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Our Changing Climate and the Wine Industry


Our Changing Climate and the Wine Industry

Regardless of one’s position on the influence of (or lack thereof) anthropogenic climate change on global temperature and sea level rise and associated weather patterns, it is undeniable – according to a March 2018 report by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) – that weather has become more volatile and more extreme in the past 36 years. The council, which consists of 27 European science academies (including the UK’s Royal Academy) advises that incidents of devastating flooding have quadrupled globally over the last four decades, while droughts, wildfires and extreme heatwaves have more than doubled in the same amount of time.

This implication is of particular concern for the wine industry as, although grapes are grown worldwide, premium wine grape production occurs within very narrow climate ranges and so any shift in climate and weather patterns may potentially affect the wine industry with significant consequences (Mozell and Thack, 2014). Dr. Gregory Jones, a climate change specialist Grace & Ken Evenstad Centre for Wine Education at Linfield College in Oregon has stated that since his studies on the relationship between climate change and wine production began in the 1990s. It is clear that there are not only trends in rising temperatures but also trends to more variability in temperatures as well, meaning that the global climate is not only warming but becoming more variable with greater swings between extreme cold and extreme heat. For wine regions, although evidence varies from region to region, it has ultimately shown that hail and heavy rain events are more frequent and that heat stress events are more common and longer.

 

Climate Change

The long term effects of projected rate and magnitude of future climate change will likely bring about several potential impacts for the wine industry, too numerous to expand upon here, but include pressure on increasingly scarce water supplies, loss of acreage due to rising sea levels, increases in disease pressure, disruption or alterations to grape chemistry and quality, regional-specific changes in varieties grown and shifts in style and spatial changes in viable grape growing regions. Whilst these long term effects seem somewhat intangible at present, with time they could amount a threat to the world of quality wine production of C19th phylloxera epidemic proportions.

To put this into context, the most vulnerable vineyards in France to a potential rise in global sea levels, for example, would be the Bordeaux First Growths. Oz Clarke has stated that all the best Bordeaux vineyards are found between 4-29m above sea level, and the highest point at Chateau Latour’s vineyards tops out at just16m, and sit next to Europe’s largest estuary. Here will be hit hard by any degree of sea level rise and these vineyards will be impossible to defend.

In the short term the effects of climate change on grape growing have been more apparent – often devastatingly so. Manifesting through unprecedented extreme weather events, in recent times we have bore witness to consequences ranging from reductions in harvest yields and cancelled vintages to total destruction of vineyards and properties. In fact, the global wine industry suffers losses of more than ten billion US dollars every single year from damaged assets, production losses and lost profits due to the effect of extreme weather events and natural disasters – that’s according to a 2017 study by Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT).

 

Flooding

As I type Sonoma County in California is currently in a state of emergency after the Russian River rose 34 feet over two days last week, swelling to more than 44 feet by Wednesday February 27th 2019 and reaching 12 feet above flood stage. The damage to surrounding communities is widespread and estimated to total $155 million, with the Pax Wines facility in particular among those affected most seriously with extensive damage to the winery and tasting room putting the business on indefinite hold. Of course, California’s wine industry is no stranger to devastating natural disasters – last year’s wildfires destroyed numerous vineyards, wineries, buildings and cellars predominantly in the Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties and threatened the crop of others indirectly through smoke taint, driving insured losses to an estimated $8 billion. Fortunately none of the producers we stock here at JN were affected (Shafer Vineyards were forced to close for a period of time but their building and vineyards escaped damage) although it does set a worrying precedent for the future for producers and merchants alike.

 

Frost

Closer to home in Europe catastrophic frosts have (and are predicted to continue to) become a regular feature of spring, as budburst grows ever earlier while a capricious polar vortex makes incursions of freezing Arctic air over northerly vineyards in late March and April. This was the very reason that Italy’s harvest dropped by 23% in 2017 and France’s by 19% – not to mention the mercurial chaos of Champagne’s 2017 growing season. It was these disastrous spring frosts too that resulted in a JN-stocked biodynamic producer, Château Climens, cancelling production of their first wine in the 2017 vintage, as damage inflicted early in the Barsac growing season meant that only 2.5 hectolitres per hectare of fruit was able to be garnered (roughly one barrel per hectare) at harvest – a record low, and the first year since 1993 that Bérénice Lurton decided not to make any first wine.

 

Positive Outcomes

It’s not all doom and gloom however, as English and Welsh winemakers have (and will) perhaps come out as one of the few climate change benefactors. The relevance for global warming and its influence on English wine production can be seen by the fact that growing season temperature, measured between 1989 and 2013, in southeast and south-central UK is similar to that of Champagne between 1961 and 1990 (Nesbitt et al., 2016).

Britain’s record-breaking summer of 2018 provided near perfect conditions for British winegrowers with many recording their biggest ever harvests and acknowledging it as a benchmark year for the industry, with as much as 18 million bottles produced from the vintage and a record one million more vines planted, increasing production by two million more bottles of wine annually. A 2017 study commissioned by Laithwaite’s showed expected changes to temperature and rainfall in Britain could create opportunities for viticulturists in areas as far north as Edinburgh, and forecast that while their more southerly, mainland European neighbours suffer ill-effects, England could be one of the world’s leading producers of wine by 2100.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, however, that there will be many more “wine losers” than “winners” (as put by Andrew Jefford) in a scenario of accelerating climate change. With each new record-breaking hot summer and earliest-ever vintage, the long-term viability of whole swathes of the wine world is called into question. As Robert F Kennedy said in a speech delivered in 1966, referencing the traditional Chinese curse “May he live in interesting times”;

“Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”

In an industry that is often criticised for resting on its laurels let’s hope that the world of wine growers, makers, movers and shakers can respond creatively to the uncertainty that we will all come to know.


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