Grapevines may not have political opinions, but they are deeply affected by climate change.
At first, global warming was a boon for wine production: Vines yielded more grapes, and those grapes ripened earlier, resulting in a crop that was richer and more pleasing. Most of the world’s wine grapes are grown in a band between the thirtieth and fiftieth parallels, with a significant concentration at the forty-fifth parallel north, halfway between the equator and the North Pole (Oregon, Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley and Provence, Central Otago in New Zealand, etc.). By 2050, many researchers expect those regions to be inhospitable to wine grapes, or at least to the varieties currently grown there; Pinot Noir will be impossible in Oregon, and Bordeaux will be better suited to Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Some areas, such as mainland Australia, won’t be able to make wine at all.
What’s a vintner to do? Short of grabbing his or her violin and rushing to the deck of the Titanic to join the ensemble, there are some practical solutions available.
Move to higher ground. This is happening in Burgundy, which made its reputation on the fickle Pinot Noir grape. While Burgundian winemakers are only moving several hundred feet up the hillsides, it’s not unusual to find vineyards at 4,500 to 5,000 feet in parts of Argentina’s Uco Valley. Winemakers are discovering that increased heat and sunlight are melting more snow, which is leading to more water for irrigation.
Throw some shade. There are viticultural techniques that can help minimize the effects of rising temperatures. These include canopy management, night harvesting and quicker transport of grapes to winery facilities, the planting of cover crops, maximizing irrigation through treatment and recycling of water, and delaying the ripening process by increasing crop load. Some of these techniques are already being used in regions such as Spain, where the effects of heat are acute.
Vote with your feet. As temperatures grow warmer, wine production is thriving farther north and south—to Pennsylvania, northern Michigan, and the southern Australian island of Tasmania. The most famous example is the south of England, which is rapidly becoming famous for sparkling wine production. Even the French, who have long viewed the British wine industry with contempt, are changing their tune. Taittinger and Vranken Pommery have purchased land in Kent and Hampshire, respectively, and other major houses are rumored to be shopping around, too.
Plant different grapes. Scientists have engineered hybrid grapes and crosses designed to thrive in extreme cold and heat: Vidal Blanc and Vignoles in Michigan, and varieties such as Blanc du Bois here in Florida. Since the aroma and flavor profiles of these grapes are unfamiliar, and very different from Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, this may seem like a draconian scenario to many wine drinkers. By 2100, though, it may be the only option we have.
Switch crops. Forty years ago, the concept of legal marijuana was unthinkable; 20 years ago, the idea that pot could threaten wine sales would have been laughable. Recreational cannabis is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana is permitted in 30 plus D.C. The wine industry is reacting to the threat by co-opting the competition. In late 2017, beverage giant Constellation bought a stake in the Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth, and by mid-2018 Constellation reported it had already made $1.3 billion on the deal. When life hands you lemons, you can make some tasty lemonade. «