On the blogby Alfred
July 27 2016

Global warming and the wine industry : alarming signs

by Alfred

Nobody calls someone who worries openly about global warming an extremist any more. Except for a few diehard climate skeptics here and there, the subject is considered a recognized reality against which we must engage and fight. Unfortunately, the consensus on the ways to achieve this fight are still rare.

When we talk about global warming we necessarily foresee significant changes in world agriculture and, according to the most recent studies, these changes occur quickly enough to be able to witness the consequences in the space of a single crop season.

At Alfred, wine is our obsession as much as our passion and business; it was normal that we would worry about the fact that its production is firmly rooted in soils and crops affected by global warming. Obviously, these weather changes will certainly shake the entire world wine production. We decide to enquire further on the subject. Here is our first report on the situation.

Warming, Co2, seasonal changes and UV

Climate data of the last 100 years has shown that global temperatures are gradually beginning to rise with a warming trend of +0.74 ⁰C per hundred years and this is anticipated to affect viticulture all over the world. Despite climate change uncertainties, the gradual temperature rise is projected to continue in the future.

Adding to rising temperatures is the increase in carbon dioxide concentration that is expected to continue and have an effect on agroclimatic conditions. Shifts in the amount of distribution and seasonality of rainfall are also anticipated, as well as increases in surface level of ultraviolet UV-B radiation due to ozone layer depletion.

Australian wine makers are very worried

It is not a coincidence that, last week, during the Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference in Adelaide, Australia, one of the workshops was about a global perspective on the challenges and opportunities faced for viticulture in adjusting to a changing climate. Experts were scheduled to discuss both the direct (temperature, precipitation and CO2 concentration) and indirect consequences (resource management, energy efficiency, production sustainability and consumer acceptance) of climate change.

One of the main concerns in the Australian winemakers community has been for a while to find a way to deal with the two-edged sword of alternating heavy rainfall and water scarcity at different times, and the consequences for soils of climate changes.

One can argue that Australia has endured an endemic desertification problem for a while, especially since much of its vine growing territories have been won by irrigating lands that were already dried up.

A global alert coming from the scientific community

However, the alarm bells are more universal. This spring, two researchers in the field of global ecology, Benjamin Cook and Elizabeth Wolkovich, stated unequivocally, in an article published in the very serious and renowned Nature that we can expect a disruption in the world’s wine supply in the near future. In their very documented opinion, there’s been a fundamental shift in the large-scale climate under which all local factors operate.

The researchers explain that there is a huge shift in climatic dynamics that brings more heat constantly rather than only in the traditional drought periods that helped the grape mature. While more heat may seem like a good thing, the grapes can only take so much. There is a yet unforeseen limit to how much the grapes can stand in terms of excess heat; if the temperature keeps pushing up, vineyards won’t be able to stand it forever. The shift in dynamics is most pronounced in regions like Alsace, Champagne, Burgundy, and Languedoc, all regions that grow Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other relatively cool-weather varieties that are especially sensitive to changes in temperature.

Geographically mutating grapes

In time, obviously, these regions will no longer be able to produce these types of wines and people might have to accept to drink Italian varieties grown in France and Pinot Noir from Germany… On the other hand, enologists and agronomes don’t even know whether or not these will be able to adapt to totally new environments.

During the course of their studies, funded in large part by Nasa, the scientists concentrated on studying droughts and the timing of wine grape harvests in France and Switzerland from 1600 to 2007. They also realized that harvests began shifting dramatically earlier since 1981. These shifts were caused by the same changes in the connection between climate and harvest timing.

The finding is important because higher-quality wines are typically associated with earlier harvest dates in cooler wine-growing regions. Classic indicators of wine quality, such as wine ratings, show the best years for grape harvest normally include warm summers with above-average rainfall early in the growing season and late-season drought.

Sadly, in recent decades the impact of drought has largely disappeared as a result of these large-scale climate shifts. That evolution may prove critical to wine producers as climate change will definitely intensify during the coming decades.

Spanish vineyards are also affected

Unfortunately, this crisis seems to affect wine producers that operate in much warmer climates.

A very recent study carried out by researchers from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid to measure various bioclimatic indices in grapevine regions of Spain shave shown that, to deal with the very foreseeable increase in temperature and decrease in rainfall, new measures must be applied to vines to avoid a marked decrease in wine quality.

It must be noted that Spain is the second largest exporter of wine after Italy, and it has become the third-largest wine producer in Europe after France and Italy, it is thus an activity with remarkable economic and cultural impacts. The climate of the regions defines the typicality of wines and grape production strategies. The climate change projections for the next 50 years indicate increases in annual average temperatures, a decrease in precipitation and a large increase in heat waves and drought in the Iberian Peninsula.

These changes can have complex potential consequences for the for the 56 protected designations of origins that qualify the wines of Spain on the global markets. With an excessive temperature rise, the growing period will shorten and have a negative effect on the berry quality causing overripeness and excess of sugars. The future conditions will be quite a challenge for vineyards in Valles del Tajo, Guadiana, Guadalquivir and the Southeastern coast of Spain. The rest of the country might be less affected but growers will still have to adapt their crops to the climate change.

A worldwide crisis

It is obvious that what has been studied and measured in the North of France, Switzerland and Spain is bound to affect all other wine cultivating areas of the world, from the Niagara Valley in Canada to the Western Cape Province of South Africa. In certain cases, the trends might be seen as a blessing, allowing the cultivation in normally colder climes of more exotic varietals, but, in general, we can expect a major crisis in the world of wine.

To measure the global effect of this climactic catastrophy, we have to realize that the northern boundary of European viticulture will shift north 10 to 30 kilometres per decade up to 2020 with a doubling of this rate predicted between 2020 and 2050. While it might open doors to new cultivars being grown in certain regions, the bigger loss of suitability of other cultivars will obviously risk production quality and quantity in general.

We can foresee sharp declines in wine production from Bordeaux and Rhone regions in France and from Tuscany in Italy. Wine growing areas of Australia anticipate a 74% drop, California, a 70% fall while the Cape area of South Africa would also be hit hard, with a 55% decline. Chile’s wine producers can expect losses of about 40%.

Of course, climate change also opens up other parts of the world to grapes, as growers look for higher and cooler ground.

Australian wine producers are already looking at potential new territory such as Tasmania. The findings could lead wine growers to strike out for various wilderness areas around the world, and scale higher into the hills.

However, that search for new wine producing terroirs could in turn create a whole new set of potential problems for the wine growers of the new frontier.

After all, is the world ready for Chardonnay from Northern China?

AlfredThe sommeliers community in your pocket.

Begin your Alfred journey today: Sign Up