How Global Warming Will Affect Your Glass of Wine

How Global Warming Will Affect Your Glass of Wine December 2, 2014

Global warming is going to have profound effects on human life, almost certainly in ways that we cannot anticipate. This is especially true of agriculture, which relies so much on climate, and that applies doubly to a crop like the grapes that make wine. Sandra Allen looks at how vintners are trying to adjust.

A splashy, controversial study published last year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that in major wine-producing regions, the area suitable for viticulture — wine-grape growing — is threatened. By 2050, such terrain will decrease by between 19% and 62%, under a business-as-usual carbon emissions scenario, and between 25% and 73% if carbon emissions increase, which some argue is more likely. The U.S. government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment, which lays out in spectacular detail and no uncertain terms what our country should anticipate in terms of climate change, summarizes American wine’s situation thusly: “The area capable of consistently producing grapes required for the highest quality wines is projected to decline by more than 50% by late this century.”

The story of how wine will react to climate change is one small but telling piece of the larger one of how agriculture as a whole will endure. But researchers are looking at wine specifically because for this slow-moving, climate-sensitive industry, anticipating how to properly adapt will be a particular challenge.

You can’t just move Napa or Bordeaux a few hundred miles north. Even a small change in overall temperature, or increased instances of extreme weather, will throw wrenches into the hard-won understanding producers have of their grapes, land, and climate — and of how to coax from that combination the best possible beverage. It’s not all bad news: A changing climate means that colder regions like Tasmania — and England, Scandinavia, and British Columbia — now have shots at becoming major wine players like never before. Will these new wine regions actually be able to replace the ones that have been cultivated for decades and in some cases centuries? Or will fine wine be something we lose to climate change?…

On a map, the world’s wine regions are particular little bands that fall in between the 30th and 50th parallels, the majority in highly biodiverse Mediterranean climates. This is because, as crops go, quality wine grape vines are super finicky. They need a cold — but not too cold — winter. They need a mostly frost-free spring during which their buds can safely emerge. They need a long, sunny growing season and eventual temperatures that are fairly warm — but not so hot that the grapes will sunburn or ripen too quickly. They need a fluctuation between daytime and nighttime temperatures, which enable the development of compounds that eventually become the complex flavors in a fine wine. Wine grapes are prima donnas; you don’t give them exactly what they demand, they don’t perform.

Complicating things further, there are many different kinds of wine grapes, called varietals, like chardonnay, merlot, or riesling, which are even more particular about where and under which conditions they’ll best grow. Go over a certain threshold of temperature? You can’t grow pinot noir. Go under? You can’t ripen cabernet sauvignon.

This fussiness also makes wine grapes especially useful for gathering data about weather: Each vine is like a remote sensor out in a field, and the behavior of wines across a region can paint a picture as to a given season’s weather. European vintners have been keeping records for about a thousand years, which is one way climatologists have learned about Europe’s historical climate, including the Little Ice Age that struck the continent between 200 and 700 years ago.

The result, almost certainly: higher prices. You might want to stock up now.

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  • NitricAcid

    I was on a wine tour of the Okanagan over the summer, and more than one vintner complained that they had to change grapes, because the ones that did best in the area twenty years ago were no longer suited to the climate.

  • sinned34

    This is why I’ll stick with beer. Especially making my own. Barley and hops aren’t as susceptible to climate change as finicky grapes, and, let’s be realistic, the world isn’t going to make the necessary changes to slow down climate change until it’s much too late.

    NitricAcid: Which wineries did you visit? I’m within a 10 minute drive of five of them (more if you include the little mom-and-pop establishments) in the Okanagan.

  • pocketnerd

    Good. Rising prices will mean wine is yet another small pleasure in life that the filthy plebians will not be able to afford. Such pleasures are only owed to the middle class (by which I mean the top 1%) and the upper class (the top 1% of that 1%). I’m sick and tired of seeing the poor act like they somehow deserve things like refrigerators, cars, and regular meals.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    How Global Warming Will Affect Your Glass of Wine

    This should present no problem, then, to those of us who chug straight from the bottle.

  • NitricAcid

    @sinned34….I think I counted 25 or 30 of them in total. We started in Osoyoos, and worked our way up to Vernon. We hit nearly all the fruit wine places and meaderies, along with a large number of regular wineries.

  • Trebuchet

    @4: Bottle? You are quite upscale. My plonk comes in a box. No need to stock up.

  • *monocle pops out*

  • otrame

    Meanwhile the maple tree owners in the more southern part of the maple sugar region are having to move the date to start tapping the trees back more and more each year. Eventually, of course, they will be getting very poor crops because the trees need a certain number of days of sub-freezing weather to produce the large amount of sap that makes a good crop. I wonder if anyone along the northern border of the maple tree zone has started growing more trees just a little further north.

  • sinned34

    NitricAcid: That sounds like a fun trip. Man, I need to get out more.

  • NitricAcid

    The kids didn’t enjoy the vacation nearly as much as I did.

  • bryanfeir

    Re: Okanagan wineries

    Been up to the Blasted Church Vineyards in Okanagan Falls?

    My great-grandfather used to be the priest at the church it’s named after. Needless to say, my family often picks up some wine from there when heading through to the Kootenay Boundary.

    One of the many reasons why it’s annoying that it’s next to impossible to get B.C. wine here in Ontario. It’s legally easier to get wines from out of country than from another province within the same country. (Amusingly, one of the people I heard discussing this on the Toronto radio actually used Blasted Church as one of the ones he wanted to get, too; they’ve got quite a good rep.)

