Now that the holidays are behind us, it is time to look ahead. My resolution for the coming year is as always: drink better wine and eat better food.
But looking ahead means looking beyond just the next few months. And for the wine industry a look into the future produces nothing but uncertainty. Climate change will dramatically reshape the world’s wine regions in ways that are quite unpredictable. In fact climate change has already likely had some effects, although many of the effects have been positive.
The Bordeaux region of France has had an almost unprecedented three straight summers of warm, dry weather ideal for ripening and harvesting grapes. California wines over the past several years have seen higher and higher sugar levels and riper flavor profiles perhaps indicating a gradual warming of the climate in California wine regions. While we cannot definitively tie these events to climate change, they certainly suggest some influence. As science writer John McQuaid reports:
A 2005 study led by Jones found that the average growing-season temperature in 27 prime wine-producing regions around the world had risen 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the previous 50 years. In the vineyards of Spain, Portugal, southern France, and parts of California and Washington state, it rose a dramatic 4.5 degrees. But Jones also found that, in general, wine quality ratings rose with the temperature.
But climate change will ultimately drive much more significant and less benign change. If climate change predictions hold true, vintners will have to grow different grapes, move their operations to different regions, or simply go out of business. The above referenced study predicts that by 2049, Bordeaux will have reached the upper temperature limits for growing red varieties and will be outside the ideal climate for its white grapes. Most wine regions of the world will by then have reached the point where the grapes typical of that region will no longer produce good wine.
This of course will cause the entire appellation system in much of Europe to collapse since its rules specify the grapes to be grown in each region. All the assumptions developed over a thousand years of winemaking about which varietals grow best in particular regions will be overturned.
The new world wine regions have much less prescriptive regulations but will still be faced with moving their operations to the north (or the south in the southern hemisphere). But adapting to increases in average temperature may not be quite that straightforward, as McQuaid notes.
“It’s a much more complex picture than, ‘on average temperatures are rising.’ If they rise at the wrong time or if weather patterns disrupt the growing season, then the increased degree days are not going to help,” says Don Crank, a winemaker at Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Oregon. Climate change is expected to put other stresses on vineyards as well, including pests and rising competition for fresh water.
For wine lovers, the resolution to drink better wine this year has a greater sense of urgency with climate change looming. Enjoy the glut of good wine now on the market. The future is very uncertain and may arrive more quickly than you think.