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Global trends in the world of wine (5): How climate change is affecting wine production

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Of all the trends discussed in previous postings about what is driving today’s wine industry, climate change is possibly the most far-reaching.

Wine is the product of a close interaction of grape variety, soils and climate – what we call the terroir. Over time, all wine regions have adopted varieties considered to be most suited to their environment, and most crucially to their climate. Some of the best known (and loved) examples are the majestic Pinot Noirs of Burgundy, the deep and powerful Cabernet Sauvignons of Bordeaux or Napa, and the crystalline, pure Rieslings of the Mosel.

Increasing average temperatures as a manifestation of climate change are upsetting these, in some cases centuries-old, marriages of land, grape and winemaking culture. The 2018 harvest is just wrapping up in Europe and will go on record as one of the earliest, if not the earliest ever, as in Germany. Anticipated harvests are indeed the most immediately visible consequence of global warming. Warmer weather is not necessarily a bad thing though, especially in marginal (i.e. cool) wine regions, where the higher average grape ripeness can result in overall better wines (Germany could be again mentioned as a case in point).

Global warming means that areas previously too cold are becoming suitable for grape-growing, in other words the borderline for wine production is progressively shifting north in the northern and south in the southern hemisphere. A good example of this phenomenon is England: entirely irrelevant in terms of wine production until a few years ago, England is today gaining increasing profile for its outstanding sparkling wines. So far so good – these consequences are benign and a blessing for the discerning wine drinker.

There is reverse side though, too, as with progressively climbing temperatures, many established wine regions will increasingly struggle to continue growing their traditional grape varieties without important losses in typicity and quality. The steadily growing alcohol content in the wines of many European appellations (for example in Bordeaux or Piemonte) is a clear anticipation of what is to come in the next decades. Ripeness control will become even more essential to avoid burning alcoholic strengths and baked, jammy fruit. Faster maturation and increased sugar content (ie less acidity in the wine) will indeed affect the wine’s aromatic profile and ability to age.

Some regions will have to adopt new, more heat- and drought-resistant varieties (experiments and tests are ongoing across the globe, from France to Australia), other regions will become too hot and dry to make any wines at all – at least with current agricultural technologies.

While this appears as a profound change from our perspective, the history of wine has seen many instances where, as during the Small Ice Age in the European Middle Ages, variations in climate have transformed wine-making practices, and not always for the worse.

Potentially even more disruptive however will be the impact of another manifestation of climate change, and that is the widening of climatic extremes and the increasing unpredictability of massive and rapid weather shifts. As grapes (and winemakers) need stable and predictable weather patterns, this could not only affect wine quality significantly, but will also lead to an increase in production and operating costs for wine producers, as vineyard management becomes more complex and unpredictable.

 

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