Climate Change Is Rapidly Altering Wine As We Know It
In early November 2019, more than 11,000 international scientists signed an SOS on behalf of our planet. The proclamation, titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” and published in the academic journal BioScience, made explicit connections between human activity and severe environmental repercussions. It also marked the first time such a vast and diverse pool of scientists rallied in support of as urgent a phrase as “climate emergency.”
Later that month, that publication was bolstered by a report from the World Meteorological Organization that claimed global greenhouse gas concentrations, and, specifically, those generated by human activity, had shattered new records. This is bad news, because those gases don’t just disappear: They stay in our atmosphere, trap extra heat near earth’s surface and cause global temperatures to rise.
If the earth continues along this trajectory, the United Nations posits that the planet is on course to experience a global mean temperature increase of nearly 5.76˚F between now and the end of this century. Given that thousands of years ago, when the thermostat dialed up just four degrees, it made enough of a difference to end the most recent ice age, this is a big deal.
What does this have to do with what’s in your glass? Well, a lot actually. Almost everything.
Wine is first and foremost an agricultural product. The grapes used to make it are grown and harvested with intent to be fermented.
This means that wine production is vulnerable to the effects of climate change from the tangible health of vines to the taste and quality of the finished bottling they create.
“Wine grapes are extremely sensitive to climate and this is much of what makes wine so exquisite. But it also means wine grapes are extremely sensitive to climate change,” says Elizabeth M. Wolkovich, associate professor of Forest & Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
Wolkovich studies how plants and plant communities respond to climatic shifts through phenology, the seasonal life cycle of a species. When it comes to grapes, she focuses on the Okanagan region of British Columbia and areas of California, but she often pulls together data from all over the world and collaborates extensively with colleagues in France.
“[Their] records are some of the longest written records on earth,” she says. “In Burgundy, records of harvest dates go back to the 1300s… For example, we can see that harvests recently are the earliest on record, meaning they are earlier than any harvest over the last 700 years.”
Though much of this data has been drawn from secondary sources, climate historians recently used original archives, cross-checked against other physical testimonies and regional temperature and environmental statistics, to compile 664 years’ worth of harvest dates and weather conditions surrounding the area of Beaune. Published in the European Geosciences Union journal Climate of the Past, it’s the longest known homogeneous series of grape harvest dates available, and it shows that temperatures have climbed so much, harvests now begin an average of 13 days earlier than they did prior to 1988.
“[They] have already altered the phenology each season and sugar to acid ratios in berries,” says Wolkovich. In warmer conditions, she says, grapes ripen quicker and more easily, which lowers their acidity and increases their sugar. If picked at the right time, resulting wines are fuller, softer and fruitier, with higher levels of alcohol.
Temperatures have climbed so much, harvests now begin an average of 13 days earlier than they did prior to 1988.
These aren’t necessarily undesirable traits, especially in places where grape cultivation is trickier in the face of cool temperatures.
“Warming does have the ability to create a situation in which some varieties may actually do better,” says Gregory Jones, director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education and a professor and research climatologist in the Department of Environmental Studies at Linfield College in Oregon. “If you’re growing a cool-climate variety in too-cool conditions and it suddenly warms a little bit, you’re going to get more consistency, and more consistently good vintages,” he says.
It’s a hot streak, as it were, that’s already been observed. For instance, winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy expressed much excitement for the warm 2019 vintage soon after harvest. Bottlings produced throughout portions of Italy in recent, warmer years have yielded more delicious and consistent results.
Germany, home to some of the northernmost wine regions, is one place that’s more or less lucked out across the board, having achieved excellent vintages in the heat of recent years. Vines that once struggled to ripen have begun yielding plump, juicy grapes and incredible dry bottlings. In warmer areas like Baden, wines are becoming more velvety and full with every degree uptick.