Will Climate Change Affect The Fine Wine Market?

02/09/2021

85% of land suitable for viniculture could be lost if global temperatures warmed by 4°C. This was the stark conclusion of a report released last year by a group of high-profile climate researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Even a 2°C rise would cause a loss of 56% of land in current winegrowing regions. 

So what exactly would these doomsday predictions mean for the fine wine industry? And what are winemakers and grape growers doing to mitigate the impact of climate change?

Positive Impact In Some Regions

While some areas struggle to adapt to rapidly-changing growing conditions, climate change is likely to have a positive impact on some viticultural regions. According to Steve Borba, Western States District Claims Manager at Zurich’s crop insurance company RCIS which insures 8% of California’s vineyards, rising temperatures can bring benefits.

“In California, we’re in a climate sweet spot where the weather is perfect for growing grapes. There’s a glut of grapes and growers are planting in areas that wouldn’t have been considered 30 years ago. Not only is a warmer climate improving grape yields, it is also reducing risks to the crop. When I started 38 years ago, freeze at bloom and rain during harvest, which can rot grapes, were the biggest risks. But you don’t see that anymore.”

Warmer and earlier summers would also benefit more northerly or southerly regions which often struggle to fully ripen their grapes. Examples include southern England’s sparkling wine belt, Champagne in northern France, and the Mosel and Rhine Valleys in Germany. Vineyards have even been planted as far north as Norway, Denmark and Sweden. 

Increased Drought & Wildfires

Any potential upsides in more northerly climes will come at the expense of hotter wine regions where the impact of climate change is being felt most keenly. “The reduction in irrigation water is now the number one threat to the Californian wine industry,” notes Borba. “Wine producers can manage the other threats, but without water you have nothing.” As of July 2021 85% of California is experiencing extreme drought conditions 

Along with drought comes the ever-growing risk of wildfires. “We had wine producers making their first claim in 25 years due to the wildfires,” recalled Borba. “In some cases, the heat from the flames got so hot it literally cooked the vines”. It’s a worrying trend that’s also been echoed in Australia, bringing total destruction of vineyards and entire wineries as well as smoke taint which can render wines unsaleable. In the summer of 2019-2020, bushfires caused the loss of 4% of the national wine grape crop and damaged 1% of Australia’s total vineyard area.

Adaptability & Flexibility

The study published last year in PNAS recommended that winemakers plant alternative grape varieties which could reduce vineyard losses by up to 50% in some areas. In Bordeaux winemakers are already taking action following a landmark vote in 2019 to allow seven new varieties to be used for Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines. Included in the new varieties are Marselan and Touriga Nacional which can cope well with warmer conditions. 

Another option is to move to higher ground, something that is currently being explored in Spain in the foothills of the Pyrenees at 3000-4000ft above sea level. Nights here are much cooler, giving a higher diurnal or daily temperature range which helps grapes ripen more evenly. 

While some wine regions may benefit from warmer conditions, others will have to adapt quickly to protect their reputation for producing excellent fine wines.The only thing that’s certain is the fine wine of the future may well look and taste quite different from what’s in our glasses today. 

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