Global Warming and the Wine World

A special eco-enological report.


Published:

It's harvest and it's hot. Another (yawn) vintage of the century. Wine collectors are relishing the string of good Bordeaux harvests and the amazingly ripe fruit coming out of California. But will it last?

Will Bordeaux be Bordeaux when its temperatures read like those in the south of Spain and when the Médoc disappears into the ocean? Will the Mosel Valley in Germany be unique terroir when all the white grape plantings have turned to red? Will Napa Valley be the Disneyland of the wine world when its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot taste like raisins from the southern edge of California's hot Central Valley? Will Australia find itself crowded into Tasmania in the fading light of its brief but spectacular impact on consumer taste buds everywhere?

Welcome to the future of climate change in the wine world. Welcome to the golden era of wine today.

The progressive gradual rise of the earth's average surface temperature is generally thought to be caused in part by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (and CO2 is the most damaging of these greenhouse gases) attributed to human activity.

A comprehensive assessment of temperature change data released in June by the U.S. government's National Research Council found that the average global temperatures have risen by 0.6°F over the last century. That is a rise, the reports says, that is "unprecedented for the last 400 years and potentially over the last several millennia."

Given the recorded rate of vine and wine changes in the 20th century and scientific climate predictions such as those above for the 21st century, Australian viticulture guru Richard Smart suggests that anyone under 35 will one day be drinking wines from very different varieties and places than are on the shelves today.

"One degree increase in temperature is very important," says Bernard Seguin, research director for Agroclim, the French government's meteorology program for climate changes in agriculture. "Even if we stop energy emissions, the engine has already started."

"The great wine regions could change almost overnight," says David Baverstock, technical director for Herdade de Esporão in the Alentejo region of Portugal.

"We've spent 25 years branding ourselves as a Pinot Noir winery. I think there will be ways to minimize the impact. But in 50 years, it will be hard to grow Pinot Noir," says Randy Heinzen, viticulture director for Saintsbury in Carneros.

"The 50-year projection means Bordeaux will be 2.2°F warmer, Napa—already challenged—will be 2.2°F warmer, Barolo 2.5°F warmer, Portugal 3.6°F warmer," says Gregory Jones, climatologist at Southern Oregon University and a global expert on wine and climate change.

"For wineries, it will boil down to real estate issues," says Smart, an agricultural scientist and global viticultural consultant based in Tasmania. "The smart ones will move quickly and buy cheap. But think of the loss of equity in upper value regions."

The situation could affect buying decisions in the short term—"One day it will dawn on people that there is no need to chase after high Bordeaux en primeur prices when there will be another vintage like this next year," observes Anthony Hanson, MW, senior wine consultant for Christie's auction house in London—as well as the long term. The Bloomberg World Water Index suggests water is the next investment frontier.

The Validity of Climate Change, the Myth of Global Warming
Scientific studies of climate change, global warming, carbon dioxide impact, ozone and a host of other parameters appear to have sprung from thin air in recent years. But the research has been going on with increasing reliability since NASA launched TIROS, the world's first weather satellite, in 1960. The first report indicating how weather changes might affect viticulture was published in 1983. The 1990s saw several global reports presenting a plethora of models of future changes in more specific areas. Much of the work began after the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. Its task is to study the impacts and risk of human-induced climate change. Its next report is due in 2007.

Though politicians, special interest executives and pundits continually express skepticism about the "claims" of future climate change, the only conflicts in the scientific community arise from a simple fact: Thermometers were only created 150 years ago. For earlier climate estimates scientists make educated guesses relying on tree ring data, ice cores, cave deposits, lake sediments, diaries, journals, paintings and other cultural archeology.

