Look at a wine label or chat with a wine connoisseur, and you will find that wine has always been intimately connected to location and climate. Grapes taste different from region to region, and even grapes from the same vineyard taste different from year to year, depending on the weather each season. So it is no surprise that drastically changing weather patterns have a huge and confusing impact on the wine industry.
Increasing temperatures and climate volatility not only impact the flavor profiles for wine enthusiasts, but the unreliability also has a negative impact on wine farmers. Climate scientists argue that growers need to start implementing adaptation measures and experiment with lesser-known varieties of grapes, but these solutions come with risks and expenses that are often too costly for farmers.
The last four years have been the hottest on record, a drastic change for grapes that generally thrive in cool, temperate climates. Unpredictable weather, such as droughts, heatwaves and hail can devastate farmers of all kinds, but grapes are a particularly sensitive and vulnerable crop. In Sonoma County, a region in California known for wine production, a record-breaking wildfire devastated the county in 2017, followed by an even more devastating, record-breaking fire in 2018.
Even in cases of more subtle changes, the impact on sensitive grapes is noticeable. Soil salinity is changing in some regions as a result of sea level rise, and many farmers struggle with increased pests and diseases. Typically, winter frost kills off pest larva, reducing the population in spring, but when temperatures no longer reach below freezing, the populations continue to grow.
Wine’s climate connection
The wine industry is highly dependent on subtle climate and soil characteristics. In fact, enthusiasts argue that wines are made from four ingredients: the weather, the soil, the topography and the grape. Wine is often defined by its terroir, a word derived from the Latin word terra, meaning earth. It is used to describe a wine’s “sense of place” — in other words, the very specific microclimate and soil of a particular area. To understand the specificity with which soil and temperature characteristics impact the wine, it is important to note one vineyard alone might contain many different microclimates. For example, the slope and orientation of a row might dictate how much sun the grapes receive.
Weather affects the grape’s sugar content, acidity and tannin content. As temperatures increase, grapes are ripe and ready to harvest sooner than usual. If left on the vine, the sugar and alcohol content will rise past acceptable (and delicious) levels. Unfortunately, harvesting grapes earlier means they also lose their complexity and the quality that successful vineyards and their customers rely on. In New Zealand, for example, where 85 percent of exported wine is Savignon Blanc, the world renowned “acidic gooseberry” flavor profile is becoming more of a “mellow tropical fruit.”
Climate-smart agriculture for wine growers
Many farmers have begun to implement climate-smart agriculture practices on their land; however, broad changes and new technology are still unattainable for some growers. Examples of adaptation measures include cover cropping and drip irrigation to conserve soil and water, nets to protect vines from hail and limiting the height of vines. Other farmers are planting on south-facing slopes to reduce sun exposure, while some farmers are going so far as to relocate their entire vineyards to cooler climates and higher altitudes. Even the more modest solutions require significant costs in terms of new equipment and additional labor. One frost fan alone, which controls the temperature variation on the vines, can cost $40,000.
Researchers suggest lesser-known grapes
Researchers argue that experimenting with lesser-known varieties of grapes is one solution that farmers should invest in. In a recent Harvard University publication, assistant professor Elizabeth Wolkovich explained, “There are more than 1,000 varieties — and some of them are better adapted to hotter climates and have higher drought tolerance than the 12 varieties now making up over 80 percent of the wine market in many countries. We should be studying and exploring these varieties to prepare for climate change.”
Farmers, however, are hesitant to experiment, because new varieties come with risk as well as changes to their brand. In Europe, only three varieties of grapes can legally be labeled as champagne. Champagne farmers are therefore uninterested in testing other varieties, because they will lose their name and their market share.
In other regions, like the U.S. and Australia, labeling requirements are less strict; therefore, farmers have more freedom to experiment. Still, customers largely buy based on grape name recognition, such as “pinot noir.” Changing the grape means introducing new names and flavors to customers, which is a marketing challenge many vineyards are not excited to take on.
In addition, experimentation is a risky and long-term solution. Christine Collier Clair, director of Willamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon, explained, “When you plant, you won’t get your first crop for four years, and your first wines in six years. And you won’t know if it’s a really great site for maybe 20 years.”
The wine industry is in a difficult and critical moment of decision. Growers must decide now to risk investing land and money into new practices and uncertain grapes or else risk serious problems from an uncertain future.