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Effects of Climate Change on Wine Production

By Dan Berger

Climate Change and Wine Production

Did you ever think about how climate chance could effect the wine industry? What could happen to your favorite red and white wines as temperatures rise?

It may not be something you thing about when sipping on a glass of wine, but when making wine, climate is one of the key controlling factors.

“Among environmental factors, climate has a greater impact on vine development and fruit composition than either soil or variety,” according to Wines Vines Analytics.

Wines Vines Analytics listed the following climate change factors connected to wine:

  • Increased temperature during the growing season.
  • Increase in growing degree-days, mean temperature during fruit maturation, mean temperature of the warmest month of the growing season, in mean temperature of the coldest month of the growing season and in length of growing season (frost-free days).
  • Occurrence of extreme winter minimum temperatures.
  • Increases in precipitation for July through October and in precipitation seasonality (coefficient of variation).
  • Change in the aridity index (annual precipitation and potential evapotranspiration).

A few years ago, a scientific report showed that there could be some effects of climate change on wine production. Specifically, global warming may make it too warm for the traditional great wine regions of France and the United States to make great wine.

Scientists said that by the middle of this century, average temperatures could pose a hazard to classic wines.

Climate Change Effect on Wine Industry

Will we plant Cabernet Sauvignon in Wisconsin?

Is Chardonnay going to be planted in Alaska?

Will Napa become a tropical housing paradise for San Francisco commuters?

Hardly.

Sure, gradual warming of California’s wine areas may change many of the wines we knew two decades ago. But, when it comes to climate change and wine, climate change is slow. Planning now for the future may be able to counteract the effects of climate change on wine production.

We can forecast that, over time, some grape varieties may have to be torn out. They can be replaced by other grapes that do better in slightly warmer regions.

The Pacific Ocean provides temperate breezes in the afternoons. This means many wine makers can take solace that simple pruning and trellising techniques could provide solutions for at least another few decades.

Climate Change and Wine

There is a fear that warmer temperatures will cause grapes to gain sugar too quickly before vine-ripened flavors are attained. This fear is especially true in areas where grapes don’t make classic wines.

Coastal vineyards are cooled more regularly than vines growing in inland valleys because of the direct access to marine air.

Grapes growing in California’s hot, vast central San Joaquin Valley could be more negatively affected than in coastal areas. In the inland valleys, summer daytime highs routinely reach triple digits. This allows a lot of grapes to flourish and make wines with uninteresting flavors.

Marine influences aren’t the only factors in wine quality, of course, but they were so compelling for at least one man that they led him on a multiyear quest to get a federal ruling on the issue.

“California Coastal”

The late Jess Jackson, head of the Kendall-Jackson brand as well as an empire of superb smaller wineries, was denied in his quest to have the phrase “California Coastal” approved as the largest appellation in the nation. 

This area would have covered roughly 700 miles from the Mexican border to northern California. It would have excluded the hot central interior, where some 70 percent of the grapes in the state grew.

Jackson was right: coastal wines are better than Central Valley wines, in almost all cases.

But sea views and cooler mountain regions are not only beneficial to wines. They are also attractive to home builders. It’s a lot easier to sell a home for $2 million on an acre of hillside land than it is to sell that same site for a vineyard that—even in an optimistic projection—would gross $50,000 a year in revenues from the growing of grapes.

Such competition for land has led some of the more-sophisticated wine companies to seek cooler regions that aren’t necessarily as attractive to home builders.

In California, that’s not as easy as it is in places like Australia and New Zealand, where vast land masses and small populations (just about 26 million between the two nations) combine to allow well-financed wine companies to plant new vineyards.

If global warming does become a huge problem in the wine industry, emerging wine regions in Spain, South Africa, Argentina, and Romania could well provide reasonably priced alternatives to California wine. This is because these regions have already started to take climate change into account.

Effects of Climate Change on Wine Production in Italy

In an October 2018 article in The Washington Post, Livio Salvador shares the changes he’s seen over the past five years. “When he walked through his vineyards, he would see patches of grapes that were browned and desiccated. The damage tended to appear on the outside of the bunch—the part most exposed to sunlight. Salvador talked to other growers and winemakers in the region, and they were noticing it, too.”

Italy’s particularly sensitive white wine grapes are showing the beginnings of climate change’s effect on the wine industry.

The article continues to state, “Climate change is only beginning to reorder the global wine industry, altering the patterns of how and where grapes are produced and testing whether the world’s iconic regions can find ways to adapt. Many factors influence wine and its taste. Yet because of rising temperatures, some of Europe’s biggest producers are buying up land in the Pyrenees foothills, in northern China and in southern England, where the climate now resembles the French Champagne region of the 1970s.”

As time goes on, it is likely we’ll learn more about the effects of climate change on wine production. We can only hope that as research develops, we can still enjoy all our favorite wines.

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