Each year, however, the models become more exact, more localized, using more statistical techniques, enhanced computing power and an ever-widening range of coordinates. Scientists are projecting models of what can happen, always with caveats and depending on the range of variables. The IPCC, which is a panel of up to 3,000 scientists in several disciplines around the world, studies all the proposed projections. The result is not a single line on a graph but a mean accepted by 93 to 95 percent of the panelists: It points to temperature increases through 2100. Most models are looking 20 to 25 years ahead, showing a 0.6 to 1.0°F change per decade. If these climate models are correct, changes may become more accelerated.

But "global warming" is largely a media, rather than a scientific, term.

"Global warming is not global," says climatologist Jones. Regions have different responses, he says. The recent warming has been greatest between 40°N and 70°N latitude, though some areas such as the North Atlantic Ocean have cooled in recent decades.

"If models have it right, there could be 2 to 4°F changes over 20 to 30 years and for any place in the world that alters grape varietal suitability," says Jones. Specific grape suitability to a specific climate is narrow in general though it could expand with vineyard and winery technology. But projected changes in 20 to 40 years are going to be big questions. According to Jones's research, since 1930, Napa has warmed by 3°F during its growing season. "Say it does the same in the future, you cannot tell me that's not going have an impact," Jones says.

The Wrath of Grapes
What does temperature have to do with a grapevine? Everything. Grapevines are canaries in the mine when it comes to temperature. Vines can cope with poor soil, which is why they are historically the only crops in rocky regions around the world's Mediterranean band (30-50°F latitude). Vines can cope with too much water or lack of water. Vines can cope with mildew, diseases and pests (though they make for bad wine). Vines, like all woody perennials such as poison ivy, thrive on carbon dioxide. But individual varieties of grapevines are heat sensitive within a narrow temperature band.

Gregory Jones has spent the last several years researching where grape varieties fall within temperature bands for 27 wine regions. Some like it hot: Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, for example. But Merlot can't take the heat. Pinot Noir, always a heartbreak grape, is even less capable of thriving in higher temperatures.

Actual changes vary by location but all wine regions are experiencing earlier springs by a week to a month and longer harvests by one to two weeks. Daytime highs in the summer are a no-brainer: When temperatures reach around 95°F, the vine shuts down to protect itself. But nighttime temperatures are more worrisome. If the harvest moves up to August instead of September (as it has in several recent vintages for white grapes at Château Haut-Brion in Bordeaux), nighttime temperatures don't vary enough. If the spring buds arrive too early in March or April and there is a hard frost, there goes the crop. If winter nights aren't cold enough to keep the vine dormant and kill pests and disease, havoc is on its way.

Scientists say this rise in temperature was a long time in coming and may have a long way to go. So, step back just a generation—a very short time in the world of wine.

For centuries, Bordeaux—at the 45th degree latitude on the Atlantic coast—has defined what wine should taste like. Strangely, this was just as true when it could barely ripen at the end of the 17th century as it was through the warm, then chilly, decades in the mid-20th century. Now, when growing season temperatures, kept secretly by weather stations in top Bordeaux vineyards, are providing relatively optimum climates in the past two decades, Bordeaux is being beaten by the competition. Yet, Bordeaux has probably never been better.

"In cooler years, Merlot does better, in warmer years, Cabernet Sauvignon does better," Jones said. He also found that vintages in which Cabernet Sauvignon is dominant (such as 2005) get better ratings.

In the Loire Valley, 30 years ago the varieties growing well there were just as suitable to Alsace—Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, for example. Now "we are growing varieties grown in Bordeaux—Merlot, Cabernet Franc. We even had good Syrah in hot 2003," says Gerard Barbeau, director of research for the National Agricultural Research Center (INRA) in Angers, France and one of the country's top grape clone scientists. Growers started noticing changes in the late 1970s. Bud break (when the vine flowers) has been earlier in the past decade than it was 20 years before.

In 2002, a consortium of European wine industry scientists surveyed grape growers about their impressions of temperature and its effect on grapegrowing. "Most of them had noticed a change in the climate, in the impact on disease and on yield," says Barbeau. "Italy reported a reduction in yield because it has been so hot but at the same time a reduction in disease. Germany got more diseases because it was warmer and in France the growers reported conditions were right for growing grapes."

