Climate Change & Old World Wine: The Future of the Industry

As an agricultural product, wine is subject to the slings and arrows of an ever-changing climate. As global temperatures shift, one thing we can expect to see in the coming years is a change in the world of wine as we know it. In fact, these changes are already underway. 2017 marked the lowest level of wine production in 60 years according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, falling to 250 million hectolitres. In the Old World, production fell by nearly 15 percent, caused by harsh late spring frosts which decimated vineyards across France, Italy, and Spain, each of which saw historic lows, in addition to many other European wine producing countries. As climates across wine regions continue to shift, there are many things we can expect to change in wine.

The Changing Climate

Climate isn’t static. It changes over time based on a variety of different factors, some which are naturally occurring like volcanic eruptions, solar radiation, fluctuations in ocean temperature, and even shifts in the Earth’s axis and orbit around the Sun. Just think of the past ice ages or significantly warmer periods like the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth’s surface. Today, scientists believe humans have contributed to the accelerated increasing temperature we’ve seen in recent decades. They attribute the higher average temperature to carbon emissions which have seen a jump since the Industrial Revolution. Irrespective of the cause, one thing we can all agree on is things are heating up. Last year was the warmest recorded since records began in the late 19th century. The ten hottest years on record have all occurred in the last twenty years. Ask anyone in Europe and they will tell you 2018 has been hot. So what does this mean for wine?

Potential problems like lower annual rainfall, the subsequent drought, and water stress all become very real threats to vine health. Right now, irrigation is heavily regulated in Europe. The recent influx of droughts across warmer regions which typically ban the practice has seen governing boards in the likes of Spain and parts of France begin to allow the practice. While there’s a consensus among winemakers that some water stress is beneficial to vines and can help produce more concentrated grapes (and thus better wine), prolonged drought can cause plants, grapevines included, to shut down or die. However, there is hope. A recent study published earlier this year shows that vines are much more drought-resistant than we previously thought. The ten-year long study which was carried out in Napa and Bordeaux found that even when subjected to drought, there was a low mortality rate amongst grapevines. Grapevines are a bit hardier than previously thought although when the mercury creeps upwards of 35°C or drops below 10° there’s remains a risk that the grapevines will shut down.

So while vines may not die off, there’s still a potential issue in terms of the quality of wine. The hotter it is and the more hours of sun a vine receives, the more sugars grapes will develop. This means higher alcohol levels or more residual sugars leftover in the wine. This could lead to unbalanced wines. Fortunately, winemakers can control for some of these issues by harvesting earlier in the season, using acidification to balance out sugar levels or employ reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol levels.

These changes in climate have other outcomes as well. Both drought and weather events like frost, hail, or particularly vicious storms can reduce yields. Dry conditions breed a greater risk of devastating wildfires like we regularly see in California, Australia and the Iberian Peninsula. Not only can this be disastrous for winemakers due to smoke taint or damaging or destroying vineyards, they can also lead to a tragic loss of life and property to people living in these regions. But it’s not all bad news.

How Climate Change Can Transform Marginal Wine Regions

Increasing average annual temperatures could mark the end of warm regions found in California’s hotter climes, southern Italy, central Spain and others sometime in the distant future. Should temperatures continue to rise we may one day see winemakers leaving warmer regions in favour of new as yet explored areas well beyond the traditional 50-degree latitude north and south limit. A changing climate offers winemakers more opportunity to experiment with a greater diversity of wine grapes and explore uncharted terroirs. Not at all a bad thing in our books.

By the same token, we’ll start to see more regular ripening and overall better quality vintages in marginal winemaking regions. This year, Germany, Alsace, and Champagne experienced an early harvest. The German harvest is the earliest on record. These early harvests are a direct result of the European heatwave we’ve experienced this year. Total hours of sun and temperature affect everything from yields to sugar levels and additional aspects of physiological ripeness like tannins, anthocyanins, and other phenolic compounds that affect the flavour, texture, and colour of wine. Abundant sunshine in these cool regions means winemakers will also have to rely on techniques like chaptalization less often. Chaptalization is used to boost alcohol levels in areas where grapes may not ripen sufficiently to yield the sugar levels needed to ferment to the mandated minimum alcohol levels, an occasional problem in northern European wine regions.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say what the future holds. Climate change is a natural process but the evidence for human influence on the rate at which our global climate changes is compelling, to say the least. For now, as far as wine is concerned, methods like early harvesting and irrigation will prove essential to maintaining quality and balance in warmer wine regions. If the warming trend holds, we’ll undoubtedly see new regions and countries rise to prominence and win over wine lovers across the globe. Regardless of what happens, one thing we can be sure of is winemakers’ ability to adapt and continue to produce great wine.

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