Climate change and viticulture’s challenges
If you would have told me, ten years ago, that in 2020, I would have tasted (and enjoyed) a glass of sparkling wine made in England, I would have laughed hard: too cold, too rainy, no-one would ever be so foolish to grow grapes there. But here we are, in 2020, drinking champenoise method’s wines from West Sussex, Great Britain. So, what is happening to the viticulture with this so discussed climate change? And what can happen in the next decade?
Although there are people who doubt the existence of climate change, winemakers around the world have already been witnessing its damaging effects for years, including an increase in the severity and occasion of weather patterns like wildfires and hurricanes. Because much of what encompasses the terroir of a wine is dependant on the climate of the surrounding wine region, it has forced producers to adapt to these changes and make modifications to maintain consistent flavor profiles.
That being said, as the average temperatures continue to rise, so too are the instances of extreme weather, such as prolonged seasons of drought and devastating hail storms. More than simply consistent rising temperatures, climate change includes various other weather pattern disruptions: excessive rainfall, more severe weather instances, and seasonal irregularities, to name a few. All of these contribute greatly to the difficulties that winemakers have been enduring to produce more dependable vintages of their wines.
Some wine regions, however, have benefitted from these drastic shifts in climate—namely, those cooler regions that historically have trouble ripening certain grape varieties. For instance, Germany’s Rieslings and Loire Valley’s Cabernet Francs are now experiencing considerably more reliable harvests in most recent years. It is important to realize that there are still other factors involved in the enhanced reliability in the harvests, but an undeniable, unexpected contributor to this fact is climate change. Other wine regions, namely England, Poland, and Oregon, have also been benefiting from these direct effects of climate change on wine production. It was not until more recent years that Pinot Noir even became known as a suitable grape to cultivate in Oregon, but with climate change, it may become even more suitable here than the iconic Burgundy. Learn more about Oregon Pinot Noir here.
Impact on wine regions of the world
Now that we have discussed some of the overall positive and negative impacts of climate change on viticulture, let’s delve deeper into its influences on the various renowned wine regions of the world.
Burgundy, one of the wine regions most susceptible to these drastic changes in climate, is notorious for its production of Pinot Noir grapes that are incredibly sensitive to even slight changes in their environment. With that in mind, the challenges are insurmountably more difficult here because the fickle Pinot Noir thrives when grown in a cool climate.
Burgundy Pinot Noirs tend to have a higher acidity, lower alcohol content, and lighter body—all of which are crucial components needed to maintain the caliber of wines produced here. Because each of these are affected by climate change’s higher temperatures and incongruous seasonal patterns, Pinot Noir vines in Burgundy are could become less suitable for producing consistent choice wines.
Italy’s Chianti wine region, known for its proliferation of Sangiovese—which predominantly thrives in a mild, dry climate—has also been experiencing a downturn due to the effects of climate change. As the temperatures continue to increase, the grapes are not only ripening much faster, but they are drying out under the scorching heat of the summer sun. Producers and farmers are identifying more occasions of disease, earlier-than-normal ripening times, and grapes that are being damaged by the intensity of direct sunlight. The wines are also reaching higher levels of sugar and alcohol—all the while risking to lose their coveted levels of acidity.
France’s Bordeaux region has been attempting to adapt to the ever-changing climate by testing the viability of their vineyards. They have been experimenting with once deemed unsuitable slopes for new vineyards or even planting more heat resistant grape varietals.
Bordeaux, known for its maritime and continental climate, is beginning to struggle with the more subtle effects of climate change: rise of temperatures and hazards like storms and excessive rain. The winemakers here are acting quickly and determining whether or not it would be worthwhile to adjust the classic grape varietals found in Bordeaux blends (i.e., Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) to maintaining the characteristics of Bordeaux.
California’s Napa Valley wine region, the most famous wine region of the United States, produces a staggering amount of Cabernet Sauvignon—65% of the grapevines in Napa are dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon, in fact. As the most abundantly-grown grape varietal here, Cabernet Sauvignon is also subject to the threat of rising temperatures, an increase in the occasion of wildfires, seasons of drought, and extreme weather conditions.
Winemakers in Napa Valley are now looking to other grapes to see their growth potential here, and producers are beginning to notice that Cabernet Sauvignon may not be as lucrative in the future. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, with an increase in temperatures and earlier harvests, these grapes will be overripe and higher in sugar content, yet they will be missing crucial flavor profiles.
Allow adding acids?
While many winemakers are reaping disastrous effects of climate change and doing their best to adapt as much as possible, others are suggesting that there should be some regulation changes regarding policies that govern how wine is made. For example, some argue that producers should be permitted to add acid to certain appellations that currently do not allow this addition. Their argument is based on the fact that when the climate is warmer, the grapes mature earlier, which leads to higher levels of sugar and alcohol but lower levels of acidity. This argument proposes a challenge to the future of winemaking, and it is something that will continue to be contested in the coming years.
Overall, the considerably “apocalyptic” predictions for the future of these renowned wine regions—including radical changes in wine styles, establishment of new wine regions, and planting new varieties—are understandable, but further research is being conducted to better determine the courses of action required to reverse the negative aspects of climate change on viticulture.