Wine investors may be in for a interesting ride in the future, but at the moment, says Anthony Hanson, MW, senior wine consultant for Christie's auction house in London, they are not influenced by climate change because there is still plenty of fine wine from the 20th century on the market. Those who analyze climate for publicly traded companies with winery investments and for insurers may well have questions to answer from investors but so far there are no pronouncements on wine. Packaging and transportation impacts in store for wine aren't even on the table yet. Safe to say, costs for all of these things will end up on the price tag.

The buy-it-and-drink-it-tonight consumers—which is to say, most of us—don't care where the wine comes from in the future as long as we like the flavor. As we ponder the future of the planet, and climate change's effects on other aspects of civilization, we won't go thirsty. For the next few years there are going to be some magnificent bottles out there from vineyards that could be reaching the end of the good life. After that, tomorrow is another day.

Climate Change, Region by Region

Vineyard regions are changing, and some are changing dramatically. Vineyard by vineyard, growers and winemakers are noticing the effect warmer temperatures are having on the wines they produce. From scientific reports and interviews, Wine Enthusiast has compiled a dossier that makes compulsive, if sometimes alarming, reading.

Western United States/Canada

California's growing season is anywhere from 30 to 55 days longer than it was 50 years ago, according to a study by leading wine/grape climatologist Gregory Jones. A report last year by Stanford fellow Kim Nicholas Cahill says if all greenhouse-related activity were stopped today, temperatures will go up 3.5 to 10.8°F over the next 50 years and 5.4-19.8°F over the next 100 years. Jones's 2004 report and a second report released in July on growing season average temperatures and frosts in California, Oregon and Washington from 1948-2002 reveal that on average most regions are hotter and that temperatures are approaching levels that might disrupt the viability of benchmark grapes such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even Cabernet Sauvignon.

Still, California is taking the "we can fix it" approach. Members of the Sustainable Wine-Growing Alliance are trying to reduce CO2 emissions by introducing solar and photovoltaic panels. Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino is doing it on a grand scale; a smaller project is in progress at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley. Talk of clones, canopy management and hang time are signs that it may be getting too hot. Fruit in many vineyards is already ultraripe, and increasingly (and arguably) sugars and alcohol are out of synch with phenolic ripeness. Changing clones, varieties and even rootstocks isn't out of the question.

"Within as few as 20 years, Brand Oregon may no longer feature Pinot Noir, the signature grape variety which today represents 50 percent of the state's production and acreage," according to a report presented in May 2005 to government and industry leaders. Jones, of Southern Oregon University, predicts that by the 2020s, temperatures in the Willamette Valley could be 2.7°F higher than they are today.

In Washington, there is concern over the future of the Yakima Valley. Drought losses to agriculture (grapes, orchards) in the Yakima Valley could be between $92 million (if there is an increase of 3.6°F) and $163 million (if there is an increase of 7.2°F), says a 2005 report of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
British Columbia is relishing the prospect that Okanagan Valley will become the topography-specific wine basket thanks to global warming—a study for the Canadian government predicts increases of 2.7 to 7.2°F by 2050. The northernmost winery currently is Gray Monk on the 49th parallel. A government/industry group is looking farther north as even Okanagan could reach its viable limit, the report suggests.

Eastern United States/ Canada
New England, threatened with seeing the fading of autumn changes in foliage, has put together a multi-state task force to look at the situation, including vines. New York and Ontario's Finger Lakes and Niagara vineyards are seeing warmer summer temperatures, longer growing seasons and less rain. Ice wine may need to move to a more continental climate. The Great Lakes may suffer from less snow runoff, though winters will remain cold. The continental climate vineyards of Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri will be faced with more extreme weather patterns and cold winters appear to continue to be a factor.

Europe
Comprehensive government and industry studies are ongoing in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal.

