Wines of Change

Wines of Change

As climate change transforms the world’s wine-making regions, wine producers are finding ever more inventive ways to adapt to the changes and keep the cellars stocked.

I am standing in the shade of an olive tree. Sweating grape pickers race frantically up and down the sloping hill before me, in the scorching heat of Emilia-Romagna. This is Italy’s famed ‘fertile crescent’—its food basket—but the land beneath the vines is compacted and dry. Dust devils swirl between the gnarled roots. There is much shouting. The owner looks tense. The grapes need harvesting. Subito! But he has a problem: if the pickers cannot get the grapes in fast enough by hand, the vines will shut down from the heat and the grapes will die on the vine. The year’s crop will be lost.

What does climate change have to do with wine? Everything. Wine is made from grapes and grapes are a fruit—and so much more than that. They are the crop most susceptible to climate variations. They can anticipate Mother Nature’s every mood. In fact, climatologists adore the wine industry. What other type of farmers have painstakingly recorded every single climatic detail? The planet is warming and we can taste it.


The New World wine regions of Western California, Australia, New Zealand and South America have been experiencing problems for much longer. These countries do not have indigenous grape varieties. The wine grape vine, Vitis vinifera, was brought to them from Europe. Purists are entitled to argue that trying to grow fruit in a non-indigenous climate was bound to end in tears. There is only so far we can manipulate a growing environment and just because Chardonnay can be grown everywhere doesn’t mean that it should be. Now, as crisis finally hits the cabernet-coloured heart of fine wine in Europe, the issue has become mainstream and is no longer the preserve of the scholarly few. France has suffered a loss of billions of euros and the world is paying attention.

Variable weather is good; extremes are bad. The challenge of working with, or overcoming, Mother Nature, is what the entire viticultural exercise is about. A great winemaker is one who can navigate the vagaries. New World wine regions were pooh-poohed for being lazy: wine-growing in a constantly sunny climate is considered easy work—too easy—and the wines reflect that. But it’s not just heat that is causing problems. What is happening is that there are more extreme cycles of weather within the larger cycle of an overall warming. Record cold winters are followed by record hot summers; droughts and the fire season give way to extreme rainfall and flooding—in one region, and during one growing season. Harvest variations used to be the guarantee of wines with character and personality, but too much variation means too much unpredictability and ruined crops. How much more variation can winemakers handle?

The world’s fine wines come from ‘cool-climate’ regions: Mosel, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont. A cooler climate allows the fruit a longer ‘hang-time’—in other words, a longer growing season. This produces fruit with greater elegance and the structure essential for ageing. The hotter a growing season, the shorter it is. The heat increases the sugar content of the fruit. And the higher the level of sugar at fermentation, the higher the level of alcohol of the resulting wine. High levels of alcohol unbalance a wine, erase all of the grape’s varietal character and compromise its ageing ability. Ever wonder why so many big, red wines taste the same? It’s the heat. Anything above 13.5% ABV and it can be hard to discern which grape you’re drinking. In fact, the legal definition of wine is between 8-14%.

Why should we care about climate change and wine? Because it is climate that determines whether a wine is a great wine or just a good wine. And the goalposts are changing. Also, in the same way that food crops are affected by provenance, quality, price and scarcity, so are our wines. We will have erratic wine supplies, production costs for wine producers will skyrocket and so, too, will prices.

Our favourite wines are already tasting different. Some of our regions will change wine grapes and wine styles, or cease wine production altogether. European appellation laws will fall by the wayside, as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino may be made from ‘warmer’ grapes such as Nero d’Avola, rather than Sangiovese. Sancerre may not be Sauvignon blanc anymore. And Bordeaux is already replacing its increasingly unviable Merlot plantings with Carménère. How we drink, buy, store and invest in wine is changing.

This is where it starts to get interesting. It is not all doom and gloom—quite the contrary. As winemakers battle these changes on the front line, they are becoming global pioneers in eco-inventiveness. Their dedicated and creative efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change are contributing to a worldwide knowledge bank.

It also means that we are going to see more wines from newer regions. And while a lot of these newer fringe regions are considered too extreme at the moment, the general warming trend should have the effect of closing the temperature gap. We will see more wine grown in northern France, in Brittany and Normandy. In the UK, Christopher Trotter has just harvested his first vintage in Fife, in Scotland. Sweden is currently planting Pinot Noir.

