Photo: P Berry
I recently enjoyed a wonderful holiday in South Africa – and apart from some excellent golf, one of the highlights was being able to visit a number of vineyard estates in the Cape wine region. As I sipped on yet another excellent chilled Sauvignon Blanc, nothing was further from my mind than geography work. But, after chatting with a group of winemakers at a tasting event at one of the estates, it soon became clear that the changing wine industry could provide a great ‘hook’ into investigations about climate change, particularly with adult groups.
It seems the global wine industry has been rocked by the recently warming climate. Generally speaking, winemakers will have to move further from the equator to have favourable growing conditions.
For some more detail, let us focus close to home on Europe – the world’s leading producer of wine. This continent is home to the premium grape growing regions of France, Spain and Italy, and the EU accounts for 45% of winegrowing areas in the world. Europe accounts for 65% of global wine production, with over 3 million hectares of land covered in vineyards.
But now, Europe’s wine industry faces an uncertain future – and is certain to face significant change. The warming climate is expected to threaten the viability of many vineyards and lead to a major shake-up in the geographic distribution of Europe’s wine production over the coming decades. It is possible that the grapes that have made certain regions famous could no longer be grown efficiently in their traditional home areas.
With Europe expected to warm more than many other places on Earth, so it’s wine growing regions face a major challenge. Over the next 50 years, Europe’s temperature is expected to increase by three to five degrees Celsius. This will cause a massive shift in harvesting dates, as well as increased threat (along with increasing humidity) of pests and insect-borne diseases. Already, change is here. Current harvests come at least two to three weeks earlier than they did in the 1980s, with many regions who traditionally harvested in mid-October now doing so in mid to late September. In 2017, the French harvest was six weeks earlier than average in some areas.
The degree to which a winegrowing region in Europe will be affected will depend upon its specific location, and exactly by how much that place is projected to warm up. Hotter areas will have fewer options to help them cope with a warming climate. The safest winegrowing areas know what their weather is likely to be year in year out. Those that make some of the finest wines are sometimes in the marginal areas. These could become more inconsistent and affect the delicate balance of conditions that are required.
Harshest estimates put the loss of grape suitability in premium winegrowing areas as high as 70%. Some areas – particularly on the Mediterranean coast, and especially in Greece, Italy and France – might become completely inhospitable to wine production by 2050. Changes in climate will lead to changes in traditional wines. A glass of Burgundy could more closely resemble a Bordeaux, while Bordeaux wines could become fruitier and have a lower alcohol content. For some of the more sensitive grapes, even small subtle changes in weather can have a make or break effect on their chemistry. Colder temperatures mean some grapes do not completely ripen, which results in high acidity, low sugar levels, and bitter flavours. Conversely, hotter temperatures produce over-ripe grapes with low acidity and high alcohol content.
Spain faces a dilemma as hotter summers produce high sugar content in grapes just as consumers are moving away from intense wines toward more subtle and lighter tastes. Hotter Spanish summers caused by climate change are forcing winemakers to move their vineyards to higher altitudes to maintain the characteristic tastes and tones of wine such as Rioja. Italy’s Chianti wine region predominantly thrives in a mild dry climate. As temperatures continue to increase the grapes are not only ripening much faster, but are drying out under the scorching heat of summer sun. Growers are noting more disease, earlier ripening times, higher levels of sugar and alcohol, and lowering levels of acidity. Bordeaux is known for its maritime and continental climate and is beginning to struggle with more subtle effects of climate change – rising temperatures and storms and excessive rain.
Winemakers say that as temperatures rise, the variety and nuance is being lost in exchange for alcohol, as hotter temperatures ripen grapes faster, increasing their sugar content.
However, there will not be disaster for everyone. Some wine regions are benefitting from dramatic shifts in climate – namely, those cooler regions that historically have trouble certain grape varieties. These areas currently on the fringes of wine producing regions could in the future begin to place themselves within the premium market.
A warming climate means that places like the south of England (and beyond Europe, places like northern China and upstate New York) will soon be able to grow a greater variety of grapes. It could not have been imagined ten years ago, that in 2020, it would be possible to taste (and enjoy) a glass of sparkling wine made in England. It would then have been considered to be too cold and too rainy, and no one would ever have been so foolish as to grow grapes there.
More Champagne, Sir?
France is fighting to save its Champagne. Experts say grape varieties used to make it will be ruined by rising temperatures. Some growers worry that if average temperature increases reach 2 degrees, champagne will be gone forever. This year saw the champagne region record its highest ever temperature of 42.9 degrees. Grape Harvesting used to be in late September or early October, but is now on average 18 days earlier. Currently, many growers harvest at night when temperatures are cooler to discourage fermentation. Heat and drought resistant grapes may be the saviours for the future, involving hybrids created by crosses with American varieties. Experts worry this is very unfrench. The Met Office predicts that the dreaded 2 degrees mark will be reached between 2055 and 2075 depending on emission levels. Perhaps champagne will be made in more northerly areas such as Britain?That will never happen say the French experts.
England is already beginning to mimic a perfect climate for producing champagne. A rise of one to two degrees Celsius would allow English grapes to develop more sugar and phenolic ripeness, which softens acidity and influences colour, flavour and aroma. This could lead to a real growth spike in the English wine industry. However, we still have quite a way to catch up – with just over 1,500 hectares of vines in production compared to a giant 760,000 hectares in France!
Extreme weather incidents connected to climate change could also make life particularly difficult for winegrowers. Unseasonal frosts or isolated heavy bouts of rain (or even hail) could cause untold damage to crops.
In an effort to reduce the impacts of climate change, some winegrowers are focusing their efforts to manage the microclimates around their vines. New techniques include using strategic planting of vines east to west (rather than the traditional north to south) to allow the canopy to protect the grapes. In addition, irrigation practices are changing, changing, new technology is being applied using micro-misters and wind machines, and the use of shade cloths.
One problem winegrowers will face is that currently, strict labelling laws limit the degree of diversity winegrowers can experiment with in their particular areas. For instance, there are only three varieties of grapes that can be labelled as Champagne, and only 6 red grapes that can contribute to Bordeaux wines. These laws have their roots in a deep tradition, and pay homage to the idea of ‘terroir’ – the natural environment in which a wine is produced, including soil and climate. The terroir is said to be the vital link between where a wine is grown and it’s flavour. Perhaps it will need to be made easier for them to begin planting some of the many different grape varieties that are better adapted to warmer climates and droughts. Hybrid grape varieties that fare better in warmer climates could replace some of the more delicate varieties like Pinot Noir. Process of changing grape varieties takes a long time. New vines take up to 5 years to produce their first fruit. Any action that is needed should start now.
Some argue that producers should be permitted to add acid to certain appellations that do not currently allow this addition. Argument is based on fact that when climate is warmer, grapes mature earlier, leading to higher levels of sugar and alcohol but lower levels of acidity.
Whatever happens with our climate, it certainly looks like there will be some different bottle labels appearing in the wine rack in the future.