How Climate Change Will End Wine As We Know It

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“All the grapes were ripening at once,” Wendy Cameron recalls of the harvest that was the wake-up call.

Cameron is head winemaker at Brown Brothers, one of Australia's largest and oldest wine producers. In her 16 years there, Cameron had seen changes — hotter summers, harvest dates inching earlier. While heat waves aren’t unheard of in Australia, the one they had during the late summer of 2008 was unlike anything she’d ever seen: It was over 105 degrees for 10 days straight.

You can’t just leave ripe grapes on the vine — their sugars will get too high, yielding wines that are too alcoholic. Too much sun exposure can also affect flavor, and eventually grapes will begin to raisin. Everything had to be harvested at once, Cameron knew, but they only had so many employees. The winery was designed to handle a limited amount of production at a time. They didn’t have enough refrigerators. They didn't have enough water. (Water prices had tripled over the past year.) Those were taxing, frightening days, and Cameron says they got through it pretty well, all things considered. But it made her wonder about the future of Australian wine and whether the vineyards would remain cool enough to survive.

Two years later, in 2010, Brown Brothers' chief executive Ross Brown announced the purchase of a large vineyard in Tasmania, an island 150 miles off the southern coast of Australia. Long thought to be too cold to make quality wine, that too had been changing in recent years. “'We want to position ourselves to combat global warming,” Brown said at the time of the sale, a statement that garnered headlines — and upset many.

“I know Ross got some calls that were utterly scathing,” Cameron says. Others, especially others in the wine business who’d likewise seen the writing on the wall, praised his candor, albeit quietly. “People said, ‘Wow. I can’t believe you’ve done that, it’s so progressive and forward and good on you.’”

“Climate change isn’t a straight line,” Cameron says. “It goes up and down. There were a couple of years there where, certainly as an industry, we had a bit of a taste of what it might be like. The Brown Brothers have just celebrated their 125-year anniversary. My job is to give them the right information so we can be viable in another 125 years.”

The question is how difficult a task that will be, not only in Australia and other hotter wine-producing regions, like southern Italy, Spain, and California's Central Valley, but throughout the wine world. A splashy, controversial study published last year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that in major wine-producing regions, the area suitable for viticulture — wine-grape growing — is threatened. By 2050, such terrain will decrease by between 19% and 62%, under a business-as-usual carbon emissions scenario, and between 25% and 73% if carbon emissions increase, which some argue is more likely. The U.S. government's 2014 National Climate Assessment, which lays out in spectacular detail and no uncertain terms what our country should anticipate in terms of climate change, summarizes American wine's situation thusly: “The area capable of consistently producing grapes required for the highest quality wines is projected to decline by more than 50% by late this century.”

The story of how wine will react to climate change is one small but telling piece of the larger one of how agriculture as a whole will endure. But researchers are looking at wine specifically because for this slow-moving, climate-sensitive industry, anticipating how to properly adapt will be a particular challenge.

You can’t just move Napa or Bordeaux a few hundred miles north. Even a small change in overall temperature, or increased instances of extreme weather, will throw wrenches into the hard-won understanding producers have of their grapes, land, and climate — and of how to coax from that combination the best possible beverage. It's not all bad news: A changing climate means that colder regions like Tasmania — and England, Scandinavia, and British Columbia — now have shots at becoming major wine players like never before. Will these new wine regions actually be able to replace the ones that have been cultivated for decades and in some cases centuries? Or will fine wine be something we lose to climate change?

Innes Lake Vineyards in Australia.

Flickr: minerva95aus/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) / Via Flickr: 9822025@N04

“We chose wine because it’s a canary in the coal mine,” says Rebecca Shaw, who co-authored the PNAS paper. Shaw is the associate vice president and senior lead scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. She and her collaborators, most of them academics, sought to understand how agriculture at large will adapt to climate change. We're chatting in a conference room in the EDF’s downtown San Francisco 28th-floor offices. The Bay Bridge looms in the window behind us, defogging itself over the course of our conversation.

On a map, the world's wine regions are particular little bands that fall in between the 30th and 50th parallels, the majority in highly biodiverse Mediterranean climates. This is because, as crops go, quality wine grape vines are super finicky. They need a cold — but not too cold — winter. They need a mostly frost-free spring during which their buds can safely emerge. They need a long, sunny growing season and eventual temperatures that are fairly warm — but not so hot that the grapes will sunburn or ripen too quickly. They need a fluctuation between daytime and nighttime temperatures, which enable the development of compounds that eventually become the complex flavors in a fine wine. Wine grapes are prima donnas; you don't give them exactly what they demand, they don't perform. Complicating things further, there are many different kinds of wine grapes, called varietals, like chardonnay, merlot, or riesling, which are even more particular about where and under which conditions they'll best grow. Go over a certain threshold of temperature? You can't grow pinot noir. Go under? You can't ripen cabernet sauvignon.

This fussiness also makes wine grapes especially useful for gathering data about weather: Each vine is like a remote sensor out in a field, and the behavior of wines across a region can paint a picture as to a given season's weather. European vintners have been keeping records for about a thousand years, which is one way climatologists have learned about Europe's historical climate, including the Little Ice Age that struck the continent between 200 and 700 years ago.

Figuring out which grapes perform best where is painstakingly slow: It takes five to seven years for a newly planted vineyard to begin producing grapes suitable for winemaking. It takes years more still before vines produce good or, with luck, great — or, with further luck, excellent — fruit. The best fine wine, and certainly the world's most expensive wines, come from regions or even individual rows of vines that have been cultivated for so long, whose behaviors are so well understood, that extremely high-quality grapes — and therefore extremely high-quality wines — are more or less guaranteed. (Certain European wine regions are steeped in so much tradition they’re recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.) In Europe, the identity of a wine is so tied to a fixed place that the wines themselves are named after where they're made: Chianti is from Chianti, Champagne from Champagne. (If Americans played by the same rules, we'd call Napa Valley wines Napas.)