Spain is already being affected, with significant drought conditions; experts are studying the economic viability of growing raisins rather than grapes. Major growers such as Miguel Torres are looking towards the Pyrenees mountains. In his current vineyards in Catalonia, Torres predicts, "where we now have Tempranillo, we will probably have to have a hot climate grape like Carineña."

Portugal is in a drought phase already. In the Douro and the Dão, there is some tolerance for future higher temperatures, says David Baverstock, technical director for Herdade de Esporão, the largest grower in Alentejo, east of Lisbon. "But in the south of Portugal we could well be in strife," he adds.

In Austria and Germany, white varieties are being replaced at lower altitudes with red grapes. At the Brundlmeyer Weingut in Kamptal, Austria, there is concern over the Heiligenstein vineyard, which has been in the family for 600 years. "Currently the vineyard is planted with Riesling but because of global warming we are beginning to find the lowest slopes are too hot," says Willi Brundlmeyer. "We are trying out red varieties. One day Heiligenstein will be a red vineyard."

France, basking in some of its best vintages in recorded memory, is leading many of the studies on historical phenology and climate, clonal adaptations and changes in vineyard techniques. There is a move to buy vineyards in other regions, other continents, particularly by growers in western France where the climate change seems to be more pronounced. French research on climate models show that the extreme summer of 2003 could be the norm in 2050. An investigation into temperatures and ripening dates in the Médoc from 1800 to 2005, just released, shows that phenology—the scientific study of flowering, color change and harvest—has advanced by three weeks.

Italy is suffering from its southern position in the Mediterranean climate belt with increasingly high temperatures and drought. Some studies indicate the entire Mediterranean basin would be significantly affected by additional increases in mean temperature in the near future. Italian Federico Castellucci, director of the International Organization of Vines and Wines (OIV), advocates the "reasonable intervention" of irrigation, currently banned. "The upper hills of Tuscany need it to save the plants for the next year. A vineyard is a big investment," he says. Sicily is at the edge of viability though vineyards are moving up mountain slopes to cooler climates.

There are what are currently called "extreme vineyards" in Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Some climate models show a move towards the Ukraine; Slovenia is studying how it can make the most of its next generation of wine regions. Vineyards have already returned to England and Wales, the first time significant vineyard plantings have occurred since the 13th and 14th centuries.

South Africa
With nowhere south to go, growers in South Africa are looking to move to the mountains, though computer models predict a less-than-1.8°F increase in temperatures through 2100. The Western Cape winegrowing region is likely to survive thanks to microclimates that are already a significant factor in recent premium wine success. But drought, which is killing unique flora, could result in a less optimistic scenario.

South America
In Chile, the Andes foothills have become the vineland of choice for global vineyard investors while at the same time they are moving down the mountain into microclimates to catch the San Francisco Bay-type coastal fog; grapes could extend into Patagonia. Argentina's climate varieties and grape-growing latitudes, on par with the New Zealand, but with added heights to the north at 25°F latitude and hot temperatures, is spurring investment. Currently Mendoza, a desert turned lush thanks to irrigation, produces most of Argentina's crop. Donald Hess, owner of the Hess Collection Winery on Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley, has property in northwest Colomé in Argentina; at 10,000 feet, it is said to be the highest vineyard in the world. He is growing Pinot Noir at 9,000 feet as well as Malbec in the high valley. Heat-hearty Tannat and Syrah are under study in subtropical regions of Brazil.

Australia/New Zealand
Despite its size, Australia is primarily a desert, and its annual rainfall is decreasing. As the desert marches to the shore, growers are looking toward higher-elevation microclimates in the Barossa Valley area and Southeast Australia as the understanding of climate change matures. Richard Smart, a key viticultural figure in Australia, is planting in mountainous Tasmania. In New Zealand, there is increased interest in Central Otago, NZ's—and possibly the world's—southernmost vineyard.

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