The Wine Industry and Climate Change

The wine industry has always been dependent on the vagaries of weather. From the Loire Valley of France to California's Napa Valley to Australia's Coonawarra, too much sun, too little rain, and late frosts are among the major factors determining whether the coming year's vintage will be among the very best, or very forgettable. Putting the needs of the industry at the forefront of decision making, many in the wine industry have foregone partisan politics and accepted the overwhelmingly singular view of the world scientific community, and have worked to prevent wine production from being ravaged by the increasing effects of global climate change.

As early as 2006, a first International Global Warming and Wine Conference was held in Barcelona, Spain. (Followed by a a second, two years later.) Attendees of the initial conference discussed the scientific reality that increases in temperature had already required changes in wine production across the world. In France's Alsace region, during the preceding three decades, annual wine harvests had gradually been moved up from October 1 to September 1, and experts were certain continuing effects would require the harvest to be advanced an additional three weeks before the end of the 21st century. Spanish wine experts lamented far greater effects in their country, in particular
the increasing variance of temperature among the seasons, with increasing cold in winters and increasing warmth in summers. One Spanish expert detailed predictions for the Catalonia area, including harder, more concentrated rains leading to increased flooding and soil erosion, while a lesser number of rainy days would lead simultaneously to overall water deficits for the region, and the need for increased irrigation facilities.

In discussing the fact that a single degree temperature increase in a region would result in a 15% water depletion in 25 years and an 8% reduction in wine production, these astounding conclusions
The Wine Industry and Climate Change
were put forth by the Spanish Federation of Enology Associations: Several wine-producing regions of Spain that had suffered continuing droughts were in danger of becoming desert.

Attendees learned that weather changes had made it significantly more difficult for Spanish and Portuguese winegrowers to produce traditional wines with the varietal characteristics of the regions, with the taste profiles expected in the grapes, and with the inherent the terroir of the vine.

It became a major focus of discussion that climate change was making it likely that long established grape varieties may soon no longer be able to survive in the regions in which they had flourished for decades, if not centuries, and that the industry needed to look to relocation of various varieties to areas further north.

The Wine Industry and Climate Change

In 2011, a study conducted by Stanford University scientists determined that the effects of climate change could make as much as 50% of the wine-growing areas of Northern California unsuitable for cultivating premium wine grapes by 2040. By the way, California produces 90% of the wine produced in the United States. The study did include some good news: Temperature increases in cooler areas of Oregon and Washington could eventually make those areas suitable for such premium grape production.

Quality and intensity of wines are already at risk. The finest grapes are gown in cool areas just warm enough to cause the grapes to ripen. Such conditions give grapes and the wine they produce, the
acidity that makes wine something special. Grapes grown in warmer areas ripen faster and develop not an acidity, but rather a more sugary content, and taste, and a higher alcohol content. Consumers may not realize it, but dry wines today are much sweeter than in the past, and more and more wines are being produced with higher and higher alcohol content.

Recently, Nature Climate Change released a study of the effects of global temperature change on Australian wine production. Their results included the following:
  • Grapes in Australia's wine regions are ripening ever earlier
  • Early ripening often has undesirable impacts on wine quality
  • The hotter the weather at the time of harvest, the earlier the grapes mature
  • Hot vintages are not good for quality wines
  • On average, Australian wine grapes are ripening 20 days earlier than in 1985, but the results are varied; at one vineyard, grapes are maturing 34 days faster than they did in 1985
  • Early ripening and "hotter" wines change the terroir of wines, the prized geological characteristics that produce distinctive regional wines
Yet an additional future crisis is looming in that a wide variety of predatory insects that find grape vines particularly delectable, and spread plant disease, but that only thrive in warm climates, have been found to now find comfort, and food, in wine growing areas that had traditionally been too cold. This has been documented in Germany, Austria and northern France, where the Asian Lady Beetle has now taken up residence.

Southern Oregon University Professor and Research Climatologist Gregory V. Jones, perhaps the US's foremost wine and climate specialist, and himself a winegrower, has made an interesting observation about how winegrowers think about climate change. He has said that if you were to ask the majority of winegrowers specifically about climate change, few will admit that it exists, or that they have had to do things differently because of it. But, he says, if you ask them about specifics, if you ask them what changes they have made over that past 20 years, they will document specific operational changes, specific weather-related changes, specific water management changes, all dictated by the effects of climate change.

More than in most industries, winegrowers have already seen the effects of climate change, and rather than base business decisions on political dogma, the industry has to an extent embraced scientific fact and used science to protect the industry, and to help prepare it for an unknown, scary future in an every-changing climate.

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