Worldwide, winemakers aspire to create wines that best express the personality of a given area's climate and weather, a concept called terroir, or the taste of the place. A given wine is thought of as an expression of a given geography's climate; much the way that you can't make New York bagels in Iowa, the idea is you can't make a Burgundy anywhere but.

Shaw says that's the other reason they chose to focus on wine — people care about where their wines originate. “No one cares about where their corn comes from, nobody cares about where their wheat comes from,” she says. Wine consumers — especially in America, where wine is often believed to be snobby, unapproachable, or expensive — tend to be conservative in their selections and have internalized the idea that some wines from some places are better bets than others. Chances are, even if you prefer boxed wine over bottled, you might scoff at a wine from New Jersey.

In their study, Shaw explains, they wanted to look at the extent to which the wine industry would have to move poleward — further south in the Southern Hemisphere, further north in the Northern Hemisphere — as a result of the changing climate, and then what the impact would be upon that movement on existent ecosystems. What is the potential conservation impact of vineyards being planted in Tasmania, or British Columbia, or England? Their paper specifically mentioned the potential effects upon a giant panda habitat in China and in the Yukon-Yellowstone corridor. “Bid adieu to Bordeaux, but also, quite possibly, a hello to Chateau Yellowstone,” the The Guardian quipped in response.

Shaw expresses frustration that many in the press were distracted by the detail in their report about the pandas and missed the bigger stakes. “One of the major focuses of our work is to feed the planet without killing it,” she says. “How does agriculture need to change? What are the incentives that need to be put in place that won't undermine the long-term sustainability and don’t create more environmental harm?”

Wine isn't actually food, though. Especially if we're talking about fine wine, it's a luxury.

“Wine is food to many cultures,” she responds, adding that most crops both deliver sustenance and are meaningful culturally. Corn is meaningful. Rice is meaningful. Humans have been cultivating wine for 8,000 years. “You can get into an argument about what’s food and what’s necessary and what’s not necessary,” she says. “The bottom line is wine is a very, very important part of many, many cultures.”

There’s a touch of emotion in her voice as she says this. We could live in a world without wine, of course, but would we want to?

Photograph by Matthew Tucker for BuzzFeed

This year has been one of the driest in California’s history, and on the radio, there’s no end to the talk about the low snowpack, the parched reservoirs, the depleted Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Though it's late February, the hillsides are tawny, not green. When I drive to Wine Country, many are quick to offer their opinions that the drought isn't caused by global warming. Strolling through his blocks of chardonnay, one grizzled grower in Sonoma, who declines to be interviewed when he learns my line of questioning, whistles dismissively, “I guess everybody has to do something.”

In Napa, I meet with David Graves, who co-owns a winery called Saintsbury. Graves and his business partner met while graduate students at UC Davis in the late ‘70s — Graves' background is in biology — and have been making climate-sensitive pinot noir and chardonnay here since 1981. The vineyard is gorgeous in the misty morning; blackbirds alight above the rows.

He is jolly and peppers his speech with quotes and anecdotes and jokes. Steel tanks loom overhead and two dogs pace around a tennis ball by our feet. We’re talking about how grape growers and winemakers have to be risk-averse given that they get only a single shot each year to make do with what that year's weather produced. “If I were going to culinary school, if my sauce curdles, it doesn’t cost a year’s wages to do it again,” he says.

He recalls once visiting a cousin who’s a brewer. His cousin excused himself for a moment — someone had added too much water to a batch of beer and rather than boil it down, elected to just throw it all out and start again. Graves laughs: “I said, ‘This is a dream!’”

It's vital, in other words, that Graves understand what's happening in his vineyard, which he says isn't warming.

Some researchers, in particular a Southern Oregon University climatologist named Gregory Jones, argue that Napa has been experiencing overall increased temperatures. In the '80s and early '90s, long before there was scientific consensus concerning climate change, Jones was looking at the question of how it might affect wine-grape growing. (Jones had done his dissertation in Bordeaux, and his family owns a winery in Oregon.) “I didn't think we really knew enough about the basics,” he explains over the phone.

To Jones, it wasn’t hard to see that warming had already been affecting wine: “If you go back to Burgundy 10 years ago or Germany 10 years ago, they’d have one good vintage in eight or nine or ten. It was because they were variable and much colder,” he says. “And today they have seven or eight or nine good vintages in 10.” This matches what he’s witnessed in Oregon: “In my region, 50 years ago it was difficult because there was too much frost and a longer growing season. Bingo — we can do it.” Another way to trace climate change’s effect on wine already, Jones argues, is the increased alcohol levels in wines around the world — warmer years mean more sugar in the berries, as they're sometimes called, which means more alcohol in the wine. (Others would argue that it's simply become fashionable to make more alcoholic wines.)

David Graves, convinced he hasn't seen a warming trend, partnered with a climate researcher named Dan Cayan at University of California, San Diego, and a trade group called the Napa Valley Vintners, which represents about 400 of Napa’s wineries. The data they gathered was more localized than Jones'. Their study, which hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, found that the warming trend in most non-urban parts of Napa Valley over the last 60 to 80 years has been “significantly less” than what Jones had claimed. (I later ask Cayan about the fact that it hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal. “That's partly my own fault for being a slacker,” he says, adding that there is additional work they are doing, in terms of sourcing and then cleaning up the data they're gathering.)

Red shows area currently suitable for wine grape growing that will be unsuitable by 2050, according to the PNAS study. Green shows areas that will remain suitable for wine grape growing through 2050. Blue shows areas that will be suitable for wine grape growing by 2050.

Conservation International

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