The Vine & The Climate

Climate change will, at the current rate, affect just about every corner of the world, with enormously consequential outcomes. While viticulture is hardly the most pressing or disturbing of these changes, it is something of a bellwether for the climate more generally. Precipitation, temperature and even humidity will likely change millennia old practices and regions for the worse, as well as previously barren areas for vineyards for the better. It’s a complicated picture, as is always the case with climate, but there are some knowns that are already informing practices across most of the prominent vineyards on the planet.


Drought is not the Only Enemy 

It is tempting to see climate change through the lens of drought and heat, that the main issue will be keeping the vines hydrated when the rainfall is halted to such a degree that previous fertile areas become barren deserts. This is only part of the story, however, and why the label global warming is a misnomer.

Climate change encapsulates unpredictable and extreme weather, in the case of viticulture, that could be a disastrous frost, such as the one which occurred in New York in the spring of 2014, ruining the much of the crop for the entire year. There is also an issue with storms and flooding, which can as easily decimate a vineyard as an unexpected frost or prolonged drought.


New Areas for Cultivation

We should make clear at this point that we are not scientists, and that climate science is far from an exact art form. What we do know is that the climate is changing drastically and that this will likely make previously unsuitable areas for viticulture relevant. Predicting what these are, and how fertile for the vine they might be, is therefore far from straightforward.

There are already areas that are beginning to thrive that were once, at best, backwater areas for viticulture. Britain, which although has had some form of winemaking since the Roman era, has gone from a novelty region to a place where sparkling wine is rivalling those produced in Champagne. This is partly down to vines planted decades ago reaching their peak, as well as better practices in winemaking, but the rise in temperature is certainly an important part.

Other parts of Northern Europe are also beginning to get in on the act, and it is predicted that much of north-eastern Europe will, as a result, become a prime region for new vines come the second half of the century.

This optimistic outlook for the coming few decades does, however, need to be tempered with the fact that climate change does not occur in a predictable fashion. Areas in the north of Europe might have average temperatures that make it well suited to the vine, but the extreme weather events mentioned earlier are just as likely to put pay to the potential this new norm might present.


Concern for Old World Wine Regions

Most worryingly of all for those passionate about the vine are the pressures that are likely to come, and are already occurring, in the most prevalent wine regions of the world. This is not something that is going unnoticed for the largest producers, of fine wine in particular.

Fine wine is not a simple matter of the planting and harvesting of the grape. Everything from the terroir (soil), maintenance of the vine, blend of the wine, storage and bottling can have a major effect. It has taken many centuries in some cases to reach the point of perfection, and the rapid nature of climate change is affecting everything.

Much of France, arguably the world’s premier country for wine making, will undergo extreme heat and drought, which is likely to change wine making there beyond recognition. The same goes for much of Italy and Spain, Austria is losing its ability to produce ice wine (grapes harvested when not ripened, producing a uniquely sweet wine) and Germany is having to rethink its winemaking regions, with some Rieslings thriving at present, but southern areas of the Rhone struggling mightily.


Concern for New World Wines

It isn’t just the old world wines that are struggling, however. California has recently undergone an unprecedented drought that will likely be the norm from here on out. Chile, too, has had to deal with a sharp decline in rainfall, or with storms that bring large amounts of rain in short periods, followed by prolonged dry spells, which amounts to the same outcome.

In fact, in some cases, the new world vineyards are in a much more vulnerable position than their old world counterparts. With approximately 1,000 grape varieties, the old world can at least adapt their winemaking to suit the climate. New world wines do not always have these options to hand, with may grapes proving stubbornly resistant to these regions.


Adaptation and Hope

It would be understandable at this point to lose all hope for the future of viticulture and assume that in a few decades time we will be swilling poor quality Siberian wine while reminiscing about that astounding bottle of Merlot you had 40 years ago. But all hope is far from lost.

Throughout history, the vine has proven to be highly adaptive and surprisingly resistant. The phylloxera infestations of the 19th century, for example, almost wiped out French production when the parasites were brought to the region from North America. With a little expertise, the hybridisation with resistant North American vines, the wine industry was once again flourishing.

Regarding climate change, there are many practices that can be adapted to combat the issues facing the industry. In Bordeaux, for example, the process of blending has always relied heavily on certain grapes, such as Merlot. In the future, the Merlot grape is likely to struggle in dry and hot conditions, so the staple of the Bordeaux blend may well change to a more appropriate grape, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, this method is already being implemented in the renowned vineyards of Chateau Lagrange to great effect.

In the new world regions, experimentation has led to some surprising and exciting results. Dry farming, the practice of cultivating grapes without excessive watering, has led to smaller berries with a higher skin to pulp ratio. This in turn has led to a higher quality of product, albeit at a smaller volume.

Adaptation is key. The grapes are showing that they are willing, the key will be how open to change producers are, particularly in the old world, where practices date back many centuries. In this sense, viticulture may well be a perfect metaphor for how we, as a species, adapt to the changes that we are to face in the coming decades. Adapt or perish, both grape and humans have a long history of doing the former.