If one thing is obvious in the world of agriculture it’s that farmers and ranchers know the name of the game is adaptation. But climate change poses a threat to wine regions and vineyards because a lot happens at once and the changes can be wild.
Despite the luxury associated with vineyards, growing grapes to make wine is really just a kind of farming.
“Every farmer that’s been farming for generations will tell you you’re going to have bad years. That’s just the nature of the business,” said Melissa Sanborn, who owns Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery in Juliaetta, Idaho.
Like all farmers, vintners face a new foe whose impact goes beyond a bad year. The effects of climate change will alter wine regions and growing methods forever. It’s “the new normal,” Sanborn said.
“Farmers have the ability to manage small incremental changes in year-to-year averages. When the variability gets greater – when you’re swinging between extremes – that’s a little harder to be prepared for and/or be resilient about. I think that’s probably the bigger overall issue in some ways,” said Gregory Jones, a climatologist at Southern Oregon University who studies how climate change affects wine grapes.
Wine club members and casual connoisseurs need to understand the ways climate change is impacting their favorite varietals and vineyards, Jones said. Grapes don’t grow the same as they did 20 years ago.
Here’s a rundown of how wine is changing, thanks to climate change:
1. New and different varieties
Corn or soybeans can handle changes in temperature more readily than wine grapes, Jones said. Grapes, like chocolate or coffee, have a narrow “climate zone.” A slight change in annual temperatures can impact which varieties do well at a vineyard.
Changing varieties can be a nuisance if your customers know you for your Riesling or Pinot Noir, for example, but replanting isn’t usually a big deal, Sanborn said.
“The past few years, we’ve had three years of hot weather versus two years of cold weather in 2010, 2011. Certain varieties did better in those years versus the last three years. That’s something you’re always going to manage in the Northwest when your weather is always changing, but I think it’s going to become more extreme with climate change,” she said. “It doesn’t worry me necessarily. You just have to adapt to your different climate. … It’s not like you can put a vine in the ground and run a vineyard for 100 years off of it.
“I’m not apprehensive of replanting certain varieties that aren’t doing well because of the climate. I just see it as being a farmer. You have to adapt to what’s going on. That’s just how it is.”
2. New and different wine regions
But the impact of a warmer and drier climate can be more profound than changing varieties.
Generally, wine regions are shifting north. Areas in Washington and Oregon that once were too cold to grow grapes are producing excellent wine, Jones said. Fifteen or 20 years ago, Willamette Valley in Oregon couldn’t produce the cool weather varieties they’re known for today. Some growers are experimenting with warmer weather grapes.
“Because they’re planting it and playing around with it shows those growers know the climate is different,” he said.
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As northern regions take advantage of the opportunity, viticulture in California grapples with drought and heat that threaten the largest wine region in the U.S. Sanborn said she’s heard of California growers looking to expand or relocate to her area, which is due to be officially designated an American wine region in 2016.
“There’s been definitely concern from these growers about water shortages down there,” she said. “It would scare me.”
3. More carbon, more problems
Climate change occurs because more carbon dioxide is released and trapped in the air. Plants like carbon dioxide, so climate change isn’t all bad for agriculture. Jones expects excess carbon will lead to bigger yields. But no one really knows how that will affect the quality of the wine.
Very few people have studied how an increase in carbon will affect grapes – and it’s difficult to look farther down the chain to the wine, Jones said. More carbon affects the flavor, aroma and chemical compounds in the grape itself. It alters the time it takes to ripen. Harvest can happen two to four weeks earlier than normal, which means grapes are ripening at a hotter time of year. The color is probably most affected, he said. This will certainly change the wine.
“It’s a whole different world,” Jones said. “I don’t think we should expect wines from Burgundy and the Napa Valley will be the same all the time.”
4. Counteracting trends
Previously, trends have led vineyards to let their grapes ripen longer than usual, allowing sugar to build up in the fruit, which leads to a higher concentration of alcohol when it’s turned into wine. It’s a trend people have enjoyed that’s unlike “Old World” wine, which has less sugar and lower alcohol levels, Jones said.
It’s a convenient trend in the midst of rising temperatures.
“We are the Coca-Cola society,” Jones said. Winemakers, like Yellowtail in Australia, saw this and saw a market. “Yellowtail – they were brilliant – they knew America liked sugar. ... They produced a product where they left a bit of sugar in it. You can do that growing grapes in a hotter climate. You can’t do that in a cool climate.”
More recently, people have wanted to return to the elegance of the Old World with its lower alcohol content that could sit in the wine cellar for years. But that demand butts heads with the reality of a warmer climate, where even the Old World can’t produce the wine it once did.
“In a changing climate, you have two things moving simultaneously, maybe at different rates in different directions,” Jones said. “Alcohol levels have gone up and people have played that off as partly due to climate change and changing consumer tastes. It may be in the future we have completely different varieties that people like. As a consumer, we need to be aware that things are going to change.”
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Grape harvest photo via Shutterstock