Climate change is transforming winemaking styles and grape-growing regions, experts say

Warming is redrawing the wine map


It is 2050 and shoppers are stopping off at Ikea to buy fine wine made in Sweden.

A Nordic fantasy? Not according to climate experts who say the Earth’s warming phase is already driving a wave of change through the world of wine.

As new frontiers for grape-growing open up, the viability of some traditional production areas is being threatened by scorching temperatures and prolonged droughts.

And in between the two extremes, some long-established styles are being transformed. Some whites once renowned for being light and crisp are getting fatter and more floral, while medium-bodied reds are morphing into heavyweight bruisers.

“Some people are alarmists. I prefer to be an optimist,” said Fernando Zamora, oenology researcher and professor at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain. “I have no doubt that we will still have vineyards in traditional regions, but we have to think of new strategies. And we will also have new zones for vineyards. That’s for sure.

“Already in Germany, they are making fine red wine where it used to be very difficult. And in Denmark, now they’ve started making wine.”

Climatologists working with the wine industry around the planet predict temperatures will rise by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, a trend that is expected to be accompanied by an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events.

“Can any region continue to grow the exact same varieties and make the exact same style of wines? If what we know today is correct, that is highly unlikely,” said Gregory Jones, oenology professor at Southern Oregon University.

New vineyard projects in Northern Europe will be risky given the increased unpredictability of the weather and the potential for a cold snap to destroy an entire crop.

So it may be that the biggest change will come in the range of wines produced in areas that, until recently, have struggled to ripen some varieties.

Tasmania, parts of New Zealand, southern Chile, Ontario and other parts of Canada, England and the Mosel and Rhine areas in Germany are among the regions that could benefit.

“You can look anywhere in the world where there are relatively cool climate regions that today are much more suitable than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago, because the climates were too cold then. People couldn’t ripen fruit,” added Jones.

Like Zamora, Jones forms part of an international committee for the agriculture and forestry climate change program (ACCAF) run by the French research institute INRA.

They are tasked with formulating strategies for helping everything from grape plants to legislators cope with climate change.

The grape vine is more sensitive to climate than plants such as rice, corn and soybeans, which could provide valuable insight for essential future food supplies.

Vitis vinifera, the plant that gives us fine wine grape varieties, is a prolific wanderer that has a fine-tuned sense of the right place to take root and grow perfect grapes.

Water stress, temperature change, inopportune downpours and frost are just a few of the variables that can have profound effects on the balance of sugar and acidity, the ripeness of tannins and the palette of aromas.

“In Alsace (northeastern France), climate change is already a problem, because it’s changing the aromatic profile, the balance of sugar and acidity. If the consumers accept the changes, it’s not a problem. If they don’t, it is,” said Jean-Marc Touzard, a co-coordinator at ACCAF.

Producers of Beaujolais meanwhile see warmer weather improving the quality of their product in a region where winemakers have sometimes had to add sugar to bolster alcohol levels in their quaffable reds.

“Beaujolais has seen that they can make better wine in a warmer climate, so there is a benefit. But is there a limit to that benefit? Does it go on forever?” said Jones.

The Languedoc region around the Mediterranean already faces these problems. Hotter, dryer weather is making the area’s already-robust wines more full-bodied and more alcoholic, at the expense, some say, of finesse.

But all is far from lost.

“In the Languedoc, the growers have already begun adapting — planting at a higher altitude and on different soils,” said Touzard.

Another solution is to change the grape varieties legally allowed under Europe’s strict appellation laws, sourcing the indigenous varieties from hot weather climes like Sicily, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Researchers also say that once these grapes have been genetically decoded, they could be used for plant breeding.

Portugal alone has between 100 to 150 indigenous varieties that we know virtually nothing about, according to Jones.

“Some of the more southern, really warm places that have genetic material could be a real hotbed for dealing with heat tolerance in the future,” said Jones.

  • 3 years ago I planted 2ha of grapes in Latvia. Last years first micro-harvest has produced promising results. Looking forward to full harvest this year. Although we have to bury grape canes for the winter. It can go down to -30C some winters. Summers are long enough for early ripening grape varieties + we have nice prospects to produce ice-wine up here! :)