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The Changing Climate for Wine
By Sandra Taylor
Apr 16, 2019
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In classic (French) winegrowing tradition, there are three ingredients that combine with a grape variety to influence any particular wine’s style:  The weather, the soil, and the topography.  This combination is called the terroir, and it gives each wine a flavor specific to the place where the grapes are cultivated.  For example, a Merlot grown in Bordeaux won't taste the same as a Merlot grown in Napa Valley, which will in turn differ from Merlot grapes grown in Washington state.  Terroir is now being drastically influenced by climate change caused principally by human activities. 
Premium wine lovers should be paying close attention to the increasingly dire reports on global climate change.  While the wine industry isn't a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it could be a casualty of climate change within the next 50 years, according to scientists in the US and Europe.

In 2013 a group of scientists with Conservation International released key findings that climate change will dramatically impact many of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world today and prompt the opening of new areas to fine wine production in unexpected places.  The study warned that California could experience a 70 percent reduction in wine production by 2050, as the area suitable for grape cultivation shrinks to narrow strips along the coast and up at high elevations.  By 2050 high-value areas which are currently major sites for producing premium grape varieties in California--especially Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon--may no longer be suitable.  

Napa Valley, Mendocino, and Sonoma, they predict, will quickly become too warm for viticulture.  Oregon and Washington, on the other hand, could see expanded production as the prime growing areas migrate north.  Some areas too cold for grape production would become more suitable as the climate warms.  If their model is correct (it assumes a two-degree Fahrenheit average global temperature change by 2040, which is well within most forecasts), the California wine industry could be forced to undertake dramatic measures to adapt, either relocating production sites or shifting to heartier (and less desirable) varieties. 

When temperatures and levels of CO2 increase, grapes ripen more quickly resulting in fruit with higher concentrations of sugars, lower acidity and higher pH levels.  What the wine industry is facing is not only a change in temperature but a change to the very ingredients of the terroir.  Resulting wines end up being less delicate with higher alcohol content. 

Average temperature levels are rising, and even more concerning, so are extreme vine and grape-harming weather events, such as prolonged droughts and hail storms.  Bordeaux, for instance, was hit with severe hail storms in May 2018, damaging thousands of acres, while in 2017, the region suffered destructive frosts.  Increasingly, winemakers in places such as Napa,

California’s Central Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley are acknowledging that climate change poses not just a future risk, but a clear-and-present trend.  Climate change impacts of simultaneous volatile weather events such as cold snaps, sharp frosts, downpours at key points in the growing season, and new insects thriving in warmer conditions are all major threats to the productivity of the industry, especially for climate sensitive grapes.  

And not just in the US; by 2050 it's predicted that large areas of southern Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, Australia, South Africa and southern France will no longer be able to support the growth of wine grapes because of the hotter weather.  The Champagne region in France, where cool climate grapes are grown, is especially vulnerable to rising temperatures that have caused the grapes to produce more sugar, more alcohol and less acidity.  Acidity is vital to the crisp flavor of the finest Champagnes.

What does this mean to fine wine lovers?

The impact of climate change on wine making is both a threat and an opportunity.  On one hand, traditional wine making regions may be adversely affected.  On the other, new regions will become more attractive.  Initially, warmer temperatures were welcomed in Europe.  In France, the last 10 years have produced a series of excellent vintages, especially in Bordeaux.  Germany's Rhine and Mosel Valleys are now producing some of the best wines they've ever made, according to some wine consultants.

While they may spell trouble for your favorite wine, the effects of climate change are also opening up new countries to the wine business.  Regions with perfect winegrowing conditions are shifting, and vineyards are beginning to pop up in southern England, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.  One United Nations model predicts the geography of wine growing could shift on average 111 miles (180 kilometers) to the north of where we currently know it to be.

Some wine lovers joke and scoff at the idea of fine English wine.  Yet English wine producers have been winning plaudits and top international prizes in recent years -- including for sparkling wine -- and they owe it partly to climate change, as the climate in southern England has shifted from a marginal, cool climate to an intermediate climate.  Tattinger, the award-winning Champagne house, purchased 69 hectares in Kent for the production of sparkling wine and in 2017 planted it with chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.  (The new wine will be named Domaine Évremond, after Charles de Saint-Évremond, who is credited with helping introduce 17th-century London to the habit of drinking Champagne.)

