Changing Climate, Changing Wines

author/source: Tom Oetinger

Drought VinesIn 1964 Bob Dylan released a song entitled ‘Times they are a-Changin’.  The sentiment is as legitimate today as it was during the social awareness movements of the 1960’s.  This view can be applied to a number of different areas: technology; economics; gender and race relations, as well a slew of others, but for my purposes, I would like to bring your attention to significant adjustments in the world of wine production as a result of our changing climate.  I have no intention of weighing in on the politics about the causal effects of this issue; people will believe what they wish to believe regardless of any evidence.  I just would like to bring your attention to how the environmental global changes will affect your wine buying habits in the not too distant future. 

Here are just a few recent examples of how global climate change has impacted the wine industry:

  • The last few summer’s record-breaking heatwaves in Europe have had substantial consequences in the vineyards of France, Spain, and Italy. The blistering heat resulted in scorched leaves and berries affecting grape maturation, resulting in what will certainly be lower crop yields and higher prices.
  • The ongoing drought conditions in parts of Australia have created economic chaos among growers with irrigation water becoming the largest cost item in producing wine for much of the Murray Darling Basin. The use of irrigation was up 7% nationwide in 2017-18.
  • South Africa’s wine harvest in 2019 was the smallest in fourteen years due to the multi-year drought and grave shortage of water resources for farming, livestock, and personal consumption.
  • Sonoma Fires Wine CountryWildfires have become a regular occurrence in many growing areas. These fires have burned tens of thousands of acres; leveled populated and industrial areas, plus the smoke created from these fires have tainted grapes on the vine within countless vineyards. The worldwide financial impact within the wine industry alone from these fires runs in the hundreds of millions.
  • In an unprecedented move, France’s Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur Wine Producers Syndicate recently approved the addition of seven new grape varieties for use in their wines. “These varieties were selected as a result of their reduced susceptibility to vine diseases, later harvesting potential, and ability to maintain acidity and volume in the face of climate change’s warmer weather and unseasonal frosts.”
  • Regions, where grape production was either marginal or unsustainable, are now producing an increasing volume of wine. A prime example is southern England, where the sparkling wine industry has grown almost overnight, making a dent in Great Britain’s import of French Champagne and other sparkling wines.
  • Wine-producing areas within the United States are not immune to this issue. There is increasing discussion among Napa Valley’s winemakers on how the valley will have to adapt to the changes in temperature and rainfall.  Some suggest that the farming of certain popular grape varietals in the major California growing regions will be unsustainable is as short as fifty years.

Napa Valley Wine Country FiresAs a consumer of wine (as well as most other agricultural products) we need to be prepared to face not only higher prices for these goods but also the quality and availability of wines that we currently enjoy. Industrial manipulation (read chemical alteration) of wines, especially budget-priced wines, will allow for consistency in the product’s taste in the short term, but we should still expect prices to rise as water for farming in many high production areas becomes more and more of a concern.

Wine producers have not taken this issue lying down.  Throughout the world, small and large producers alike are implementing strategies to increase water conservation in the vineyards, as well as an escalation in the practices of sustainable agriculture, while at the same time making greater use of technologies to reduce their carbon footprint.  Farming practices are undergoing dramatic modifications in many parts of the world with changes in irrigation; crop management; harvest times and varietal selection, grape growers are being pressed to adapt to the new climate norms.  The industry’s very long-term existence is at stake and these producers are well aware of this fact.

Tom Oetinger Wine CertificationLike it or not, wine lovers are going to have to accept the reality of this situation.  Climate change is real and will have an impact on how much you spend and the general availability of certain wines from specific regions. The inclination to try new wines will become that much more important as growers are forced to plant varieties suitable for the changing conditions.  It is not inconceivable that in the near future your preferred purchase of high-end Cabernet Sauvignon might just be imported from the Okanagan Valley in Western Canada rather than Napa Valley.

Tom Oetinger holds an advanced certification in wine & spirits from the WSET in London, England.  He is available to assist you with your wine events or answer your wine questions at [email protected]