  • NitricAcid

    I’ve had some Blasted Church wines, but most of them have been chardonnays, my least favourite wine.

  • sinned34

    I have a coworker that just bought an acre of land in OK Falls. I have to admit I haven’t checked out Blasted Church winery, but we’ve had their merlot.

    From my old house I used to have a great view of Mission Hill winery, and I was a short 2 km walk away from Quail’s Gate. Although I refuse to drink Quail’s Gate anymore because the owner got himself voted into office as a BC Liberal and then gave his seat up so Christy Clark could have it and win in a safe riding after losing her own seat.

  • NitricAcid

    That’s okay- I never liked Quail’s Gate anyway. I much prefer Elephant Island and Sleeping Giant. And I’m glad my kids weren’t with me when I checked out Dirty Laundry.

  • bryanfeir “One of the many reasons why it’s annoying that it’s next to impossible to get B.C. wine here in Ontario.”

    To be fair, that’s because all you have to trade for it is the Leafs.

  • bryanfeir

    Hmm, how about the Painted Turtle Winery in Oliver? I’ll admit I wasn’t terribly impressed with the one of theirs I tried.

    (Turtles have become a bit of a running gag in my family after we got some for a pond and a number of Christmas gifts, so when we saw the name we had to try it at least once.)

    I think we’ve made a good case, though, that B.C. has lots of wines already, even if they pretty much are all located in the Okanagan Vally, also known as Canada’s only hot desert.

    Now, over here in the Niagara Escarpment, there’s been a lot of work done with grapes specific to icewines, which do have a different temperature expectation than most. Those are going to be in deep trouble if things get too much warmer.

  • NitricAcid

    Actually, bryanfeir, there are also quite a few wineries on the lower mainland, and a number on Vancouver Island.

  • sinned34

    Haven’t tried any Painted Turtle that I’m aware of. The wife and I do like to wander through the BC VQA section of our local liquor store looking for new wines, and occasionally check out the Wine Museum’s selection in Kelowna.

    Speaking of icewine, my wife is a massive fan of Inniskillin’s Riesling and Vidal icewines.

  • bryanfeir

    NitricAcid: Good point; having not lived in B.C. for several years now, I’m a little behind on the current wine business there, except what I pick up from family visits.

  • Kevin Kehres

    Well, at the risk of being called a contrarian…I don’t think the prices of wine are going to climb due to global warming. Some growing areas are going to be displaced by others — at least displaced in the sense of producing the highest quality wines. But there are plenty of vineyards.

    You can get equivalent quality for $10 now what used to cost $20 or more. The overall price point for wine has dropped and the overall quality has improved.

    So, I’m not that worried. Napa winegrowers are probably screwed, though.

  • sinned34 “…and occasionally check out the Wine Museum’s selection in Kelowna.”

    Didn’t you get banned from there for drinking all the exhibits?

  • sinned34


    No, I got banned for what I did AFTER I drank all the exhibits.

  • sinned34, it’s their own fault for putting the fountain there.

  • magistramarla

    I truly love the wines produced in the Carmel Valley and the Monterey Peninsula. We lived there for a while, and I often met my friends at tasting rooms to socialize and enjoy the local wines. We’ve visited Napa, but the hubby and I prefer the wines of Monterey County. If Napa is screwed by climate change, I suppose Monterey will suffer first, since it’s a bit further south.

    We intend to retire there, and I hope that my favorite place in the country manages to survive.

  • lorn

    Ah … so a renewed appreciation of Australian wines, universally renowned for its ability to clear sinuses and its after-burn, can be expected?

  • spamamander, internet amphibian

    On the beer vs wine front, I live directly in the middle of Washington wine country, which happens to also be the heart of the greatest growing region for hops in the US. Win/ win.

  • Wow. Looks like virtually all of Buzzfeed’s commenters are deniers.

    I don’t read Buzzfeed, so I’m not all that familiar with it. Is it typically a right-winger haven?

  • mildlymagnificent

    The kids didn’t enjoy the vacation nearly as much as I did.

    Hah! When our youngest turned 18 – and was legally of drinking age – we were told in no uncertain terms that she expected fair turn and turn about for all the dreary hours she and her sister had had to endure while we toured the Barossa and Eden Valleys. As well as all the lengthy wine conversations at meals with the neighbours whose brother was a winemaker.

    They were quite proud of our wine collection, we’d bought a couple of hundred cartons on our “honeymoon” tasting travels to several regions so we had some well aged extremely fine wines by the time they got around to drinking them. That was when the wine industry in Australia was going through one of its worst upheavals. We wouldn’t buy if it was more than a few cents over a dollar a bottle – picked up some spectacularly good buys.

    They figured they deserved a chance to buy their own as well as do some touring, tasting and drinking with us as chauffeurs. It paid off though. She’s now more knowledgeable about Australian, NZ and European wines (along with a smattering of South African and American) than many sommeliers. She also has an astounding private collection of single malt whiskies from several regions. Stands her in good stead in her restaurant job.

    We’re now living cheek by jowl with the McLaren Vale and Fleurieu Peninsula wine areas. But we’re not buying for the time being, though many of the wineries have very nice cafes attached.

  • Dunc

    Well, at the risk of being called a contrarian…I don’t think the prices of wine are going to climb due to global warming. Some growing areas are going to be displaced by others — at least displaced in the sense of producing the highest quality wines. But there are plenty of vineyards.

    You might want to actually read the article, since it explicitly addresses this argument in several different ways.