Declining matsutake mushroom harvests due to climate change might not be of much concern to you, but when global warming starts coming for your wine, carpooling and solar panels suddenly don’t sound so bad.
The global wine market is scrambling to adjust. According to Australian data, the temperature in the country’s primary wine regions will increase by up to three degrees over the next decade-and-a-half. Australian producers, keen to protect their $5.3 billion slice of the $292 billion global wine market, have started growing shiraz grapes in Tasmania, where temperatures are almost 40 percent cooler than those on the mainland, 150 miles to the north.
In the first century, the weather was warm enough for the Romans to grow wine grapes in Britain. Things cooled down after this, but today the weather is again warm enough for white wine to be produced on the east coast of Scotland. American wines have moved beyond Napa and Sonoma, to places like Missoula, Montana. And vineyards are being built at breakneck speed in China’s Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, threatening the habitat of the 1,600 wild giant pandas living there.
Gregory Jones, a research climatologist at Southern Oregon University with a career-long focus on the relationship between weather and wine, has found that suitable growing regions are moving toward the poles. He says Tasmanian shiraz “seems to be ripening to a more balanced characteristic” than the ones from Australia’s famous Barossa region. Tasmanian shiraz is also up to 20 percent lower in alcohol, which is, in fact, a good thing.
“When you grow a grape in too hot a climate, it tends to be much bigger and bolder, which also tends to be high-alcohol,” Jones told VICE News. “High-alcohol wines tend not to go well with food, and that’s what we do — drink wine with food.”
We know that nature is in a constant state of flux, but Jones says the evidence shows this latest change is “greater than any other time in history,” and while the industry does have ways to mitigate this right now, including measures like moving to Tasmania, the alternatives aren’t endless.
In the past, wine quality has generally gone up as temperatures have. A 2006 study led by Jones confirmed this. However, he also found that some regions were at their upper limit, after which quality would start to decline. The Australian government estimates the reduction in grape quality due to heat at somewhere between 12 and 57 percent. And, according to Jones, the Bordeaux region of France may be unsuitable for growing white grapes by 2049.
'If they need to go higher, there’s not much more landscape. And if you can’t go higher in elevation, you have to find another location.'
In Hungary’s Tokaj wine region, where the vineyards are planted on hillside slopes, moving further up to chase the cooler air has long been an option. But Jones just got back from the area, and says it seemed the vines were already running out of room.
“The hills only go a few thousand feet high at most, and the vineyards are already two-thirds of the way up,” he said. “If they need to go higher, there’s not much more landscape. And if you can’t go higher in elevation, you have to find another location. Of course, there may not be any land available with that suitability and climate.”
Australia is expected to be in a bit of a bind over the next few decades, according to an April 2013 report that found as much as 73 percent of Australian land could be unsuitable for growing wine grapes by 2050.
Lee Hannah, the report’s lead author, told VICE News that this doesn’t necessarily mean wine production will be dropping out of existence in those places, but it will be harder to grow there, it will add costs, and it will require a lot more water in some places that are already quite water-stressed.
“When we did our modeling about four years ago, we saw wine suitability increasing in places like British Columbia and thought it was crazy,” said Hannah, a senior research fellow at Conservation International. “But we found that the industry was already moving into these areas. Business believes this is real, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”
'I don’t think the entire wine industry is going to be moving to Alaska anytime soon.'
Obviously, some locations will be more severely affected than others, says Mike Veseth, a wine economist and author of the 2011 best-seller Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists. He told VICE News that technology will mitigate the effects of climate change in the short term, but over time, the “world wine pie” will only continue to re-orient itself in a search for new growing regions.
Brian DiMarco, the founder and managing director of Barterhouse, a New York City-based wine importer and broker, saw this geographic shift first-hand on a trip to Canada’s Niagara Peninsula.
Known for its ice wines, which are made from grapes frozen on the vine, DiMarco told VICE News the region has traditionally “made pretty mediocre reds — they just couldn’t get the ripeness, because it was too far north.”
“Meanwhile, a one or two degree increase in temperature allowed the grapes to hang on the vines a little longer and get a little riper,” he said. “All of a sudden, the owners of some of these wineries are thinking, ‘Alright, we can grow pinot noir up here now.’”
However, while weather is a crucial piece of the winemaking puzzle, it’s only one component in an intensely complex process, and doesn’t necessarily correlate with a better end product, says Julian Alston, director of the Robert Mondavi Institute Center for Wine Economics at UC Davis. With that in mind, he has already seen the geographical shift occurring, not least in his native Australia. Alston told VICE News that the changes will be “slow and gradual,” with incremental changes making much of it less noticeable.
Some winemakers will opt to grow different varieties of grape. For a vineyard located in California, this isn’t a major issue. For a vineyard in Bordeaux, it is.
“We’ll see some shifts within California a bit, we might see some more emphasis on Oregon,” he said. “But I don’t think the entire wine industry is going to be moving to Alaska anytime soon.”
Rather than moving en masse, some winemakers will opt to grow different varieties of grape as conditions evolve. For a vineyard located in, say, California, this isn’t necessarily a major issue. For a vineyard located in Bordeaux, it is.
“The European system puts forth very specific regulations about which grapes are grown in which regions,” Alston said. “It really ties their hands in how they can respond to climate change, so when the consequences become large enough, they’re going to have to find a way to change their rules.”
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