Around the wine-growing world, smart producers have contemplated and experimented with adaptations, not only to hotter summers, but also to warmer winters, droughts and the sort of unexpected, sometimes violent events that stem from climate change: hailstorms, spring frosts, flooding and forest fires, just to name a few.
The accelerating effects of climate change are forcing the wine industry, especially those who see wine as an agricultural product rather than an industrial beverage, to take decisive steps to counter or adapt to the shifts.
So far, these efforts are focused on five factors that are inherently crucial to growing and producing wine.
1 The Wine Map Is Expanding
Historically, many great wines have been made along the ragged edge of the possible. Grapevines seem to thrive where they are most challenged, whether in poor soils that force roots to plunge deeply to find moisture or in marginal climates where they must struggle to ripen.
For some of the world’s best-known grapes, including pinot noir, chardonnay, nebbiolo and riesling, these borderline environments permit a combination of low yields and phenolic ripeness, in which sugar, acid and tannins are in balance for producing thrilling wine.
Conversely, if these grapes are planted in overly fertile soils in warm climates, the wines they make will seem dull and flabby, with little of the character and nuance that has made them so prized.
As the climate has warmed, regions that were once considered too cold are now demonstrating that they, too, can produce fine wine, as long as the other elements are in order. In pursuit of the best sites, wine producers are moving north in the Northern Hemisphere, and south in the Southern.
England is a perfect example. Thirty years ago, nobody had ever heard of English sparkling wine. But as the climate has warmed, a world-class sparkling wine industry has developed, with new vineyards being planted at a dizzying pace, primarily along the southern coast.
2 Winemakers Are Seeking Altitude Wines
No hard-and-fast rules limit the altitude at which grapes can be planted. It depends on a region’s climate, the quality of the light, access to water and the nature of the grapes. But clearly, as the earth has warmed, vineyards are moving higher.
At higher elevations, peak temperatures are not necessarily much cooler, but intense heat lasts for shorter periods, and nighttime temperatures are colder than at lower altitudes. This increased diurnal shift, helps grapes to ripen at a more even pace, over a longer period of time, than where temperatures remain relatively stable.
But pushing altitudes also creates challenges. Soils, particularly on slopes, are generally poorer, water is scarcer and unexpected weather events like frosts and hailstorms are always a threat.
3. Growers Are Curtailing Sunlight
For centuries, a formula governed the placement of some of the world’s greatest vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere. They would be planted on hillsides, with suitable soils, facing south or southeast, where they would receive the most sun and warmth, allowing grapes to fully ripen.
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.
In the Douro Valley, south-facing vineyards, particularly at lower altitudes, are still prized for port, which requires very ripe grapes. But to make the sort of fresh, unfortified reds and whites for which demand is growing worldwide, winemakers are looking for vineyards that face north, as well as those at higher elevations.
4. Regions Are Adopting Different Grapes
For many producers, particularly small family estates or those in historic appellations, new vineyards in cooler environments are not an option. Instead, they must consider whether to change the essence of what they have been doing, in some cases for centuries.
That might mean leaving behind the grapes that have long been associated with their region, and selecting ones more appropriate for the changing climate.
In Bordeaux, closely associated with cabernet sauvignon. where producers may use only grapes that are permitted by the appellation authorities, seven additional grapes have been selected for experiments to determine whether they can be used to mitigate the effects of climate change.
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.
In California and Australia, where access to enough water can no longer be taken for granted, growers must consider either grafting their familiar grapevines onto drought-resistant rootstocks, or selecting other grape varieties.
In Burgundy, the Côte de Beaune region, which has had several disastrous recent vintages because of hail, has installed a system that tries to prevent the formation of hailstones by shooting particles of heated silver iodide at storm clouds. If that method fails, farmers may also put up bird netting in an effort to protect their vines.
Viticulture by its nature is complicated. As the world’s climates are transformed, it is only becoming more so.
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