Changing Climates, Changing Palates: The Impact of Climate Change on Global Wine Production

Changing Climates, Changing Palates: The Impact of Climate Change on Global Wine Production

Winos, take notice! For many of us, it can be difficult to discern how climate change will tangibly impact everyday life. If you are an everyday wine drinker (like myself), you might be surprised (and disappointed) to learn that your happy hour beverage of choice is strongly linked to a changing global climate. In fact, climate change presents an imminent threat to wine quality and the geographic distribution of wine grapes.

Although it may not feel entirely apropos to wax poetic about wine quality while human-induced climate change threatens the world’s most vulnerable landscapes and populations, wine can and should be used as a proxy to communicate the urgent need for climate adaptation.


Thinking beyond indulgence: why wine?

Red wine grapes in Napa Valley, CA – Source: Pixaday

Wine production is a critical global commodity that supports and enhances livelihoods all over the world. The American wine industry alone accounts for approximately 1.1 million jobs and has an economic impact of approximately $162 billion.

Wine grapes are particularly sensitive to slight changes in temperature and rainfallmaking them especially vulnerable to climate change impacts. In fact, the “vintage effect” that often entices us to select one bottle of wine over another has much to do with annual variations in climatic conditions that affect yield and quality. Therefore, impacts on wine production could help to inform expectations for other agricultural crops under future climate conditions.


What will happen to wine under climate change conditions?

Increased temperatures advance ripening. The degree of ripeness achieved by the vine affects flavor. Because wine is traditionally defined and marketed for its flavor, rising temperatures associated with climate change will have significant consequences for vulnerable wine-growing regions.

Grape composition is largely determined by both temperature and water. Increased sugar levels are positively correlated to rising temperatures and yield wines with higher alcohol content and less acid. Vintners depend on a delicate balance of alcohol, acid, and tannins to produce a quality wine. When alcohol levels are too low or too high, wine quality is impaired.

Before 1980, wine quality benefited from increased sugar levels. However, increasing temperatures over the last 30 years have resulted in wines with potential alcohol levels that exceed 14%, which is generally too high for optimum quality.

In a study modelling the effects of climate change on plant development, researchers observed that ripeness will be advanced by 25 days in Bordeaux in the near future (2020-2050), and by 45 days at the end of the century (2070).  Unfortunately, when ripeness is reached too early in the season, grape composition is imbalanced and the quality and terroir of the wine is impaired.

As a result, researchers predict that the climatic suitability for wine production will decline in traditional wine-growing regions such as Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley, and Tuscany, and increase across higher latitudes in North America and Europe. The same study predicts that total suitable area for wine production will potentially decrease by nearly 70% under certain climate conditions.

While these predictions might sadden the average wine lover, they bear devastating consequences for the individuals and families whose livelihoods depend on stable and consistent wine production. This includes farmers, workers, importers, shop owners, chefs and others who commonly interact with the wine industry.


Forward Thinking: Adaptation and Changing Palates

Although climate change brings with it significant challenges for wine producers, a number of strategies exist for addressing them.

Chardonnay Harvest in Napa Valley, CA – Source: Pixaday

First, farmers can plant new varieties that are well-suited for production under future climate conditions. For example, late-ripening varieties delay the ripening process, which yields a more balanced sugar-acid ratio. Additionally, farmers might try experimenting with some non-local varieties. Investment in new varieties with similar flavor profiles but different response to climate will also be important.

Second, winemakers can work with specially designed yeasts that metabolize higher sugar contents. Some producers are already working with technology firms that specialize in alcohol removal.

Third, in regions where higher temperatures are coupled with drought, such as in California, farmers may turn to irrigation to avoid reductions in yield. However, irrigation is not an optimal solution when taking into account water scarcity and conservation.

Fourth, wine production may start to move upland into areas previously deemed too marginal for growing grapes. The redistribution of wine production, while creating new markets for previously unproductive areas, may also be problematic for smaller vineyards unable to relocate their livelihoods. Of additional concern to vineyard relocation are the environmental impacts associated with vineyard establishment (i.e. habitat loss and removal of native vegetation).


How to be a Responsible Wine Drinker

Winos, take action! While these strategies do assuage some fear about the global fate of wine, the existence of adaptation strategies does not exempt the typical wine drinker from practicing good consumerism.

Purchasing wines made by farmers who practice good land stewardship, demonstrating openness to new varieties, and supporting small, family-run vineyards are all tangible actions that can easily be practiced by the everyday (or more conservative) wine drinker. Mindful patronage and consumerism can help shape the evolution of an industry rooted in culture and tradition.

Finally, it is crucial that we do not dismiss the threat of climate change to the wine industry. While for many, wine may not constitute a household necessity (although, I beg to differ), the issues addressed here are largely representative of threats to many staple food crops. Lessons learned from the wine industry about climate change response are critical to the adaptability and resilience of our global food system. Lead the way, winos!



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