- Marco Giovanetti
How does climate change reposition the wine industry?
Climate change is the most urgent topic of our contemporary times. According to the United Nations, Earth is about 1.1 C warmer since the industrial revolution started in the late XIX century. The phenomenon negatively affects the wine industry by changing the landscape of wine production. Earth’s temperature swifts affect the physiology of wine varietals changing the wine typicity of wine regions, causing incremental socio-economic costs and ultimately establishing new dynamics in the wine industry. In fact, according to Reuters, France's recent early warm harvest of 2022 cost a staggering $ 2 billion lost in sales. These new climate change losses have spurred new dynamics in environmental efforts, such as alternative wine packaging by wine producers to reduce the carbon footprint of the wine industry. In addition, they encompass joint partnerships between wine stakeholders to achieve sustainable wine industry certifications or ecological climate goals.
Climate change and the physiology of grapes
In a nutshell, climate change variations affect the wine chemistry of grapes, including sugar, acid, and secondary compounds. As temperature rises, grapes ripen faster, developing higher sugar levels and yield higher alcohol wines. On the other hand, acidity which confers freshness in wine decreases. In parallel, in warmer conditions, the phenolic compounds of wine such as tannins and anthocyanins also suffer Anthocyanins are the compounds responsible for giving color to red wine varietals. Tannins have bitter and astringent properties conferring natural protection to the vines against natural predators and pests. In addition, high-alcohol wines blur the difference in wine varietals by tasting bolder and bittersweet. These flavors have been described by tasters as being “cooked” akin to confit fruit to make a pie. As a consequence, they could change the terroir composition of the regions affecting the marketability of the wines. These changes according to famous Australian viticulturist Dr. Richard Smart, could “ effectively rewrite regional reputations and varietal preferences”.
New vineyard geography and the resurgence of Indigenous grapes
Another of the direct ongoing consequences of climate change in the wine industry is the positive change cost of the geography of wine regions by the resurrection of indigenous wine varietals. Autochthonous varieties are better suited to the chaotic and unpredictable climate change effects such as drought and vine disease. In addition, they ripen later, preserving acidity and yielding food-friendly wines. According to Damir Stimac, from the Rizman winery in Croatia, local varieties have been historically conditioned to survive difficult conditions. For example, the Croatian Plavac Mali and Greek Savatiano varietals are resilient to the lack of rainwater. They could be visible alternatives to winemaking regions suffering from droughts such as the Mclaren Valley in Australia. In the Rhone Valley in France, secondary indigenous grapes such as Grenache Noir, Carignan, and Counoise are making a comeback. This grape trio ripens later helping preserve acidity in the Rhone wines. This illustrates that grape growing is a water-intensive crop industry highly sensitive to climate change. For example, irrigating a 10h vineyard for three hours takes a massive thousand of water liters. To put water precarity in perspective, water is in the atmosphere for nine days and it stays in the ground for two months and humanity has access to a very small 0.03% fresh water supply at a time.
In addition, climate change is shrinking the size of established wine regions and is creating a new intangible cost as new vineyards appear in ecosystems not previously destined for that purpose. In general, the ideal winegrowing areas can be found between the 30 and 50 degrees latitude but as the world continues to warm up, the best areas for vineyards are pushing farther north of the equator. For example, Belgium, better known for its beer culture has increased fourfold its wine production between 2006 and 2018. Sweden winemaking scene is growing. In addition, England has become a player in the fine market in the sparkling wine category. Scholars contend that climate change will prompt the appearance of vineyards in higher elevations putting pressure on northern ecosystems and leading to a transformation of their natural vegetation. Furthermore, warming temperatures would impact freshwater conservation efforts by the increased water usage to cool grapes.
Collective action to mitigate climate change in the global wine industry
Winemakers and distribution partners are responding preemptively to mitigate the effects of climate change in their industries. For example, premium producer Catherine & Pierre Breton from the Loire Valley has recently adopted a bag-in-the-box packaging option for their most prestigious cuvees. This friendly ecological alternative reduces carbon footprint by maximizing weight and space reducing transportation costs. Similarly, the Italian wine group Santa Margherita has its wine bottle glass production. The company adheres to a zero-kilometer business philosophy to reduce pollution due to transportation costs. This philosophy recognizes that producing goods using local partners benefits all community stakeholders while preserving local traditions. Furthermore, the UK Waitrose grocer recently decided to repackage their small wine-size offerings into cans to cut by half the CO2 produced by individual bottles. It is estimated that the switch from bottles to cans could cut up to 750000 tonnes of CO2 in the UK.
However, the biggest initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change are coming from the governing bodies of the wine regions themselves. For example, The Rhone Valley in France is working to become sustainable under the ISO 26000 international guidelines. In addition, New Zealand actively encourages its wine producers to become sustainable winegrowers stakeholders to contribute to achieving the collective national goal of becoming a world leader in water efficiency and quality and carbon neutral by 2050. In fact, in the last three years, 96% of New Zealand vineyard area was certified sustainable and 90% of New Zealand wine came from wineries certified sustainable as well. In the last seven years, the New Zealand wine governing body has put in place a nursery program to create 12000 genetic variants of their flagship Sauvignon Blanc to find the most suitable clones that would efficiently mitigate the effects of climate change and make the variety more resistant.
In conclusion, climate change has a positive and negative effect on wine production. At first glance, it is beneficial for cooler northern climates with no previous winemaking traditions such as Sweden. However, it is detrimental to established wine regions in the Mediterranean basin. As weather patterns continue to change and affect the physiology of grapes, the biggest challenge for winemakers will be what to plant and where to plant without significantly altering the terroir characteristics of wine. Soon, climate change mitigation efforts will depend on being open to change concerning new production philosophies. For example, blending indigenous grapes with non-indigenous grapes in a region. Perhaps, the future lies in the production of hybrid grapes. Currently, hybrid grape production stands at a minuscule 4.5% of global output and could be a very foreseeable long-term solution. The idea behind hybridization is to create polygenic vines to resist multiple things such as fungal diseases. Finally, how wine is marketed will have an impact on climate change as producers move from glass to ecological packaging options like cans or carton boxes.
1- United Nations, “ What is Climate Change,” United Nations Climate Action, last accessed February 13th, 2023, https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-climate-change
2- Mike Scott, Hard-hit by climate change, winemakers turn to sustainability to ride the storms, Reuters, last modified September 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/hard-hit-by-climate-change-winemakers-turn-sustainability-ride-storms-2022-09-14/
3-Ula Chrobak and Katarina Zimmer, “ Climate change is altering the chemistry of wine”, Knowable Magazine, June 22, 2022, https://knowablemagazine.org/article/food-environment/2022/climate-change-altering-chemistry-wine
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