For the past six years, we’ve participated in annual group trips to Fredericksburg, Texas, a small town in central Texas known for its wineries. The surrounding area of this town, with a population of about 11,000, has over 50 wineries and is commonly referred to as the “Hill Country”. Tours and tastings are a popular tourist attraction and we’ve taken advantage of visiting many of these wineries, some more than once, and enjoyed some truly outstanding wines. See above!
We have another trip planned this January and as I’ve been studying climate change this year, I’ve been thinking about how global warming may affect the wine industry in Texas and other areas around the world. The New York Times recently published an article addressing how climate change impacts wine. Wine, which is one of the most sensitive agriculture products, has benefited from time-tested methods and practices that are now changing as the climate does. The article concluded climate change has five major impacts affecting world-wide production of wine.
1. The wine map is expanding. Winemakers are now growing wine in areas previously consider too cold for fine wines.
2. Winemakers are seeking higher ground. Producers are now planting vineyards at altitudes once considered inhospitable to growing wine grapes.
3. Growers are curtailing sunlight. For centuries, the tradition in the northern hemisphere was to plant vines facing south or southeast where they would receive the most sun and warmth, allowing grapes to fully ripen. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse was true, i.e., northern-facing slopes were most in demand. As the climate has changed, however, the problem for wine producers is no longer how to ripen grapes fully but how to prevent overripening. This has caused many growers to reorient their thinking.
4. Regions are considering different grapes. For some producers, particularly small family estates, realizing a cooler environment requires changing what they may have been doing for centuries and leave behind the grapes that have been associated with their region and select ones more appropriate for the changing climate.
5. Weather is no longer as predictable. While weather always surprises, experienced farmers generally knew what to expect. With climate change, that is no longer true. According to one farmer, “It hails when it never used to hail, rains in the summer when it used to be dry, is dry in the winter when it used to rain.”
There are many factors associated with climate change affecting Viniculture (i.e., wine production). Temperature changes are the most significant, especially in the northern hemisphere. Higher temperatures affect the budding for the following growing season as well as the quality of the grapes. Sustained intermediate temperatures and minimal day-to-day variability affects the growth and ripening process. With higher temperatures, berries achieve a high concentration of sugar much earlier; however, the skins and seeds ripen more slowly which can result in unbalanced wines with a significantly increased level of alcohol in addition to unripe green tannins, decisively affecting wine quality. The unpredictable nature of climate change may also affect the occurrences of frosts which may occur outside the usual winter periods lowering yields and affecting the quality.
Gradual increasing temperatures will also shift the boundaries of suitable growing regions. In Europe, is it estimated that the northern boundary of wine making will shift north 12-37 miles per decade between 2020 and 2050 as a result of climate change. For an individual wine grower growing near the current boundary, this shift may be devastating. But for land owners north, climate change offers new opportunities.
Changes in precipitation will affect bud production and growth throughout the season. And increased CO2 levels will likely have an effect on the photosynthetic activity in grapevines as photosynthesis is stimulated by a rise in CO2.
One factor more visible than others that is devastating for wine production is fire. With climate change, fires occur more often and are more intense as temperatures increase and rainfall becomes more sporadic. This is clearly what has been happening in California where numerous large wineries have been destroyed by fire. In 2017, there were 16 Napa wineries that were destroyed or received significant damage caused by fire. The 2019 Kincade fire destroyed several more including the Soda Rock Winery. Coupled with the actual devastation to the land and vineyards, is the impact on tourism to the Napa and Sonoma regions. And the recent power outages, some by design to reduce the likelihood of fires, can impact wine production.
California has a lot at stake relative to wine. California makes 85% of all U.S wine and 95% of U.S. wine exports, valued at $1.46B in 2018, comes from California. Obviously, policy makers in that state are concerned with climate change. The U.S. leads the world in wine consumption while responsible for 12% of the world’s wine production.
In sum, experts in the wine industry are taking steps to address how to deal with climate change so for a while, at least, we can expect innovative growers will keep producing wine, albeit with changing practices and grapes, coupled with increased uncertainty. Climate changes experts, such as David Wallace-Wells, author of the book, The Uninhabitable Earth – Life After Warming, believe the current weather we are experiencing including California’s devastating fires, has become the “new normal”. Until the world begins to reduce our production of CO2, we can expect things will only get worse. Our upcoming trip to Fredericksburg is not likely threatened but future trips to Napa or Sonoma may be. Let’s hope the world takes steps necessary to address climate change before that happens.