing regions that dominated the Old-World wine industry during the modern period emerged as the centers of wine production in Europe. They were mostly found between 40- and 50-degrees latitude, an area which in Europe runs roughly from not far north of Paris south to around Valencia in Spain and which encapsulates wine regions including Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, the Rhine and Rhone valleys, Tuscany, northern Portugal and Hungary.

Consequently, the areas that became famous for wine production in Europe down to the present day became optimum areas for viticulture due to the temperature changes brought about by the Little Ice Age. Unsurprisingly, some of Europe’s first protected wine regions were beginning to emerge right at the end of the Little Ice Age. Chianti in Tuscany in Italy was the first region denominated in 1716, followed by the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary in 1730 and the Duoro region in Portugal shortly afterward.[7]

In addition, these regions were becoming those which inspired wine production outside of Europe during the simultaneous Age of Explorations. When vine cuttings were first brought to the Americas and planted there, the varietals came from Spain.

When the Dutch introduced viticulture to South Africa in the mid-seventeenth century, they used French and west German grape varietals. Similarly, these regions were producing the kinds of fortified wines which became characteristic of the period. These traveled better at a time when wine was still overwhelmingly stored in wooden barrels rather than bottles, while fortified wine had a much longer shelf life.

It is no surprise to find that Port wine is synonymous with Portugal. This first major European colonial power discovered the sea route around Africa to India at the turn of the fifteenth century. Nor was it simply the case that the overlapping of the Age of Explorations with the Little Ice Age led to the regions between the 40th and 50th line of latitude becoming synonymous with Old World fortified wines. At the end of this period, Europe’s most famous sparkling wine emerged. In 1729 Nicolas Ruinart established Europe’s oldest champagne-producing winery in Champagne near Reims in France.[8] Thus, a great amount of the shape of the modern wine industry had fully emerged in Europe by 1750 in regions and ways that the Little Ice Age profoundly influenced.

What lessons can be learned from examining the impact of the Little Ice Age on winemaking in Europe and further afield? The answer is that the modern wine industry was formed in response to the weather changes during the Little Ice Age, essentially pushing the regions in which wine was being produced in Europe further south towards the Mediterranean and decimating viticulture in places such as England and Denmark.

We already see a correction to this process as climate change makes it more feasible to cultivate vineyards at more northern latitudes. For instance, while the Little Ice Age saw the destruction of the Scandinavian wine industry, recent warming in Europe has resulted in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish vineyards becoming a reality again and Scandinavian wines returning to the market after a 700 or so year absence.[9] The same is the case with British wine, with many vines being planted in England and Wales rising dramatically in recent years.[10]

While this is good news for Norse and Anglo-Norman wine cultivators and potentially even Canadian wine producers, there are also already signs that the wine industry in places that emerged as key areas for grape cultivation towards the end of the Little Ice Age will face trouble in years to come. California’s Napa Valley is particularly at risk as the state faces increasingly frequent droughts and massive forest fires.[11]

Regions such as this can possibly survive bad years here and there. Still, future climate change will almost certainly push many regions to the point where the ripening of balanced fruit of the kind required to produce existing grape varietals and wine styles will begin to prove ever more difficult in parts of California, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and Chile.[12]

*******************

On this Day

9 September 1087 – On this day in 1087, William the Conqueror, the first Anglo-Norman king of England, died. Two years earlier, he had ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book, a record of land usage throughout England which indicated that there were 42 vineyards in England. Similarly, there were vineyards in parts of Europe, such as Denmark, which we typically view as too northern for grape growing. The Little Ice Age wiped out the wine industries of these Northern European countries from the fourteenth century onwards. Only in modern times, as man-made climate change has intensified that wine industries have begun to re-emerge in countries such as England and Denmark.[13]

1 November 1565 – On this day in 1565, Europe officially entered winter. The winter of 1565 became known as ‘The Great Winter’ as freezing cold temperatures struck most of Europe, and a thick blanket of snow and ice lay over much of the continent for weeks on end. The ‘Great Winter’ indicated the acceleration of the Little Ice Age in the second half of the sixteenth century.

As it intensified and average temperatures dropped across Europe, wine production disappeared in regions such as England, where it had been substantial in medieval times. In contrast, more southerly regions such as Spain, France, Italy, western Germany and much of the Balkans began to establish themselves as the optimum locations for grape growing in Europe, which they have maintained down to modern times.

27 December 1703 – On this day in 1703, the Methuen Treaty was signed between Portugal and Britain. It was a wide-ranging military, diplomatic and commercial treaty between the two nations, one aim of which was to undercut the wine industries of Spain and France, with whom Britain was at war, by making England a major importer of Portuguese Port wine. The Treaty indicates many of the changes that ensued in European winemaking as a result of the Little Ice Age. England’s domestic wine industry had disappeared due to lower temperatures, but Portugal’s had flourished since the fourteenth century, with Port becoming a national widely exported national staple.[14]

1 September 1729 – On this day in 1729, just as the Little Ice Age was coming to an end, Nicolas Ruinart started his first ledger dedicated to ‘wine with bubbles’. Ruinart Champagne became the first Champagne House established in Europe in the Champagne region near the city of Reims. Shortly earlier King Louis XV had passed a decree authorizing the transportation of wine in France in glass bottles. Prior to this it had been transported in barrels. As such, around 1729 the foundations of the modern French wine and champagne industry were beginning to emerge.[15]

[1] Helen Humphreys, The Frozen Thames (Toronto, 2007).

[2] Sam White, ‘The Real Little Ice Age’, in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 44, No. 3: The

Little Ice Age: Climate and History Reconsidered (Winter, 2014), pp. 327–352.

[3] Brain Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850 (London, 2001); Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale, 2013); Sam White, A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America (Cambridge, 2017).

[4] https://www.spiralcellars.co.uk/the-grapes-of-wrath-viking-wine/ [accessed 24/2/22]; Peter Steen Henriksen, Sandie Holst and Karin Frei, ‘Iron and Viking Age Grapes from Denmark’, in Danish Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March, 2017), pp. 3–10.

[5] https://lymebaywinery.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-english-wine/ [accessed 24/2/22]

[6] https://theconversation.com/wine-and-climate-change-8-000-years-of-adaptation-67028 [accessed 25/2/22]

[7] Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford, 2006), pp. 536–540.

[8] https://www.lvmh.com/houses/wines-spirits/ruinart/ [accessed 24/2/22]

[9] Bojan Pancevski, ‘Chateau Viking: Climate Change Makes Northern Wine a Reality’, The Wall Street Journal, 29 October 2019.

[10] https://www.ibisworld.com/united-kingdom/market-research-reports/wine-production-industry/ [accessed 25/2/22]

[11] Eric Asimov, ‘Napa Valley Confronts Climate Change’, The New York Times, 6 November 2019.

[12] Greogory V. Jones, Michael A. White, Owen R. Cooper and Karl Storchmann, ‘Climate Change and Global Wine Quality’, in Climatic Change, Vol. 73 (2005), pp. 319–343.

[13] https://lymebaywinery.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-english-wine/ [accessed 24/2/22]

[14] Linda Frey and Marsha Frey (eds), The Treaties of the War of the Spanish Succession: An Historical and Critical Dictionary (Westport, Connecticut, 1995), p. 290.

[15] https://www.lvmh.com/houses/wines-spirits/ruinart/ [accessed 24/2/22]

Categories: Wine History In-DepthTags: , By Published On: March 6, 2022

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!