When Greg Jones started researching the effect of climate change on viticulture and winemaking some 30 years ago, very few were looking to do the same.
In fact, the general mood was dismissive. “People thought, this isn’t happening to me, so it’s not a big issue,” says Jones, who is now the CEO of Abacela Winery, his family business in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. Decades later, climate change is the most urgent challenge the wine industry is facing.
A report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reveals that the number of disasters tied to weather, climate or water hazards increased five-fold in the 50 years to 2021; WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas added that the incidents will only “become more frequent and severe in many parts of the world as a result of climate change.”
While the WMO says mortality rates have decreased dramatically due to early warning systems and improved disaster management, economic costs continue to mount. A study from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has linked over 60% of drought-related losses to the agriculture sector, which amounts to around €5 billion per year and is expected to increase.
Wine grapes are a specialty crop (as opposed to a broad-acre crop like cereals, pulses, cotton, and sunflowers), meaning they’re typically grown within narrow geographic and climatic parameters. This framework has long upped the industry’s exclusivity and prestige. But now it is increasingly exposing growers and makers to warming temperatures and extreme weather.
Playing to Extremes
Winemaking, which archaeologists have traced back to 6,000 BC, is among many things, the pursuit of fidelity and balance. Growers play to extremes that have long existed: cold in the winter, frost in the spring and fall, and heat in the summer, as well as heavy rainfall throughout the year. But as climate change sends overall temperatures climbing, it is also shifting both the timing and frequency of weather events. A warmer climate accelerates growth cycles—even if frost occurs at a “normal” time, plants are in greater jeopardy.
When it comes to the nitty gritty, the impact of the climate crisis depends on what’s being grown and where; not all wines and winemakers feel it to the same degree. Jones notes that there are over 5,000 varietals and each one, from Pinot Noir to Riesling, has a unique climatic range within which it can grow.
“Say you’re growing Cabernet Sauvignon. Are you doing it at the cool limit or the warm limit? Cool means there’s a large potential of [adaptation] across warming climates; warm means we don’t know much beyond here, so you’re at a threshold [past which we don’t think] it can produce a viable product,” Jones explains.
Winemakers are adapting to this new reality in a number of ways. Those whose varietals don’t match the climate are switching to other grapes: Greek grapes have been planted in South Africa, Australia and soon Southern France, says Mark Andrew, cofounder of London’s Noble Rot restaurants and the magazine of the same name. The fact that iconic old-world regions like Bordeaux are following suit—local regulators formally approved the use of four new red and two new white grape varieties in 2021—speaks volumes.
Warmer, Drier, Sooner
Growers are also generally thinking (and acting) further ahead. Andrew notes that farmers on Santorini, which sits at the warmest end of the spectrum, have started harvesting recent vintages in July, while most regions are seeing fruits ripen weeks ahead.
“We have to rethink the timing of all operations in the vineyard — the calendar is not the same anymore,” says Vitalie Taittinger, the president of Champagne Taittinger. “We have more accidents…but it doesn’t affect the taste [nor] style. Our job is to anticipate the effects of global warming.”
Champagne makers are at a slight advantage amid global warming; the chalky soil they work with is porous and helps retain water when it’s scarce. Even so, Taittinger’s workforce are constantly watching their vines and adjusting their schedules. “We have to play with maturity…we have to protect the identity of the wine and at the same time, we don’t want to put too many things into the vineyard,” Taittinger adds. “It’s a lot of organization, a lot of logistics during the harvest. We have to be more precise, as every plot is different. You watch each piece of terroir and choose the right time to pick.”
Climate change is the most urgent challenge the wine industry is facing.
There’s a litany of other methods farmers can adopt to cool down their vines. Managing irrigation more efficiently; planting at higher elevations and north-facing slopes rather than the traditional south-facing; experimenting with vine structures; and adjusting north-south orientations can save growers a couple of degrees, Jones notes. More drastic measures include moving to a cooler property—such as one by a coastline or making latitudinal shifts (further north in the northern hemisphere, south in the southern). Smaller makers are less likely to make big moves; larger businesses, however, are increasingly diversifying and taking advantage of the warmer temperatures in terroirs previously less favored by winemakers.
Taittinger, for one, is the first champagne brand to establish a vineyard in the UK: the first bottles of sparkling wine from Domaine Evremond, its joint venture with local winemaker Hatch Mansfield, will be released in 2024. Though Vitalie Taittinger says the project came about first and foremost as a result of her family’s strong ties with Hatch Mansfield, she admits that producing the wines in Chilham, Kent may have been impossible without global warming.
