Is Climate Changing my wine?

Wine grapes are one of the most susceptible crops to variations in temperature and precipitation of all the agricultural products on Earth. With only one opportunity per year to have a successful grape harvest, this leaves very little margin for error in most normal weather conditions. While weather consistently surprises grape farmers, an experienced farmer generally knows what to expect and how to manage accordingly. With climate change, it has become an ongoing challenge to anticipate the unpredictable weather events.

Viticulture is on its own a complicated endeavour. With climate temperatures increasing, this particular occupation continues to be transformed and evolve each year. When a normal cold winter would kill harmful grapevine diseases is no longer happening, grape buds are opening earlier which exposes them to fungus and Spring frost in many cases. The acceleration of ripeness has created earlier harvest picking times. In wine regions where floods, drought, spring frost or forest fires are a very rare occurrence are now having to be prepared to deal with such devastations on a more regular basis. The list goes on. Innovative wine producers are learning to adapt to the extreme changes in weather. Vineyard practices on how to manage grapevines have become an on-going experiment to deal with what is here and what more is anticipated in regards to unpredictable weather. The impetus to be a step ahead, has already had several institutions to commence researching on ways to find technological solutions to make drinkable wines from grapes that have been smoke tainted from forest and bush fires. With regards to access to enough precious water, this aspect can no longer be taken for granted and growers must consider grafting their grapevines onto drought-resistant rootstocks, or selecting other grape varieties that are more adaptable to their new environment changes. The problem for most wine producers is no longer how to fully ripen grapes but rather how to prevent them from overripening.

What is causing these extreme weather events around the world? Some might argue that this is simply the Earth doing what the Earth has done many generations prior to modern tracking. Although, with studies through Attribution Science, climatologists have collectively confirmed the Earth is warming and that human interference with greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, desertification, urbanization, and ocean acidification are all contributing factors. In the absence of human beings, this would not be happening so rapidly.

In some instances, some of these climate changes have benefited some regions. For example, in some of the classical wine regions of Europe where great Vintages were once rare, a warmer growing season has made it far easier to produce consistently exceptional wines. Taste has improved but crop yields are lower. A sad irony.

As the climate has warmed, several regions and even high-altitude areas that were once considered too cold to harvest grapes are now demonstrating that they can produce fine wine, as long as the other normal growing grape elements are in order. Experiments have already started with the planting of warm climate grapes into normally cooler climate regions. The introduction of new grapes is to mitigate further harvest loss without compromising too much of the taste profile of regional wines. By switching some of the varieties of wine around, losses could be reduced. With this, our collective idea and understanding of a classic wine taste profile will most likely be eventually different. Such wine terms as, ‘’It tastes like a Bordeaux”, will most likely have a very different meaning in the future. Will the consumer be as open to such changes?

Probably the most notable examples of new wine regions due to climate change are the countries of England and China. You read correctly. As climate has warmed, England has developed a world-class sparkling wine industry. Some regions in England that contain the exact geographical composition as in Champagne, chalky clay soils, were always too cold to grow grapes that produced drinkable wine. Even some of the Champagne houses of France have financially invested in English vineyards to off-set potential concerns with their own climate challenges in France. From a grape growing climate perspective, England’s sparkling wine growing regions today are what the Champagne region in France was 40 years ago. Also, with temperatures on the rise and the projected annual rainfall to increase, emerging white and red wine vineyards within England are set to flourish with healthy vintages in the foreseeable years.

China continues to be an emergence to the future of wine as well. Viticulture is now possible due to climate change. With the development in their wine technology and increasing domestic consumption, China has become the second-largest grape grower and seventh-largest wine producer in the world. They are producing award winning wines and gaining world-wide recognition with each Vintage. This would have been inconceivable thirty years ago.

The landscape of the centuries past of established wine regions is being altered. So, what is next? Where is the next and upcoming wine region? Belgium, Norway, Japan, Bolivia? These places have already begun their own wine emergence due to climate change.

Charles Darwin identifiably quantified that adaptation occurs when the environment changes or a species is introduced to a new environment. A species is able to survive in the changed habitat for long enough to adapt. A survival of the fittest.

As responsibly involved human activity has been towards these extreme weather occurrences, it will be human ingenuity, intervention and experimentation, that will forge new frontiers in the wine industry for generations to come.