Savor that French champagne this holiday season—in the future, sparkling wine may come from Britain, Vancouver, or even Tasmania. With the prospect of climate change looming, and technology enabling grape growing in regions once thought beyond the vintner’s pale, scientists predict substantial shifts in global wine production. The changes could turn the wine market on its head and force seasoned oenophiles to consider—gasp—the finer points of a New Hampshire cabernet.
The problem isn’t that the world is getting hotter, but rather that temperatures are becoming more erratic. In a CFR.org Podcast, Michael A. White, a wine climate expert and professor at Utah State University, says “increases in the frequency of extremely hot days are going to be producing a progressively more challenging environment for wine production.” While these changes hold potential consequences for all agriculture, grapes are a particularly finicky crop—a chart published by Wine Business Monthly displays the narrow climate windows required to grow different kinds of grapes.
Thankfully for grape growers, scientists speculate that the most drastic effects of climate change remain decades off. Yet an industry migration is already well under way. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many growers are shifting production into British Columbia, in western Canada, despite the risks posed by early frosts. The northwestern United States, including Washington State and Oregon, has already seen a similar boom (NYT). White says the next phase may see French producers setting up shop in Britain and Australian growers relocating south to Tasmania, where average temperatures are lower.
For growers in traditional wine regions, particularly in California, these shifts could spell trouble. A special report from the Contra Costa Times, a California newspaper, notes that even a two-degree temperature shift could decimate local chardonnay producers. Nor is it necessarily the case that winemakers will always be able to shift northward without encountering other problems. One grower quoted in the report notes that external factors complicate the wine industry’s calculus—while the temperature in places like New England may become more hospitable for growers, other factors, such as insect populations and rainfall, won’t necessarily remain constant. Wine industry experts say a more complete analysis must therefore take into account not just mean temperatures, but also shifting ecosystems.
Many producers hope advances in technology can save production in regions where the climate remains close to acceptable. Australia, for instance, is adopting a high-tech approach (Reuters) to sustaining its wine industry. Experiments include attempts to cultivate heat-tolerant and moisture-tolerant grape plants. The Economist notes that scientists recently sequenced the genome for pinot noir grapes and says vineyards may soon begin experimenting with genetically-modified wine. Other more simple techniques include planting grasses or other low-lying crops around the roots of grape vines in an attempt to protect against heat. Yet for some growers, even the best technologies might not be able to forestall the effects of warmer temperatures. “There aren’t high quality wines being produced in the Mojave Desert,” says White. “At a certain point, some regions are simply not going to be able to be producing the highest quality wines in the future.”