Though winemakers in countries like the UK and the Netherlands are seeing a silver lining, more globally, the benefits of a warmer climate are drastically outweighed by its cons. As well as threatening the safety of workers, events like wildfires in California significantly affect grape yields and wine quality, says Noble Rot’s Andrew. Water unavailability has also hit crisis levels in regions like Australia’s Riverland, where extreme drought conditions are rendering parts of it almost unviable for grape growing, he adds.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and the immediate negatives resulting from climate change are also pushing winemakers to undertake positive transformation. Tom Hanson-Smith, the director of Journey’s End Brands, which owns vineyards in South Africa’s Stellenbosch winelands, recalls the peak of the Cape Town water crisis in 2017-2018, when the city came close to becoming the world’s first modern major hub to completely run dry.
“You have to make these changes, or you’ll be left behind and won’t have a business to run.”
Amid the droughts, Journey’s End made the leap and went off-grid for its water supply: the vineyard has catchments and trenches that channel rainwater into three dams, which are used to drip irrigate its vines; water used for winemaking and cleaning is filtered and pumped back into the dam, says Hanson-Smith. Other farmers in the region have also switched to dry-farming, which embraces zero-irrigation: after an initial drop in yield, the crops recalibrated and now boast a higher quality and more enhanced fruit flavor while saving some 15,000 gallons of water per hectare per year, he says.
“There is a far greater onus on sustainability practices,” Hanson-Smith adds. “[Climate change] is turning up the heat literally and metaphorically on businesses to react, whether they like it or not. You have to make these changes, or you’ll be left behind and won’t have a business to run.”
Other winemakers are turning to more climate-hardy fruits to mitigate the impact of global heating. For instance, Indigenous winemakers have long been working with diverse plants to make wine, including palms and cacti. And wineries, like Maine-based RAS, are following suit, experimenting with blueberry wines in part because the quality and taste of wild blueberries is less affected by temperature change than grapes. Others are redirecting their focus to apple and pear wines, which unlike grapes, don’t lose quality as a result of smoke or worsening air quality thanks to the biological differences in their flesh. But according to Jones, fruit wines are still extremely niche — “there’s no large-scale market for fruit wine out there,” he says.
Shouldering the Burden
Even if grapes are successfully grown and harvested, higher temperatures mean higher alcohol-by-volume figures; winemakers can tweak flavors using sugars and acids, but these methods only go so far. “Hotter temperatures result in wines of a fuller, riper style, so drinkers looking for lighter, elegant wines need to look to increasingly cooler regions to find the wines they like,” says Andrew. Lower yields also amp up prices: in regions like Burgundy, frost and hail have resulted in smaller vintages and big price hikes, he adds.
And crucially, it’s migrant workers on the frontlines who are carrying the load—especially in the battle against climate change in the vineyards.
Human rights abuses are rampant across the wine sector, and conditions are likely to worsen as extreme weather patterns intensify. In prominent wine regions such as Tuscany, Piemonte, Puglia, and Sicily, workers are consistently unable to meet basic needs with the pay they receive from vineyards, according to an Oxfam report. In Puglia, this number is as high as 80% of workers, while one in four workers in Sicily struggle to make ends meet.
Human rights abuses are rampant across the wine sector, and conditions are likely to worsen as extreme weather patterns intensify.
These conditions force workers to spend over eight hours a day harvesting the fields, putting their health and safety at risk, particularly in the face of heatwaves and wildfires.
The rise in temperature can also increase the risks of pests like grapevine moths, which leads to the excessive use of toxic chemical pesticides that can harm both the environment and the workers’ health. The damage inflicted on workers in non-organic vineyards has resulted in multiple lawsuits in France, with health reports establishing a correlation between pesticide usage and chronic health conditions like Parkinson’s and cancer.
Though there’s a long way to go, consumers can play a crucial role in shaping better industry practices—and upholding accountability—across the wine sector in a number of ways. The first is to research and buy from makers who protect their workers and pay them a fair, living wage. Hanson-Smith, for instance, is seeing a growing appetite for responsible wine-making and sustainability from the consumer side. The last few years have seen the rise of regenerative agriculture, organic, and biodynamic wines, which use less pesticides and are gaining traction among younger consumers, in turn pushing for producers to become better stewards of their ecosystems.
But there are areas where awareness is still lacking. One is hybrid grapes, which see growers breeding across grapevine varieties, with the French American and German American blends proving most popular, according to Jones. These hybrids can be more resistant to fungal and mildew temperatures, as well as cooler temperatures. But according to Jones, they’re largely unknown to shoppers and are a hard sell because they lack prestige and familiarity.
Another is packaging. Last year, Journey’s End teamed up with wine brand Interpunkt to launch a collection of wines in bottles made from 100% recyclable paperboard outers, which are five times lighter than traditional glass bottles and boast a carbon footprint six times lower. But whether it’s boxed, canned or in kegs, there’s still a stigma around alternative packaging with higher priced vintages.
In other words: it’s up to consumers to not only read up on ways in which climate change is hitting our favorite bottles, but to support the makers working towards a more responsible and just industry.
Set Design Cameranesi / Pompili