What with the unseasonably warm winter so far and the fact that half of Britain is virtually underwater, it is difficult to deny the fact that global warming is happening. But how will this affect our beloved grapes… and is it all bad news?

Last week we mused about the future of fine wine in terms of market stability and consumer demand – this week focusses on the even more important issue of fine wine production in the ever-growing face of climate change.

Bad news for French wine?

Over the last 50 years, growing temperatures for most of the world’s top wine producing regions have increased by an average of 2ºC. So far, the extra heat has meant earlier harvest times and ripe, juicy grapes, improving overall vintage quality across the board.

However, the future picture may be slightly different. In the world’s warmest wine regions, too much heat around harvest time can lead to “sugar ripe” grapes that lack acidity and depth of flavour.

In 2003, the vintage began in Burgundy in August for the first time in 500 years, and the picture across southern France has been similar since then. If harvest periods are consistently brought forward into the warmer months, water availability is reduced and pest and disease burden is increased.

Other regions at risk include California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys, Chianti, Barolo, Rioja, Australia’s Hunter Valley and parts of Chile.

Good news for England’s fine champagne

By contrast, cooler regions are predicted to benefit greatly from a global temperature shift. Not only do cool temperatures preserve acidity and allow time to develop complex flavours, but lower levels of sugar present in the grapes results in lower alcohol wines.

“Global warming is raising the limits of the latitude or altitude at which wine grape growing is economically possible”, says Kym Anderson, Professor of Economics at the University of Adelaide and the Australian National University.

“New cooler regions are emerging, as with the Central Otago region of New Zealand and the Australian island of Tasmania over the past two decades, and more recently the south of England”, says Anderson. “The warmest parts of those regions will continue to grow, possibly with a style progressively more like that of a warmer region.”

Only last month, world-renowned Champagne house Taittinger announced plans to plant vineyards in Kent, showing how promising the the UK’s future must look in terms of fine wine production.

“It’s encouraging producers in similarly cool regions everywhere while potentially offering a bit of a competitive challenge to sparkling wine producers in slightly warmer regions”, says Anderson.

A changing landscape for collectible wine

“Competitive challenge” is exactly what viticulturalists worldwide are currently facing. The impact of global warming is likely to be increasingly visible over the next decade, and winemakers will have no choice but to acclimatise and adapt.

One way of doing this will be to modify grape varieties according to the new conditions of the terroir in question. High quality Pinot Noir, for example, only grows in a very narrow 2ºC range, from 14ºC to 16ºC – if global temperatures rise by a further 2ºC as predicted, regions such as Burgundy and Oregon may have to switch to more temperature-hardy grapes.  

Burgundy has already been adapting its production methods to suit the new, warmer climate. Harvesting begins early to maintain acidity, ageing is done for shorter periods in large barrels to reduce oxygen pick-up, sufficient amounts of the preservative sulphur dioxide is added to the wine and bottling is done with special Diam corks.

Far from diminishing the quality of investment-grade wine, the prospect of imminent global warming may be offering the impetus wine houses need to re-vamp their practices and maintain their position as leading wine producers.

It will no doubt shift the landscape of the fine wine market, perhaps dramatically, over the next few decades – but this is more a cause for excitement than concern. Through embracing change and working with it, winemakers are likely to work out what works best for their vines. And consumers will no doubt be in for a few (pleasant) surprises!  

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