Not all winemakers are complaining.  In North America while fine Napa Cabernet may be at risk, other North American regions may benefit from the rise in the average temperatures including British Columbia, Washington State, upstate New York and Long Island.  Winemakers in the Okanagan Valley east of Vancouver are planting red wine varieties once deemed unsuitable to the region, such as Merlot and Pinot Noir.  Okanagan’s wine industry will likely flourish in the decades to come.  In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, growers once worried about their Pinot Noir grapes reaching full ripeness by the end of the short growing season.  Now they have opposite concern, namely, that their grapes don’t ripen so quickly they lose some of their delicate character.
What steps can the industry take to mitigate the impacts? 

Winemaking bears small responsibility for a warming planet, yet the wine industry has a large stake in progress reducing the global emissions that are causing the problem, and there is much the industry can do, not only to lessen its own carbon footprint, or to adapt to the changing climate, but to become advocates for more aggressive emission reduction policies by governments around the world. 

Winemaking contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, partially through cooling of tanks in modern winemaking but primarily through packaging and transportation to markets -- often overlooked in sustainability programs.  The industry’s water footprint is likely even greater than its carbon impacts, an issue likely to undermine the future of wine production in popular warm weather areas such as drought-stricken California, Spain and South America unless new strategies for water conservation are in place.

Winegrowers are trying methods of mitigating the effects of global warming on their crops.  Some are buying up high-altitude properties where temperatures are cooler, reducing sun exposure by planting vineyards on north-facing slopes (south-facing in the Southern Hemisphere) and harvesting earlier.  Grapes are being harvested between 2 and 6 weeks earlier in parts of Germany, California, Italy and France.  The Champagne industry has started to shrink its carbon footprint -- the average weight of an empty Champagne bottle has fallen from 900g to 830g, and the level of CO² released per bottle made is down 15 per cent, according to the Comité Champagne.  It is also researching new varieties of grapes that can withstand higher temperatures and disease.

Elsewhere the wine industry is starting to take other steps to reduce its carbon footprint —shipping wine in bulk to be bottled in destination markets, proper management and control of water usage, and energy reduction and conservation.  New formats for wine delivery and alternative packaging are innovations that can offer taste quality, eliminate waste and reduce carbon footprint, such as wine in keg for wine-by-the-glass service in restaurants and wine bars, and bag-in-box wine for home consumption.

No-Till Agriculture is one method available to vineyard managers to mitigate climate impacts.  When they refrain from tilling, not only are they preserving the soil’s rich biodiversity, but they are sequestering carbon and preventing erosion.

Dry Farming is another mitigation method.  Following years of drought in California, the Old-World practice of dry farming is making a comeback.  Winemakers in most European countries have grown grapes without irrigation for centuries.  Rainfall, like all weather, is considered part of a region’s essential terroir.  Grapevines are able to adapt to dry conditions.  Advocates say dry farming creates better-tasting wines.  When vines don’t get water from above, the vines seek moisture deep below the topsoil, which is healthier for the vines (even in drought conditions, the vines can still find moisture from deep below the top layers of soil).

Spain's Familia Torres and California's Jackson Family wineries recently announced the joint creation of the organization, "International Wineries for Climate Action."  Torres has invested heavily in installing solar to power their wineries, and Jackson Family have been on a drive to reduce water use by 50% and divert nearly all their waste from landfill.  Like Torres, they have also invested in solar panels for energy production.

For a year now, the two wineries have been working to achieve an 80% reduction of total carbon emissions by 2045 via a three-step process that involves certification by an outside agency.

Torres and Jackson want to provide a roadmap for other wineries through an exchange of information.  Torres, for example, has made great use of biomass generation on their property.  Jackson has been able to collect rainwater, storing it in their fermentation tanks when not in use in order to employ it for various functions around the property.

Both wineries admit that reducing their carbon footprint in production cellars and vineyards is more readily attainable than in shipping.  Jackson has changed the molds for their Kendall Jackson and La Crema bottles to remove 28g in total weight and they're hoping to do more in the future, although both companies admit that it's difficult to change consumer perception that a heavy bottle infers that a high-quality wine is inside.

Hopefully as consumers become more and more educated about and concerned about climate change they will view heavy weight bottles as being of little value to a brand and also choose other sustainable packaging, supporting these winery efforts. 

More wine columns:     Sandra Taylor 
Connect with Sandra on Twitter:    @SanElizTaylor