Award-winning author and sommelier Andreas Kjörling says: “Over the past decade, more than 40 growers have started cultivating grapes well-suited for cold climates—such as Rondo, Solaris and Siegerrebe—commonly known as hybrids and unfortunately regarded as of lesser quality. However, Chardonnay and Müller-Thurgau, among other more traditional grapes, are also grown. I think we’ll need to accept a change of what are considered ‘noble’ varieties—Swedish wine has a prosperous future.”

Recently, China overtook France as the world’s second largest wine grower. Between 2010 and 2014, China’s total consumption increased by about 36%. The industry is unregulated and there are a lot of cowboy bulk wines out there. But Spain’s Torres family has teamed up with two of China’s best wineries—crucially, both family-owned—Silver Heights and Grace Vineyards.

Climate is low down the list of worries for Emma Gao of Silver Heights—she had to enlist the aid of the French ambassador to persuade the Chinese government to not requisition their vineyard in Ningxia for development. They managed to retain a portion, but residential tower blocks, as opposed to countryside, now dominate the landscape. “While we’re on the same latitude as Bordeaux, the climate here is continental,” she says. “We are in a very dry desert region. The advantage of such an environment is that none of the vine diseases can develop there so we don’t use any pesticide. But the temperature difference is great between summer and winter: 37°C to -25°C. It is therefore necessary to bury the vines in winter, which has the effect of reducing the growth cycle.”

At the other end of the world, Mario Pablo Silva of Casa Silva, Chile’s southernmost winery, nestled in the foothills of Patagonia, tells us: “As a winery, we are continually looking to broaden our horizons and challenge the parameters of what is possible within Chilean winemaking. Ranco is cooler than any other wine region and vintage variation is likely to be more dramatic, but the soils are ideal and we are delighted with our first harvest. The potential for the future is extremely exciting and we are delighted to be the first winery to carry out such a project.”

It is exciting. Cool-climate hunting is the new wine sport—who knows where our next Chablis region will be? Northern England? Exploring and experimenting will take a while. As adaptable as they are, grapes are not like the fashion industry and trends cannot be accommodated from season to season. Grapevines have a lifespan that continues into their 50s, 60s, and 70s, producing better fruit all the while. Wine producers are having a difficult time navigating their way through a quickly changing landscape with a product that has a built-in timeline dictated by nature.

Wine Grapes

Wine-future investors, too, are in for an interesting time. They need to know where to buy in the future and how to revalue their current stock. As the classic wine-investment regions continue to produce wines with 15.5% alcohol and higher, these wines will not have the ageing potential they once had. So the tenet on which their investment is based is no longer valid. Should investors start following cooler climate regions and buy wines that may turn out to be our future classics? Should they try to buy as much of the older vintages as possible? Or better still: start investing in new vineyards and the eco-technology that is the key to sustaining the wine industry in future? The game is changing and it will quickly separate the wheat from the chaff.

What does the future hold? For each wine region, the answer will be different. Some will be forced to abandon viticulture; others will adapt and improve, and more new areas will emerge. The wines from the classic regions, the fine wines, are most affected. Bulk, commercial wines that rely on technology rather than nature will continue to do so. We will not see a shortage of wine, just a shortage of fine wine, as we wait to see what the newer regions produce. Another silver lining is that during this period of re-shuffling, there will be more regions making wine than ever before. This might lead to a reduced demand for wine imports—and considering that wine’s biggest cost to the environment, after water, is transport, this is good news.

This is a pivotal era in the wine industry. The wines of the southern hemisphere will at first do better, due to their coastal influence and freedom from appellation laws. They will move south, closer to the pole, until they run out of space. This is something the Northern Hemisphere has more of, which means that they will ultimately house the majority of the world’s wine producers. Those regions in northern Europe will be the first to find our next classic terroirs. Europe will hang on for as long as it can to their current grape varieties, trading on established appellation brands until, with forced irrigation and heat, they become New World versions of their old selves. Full-scale replanting programmes will eventually be embraced, exploring first the forgotten indigenous grape varieties and then adopting varieties from other, warmer regions.

Many have already begun, while others are adopting a wait-and-see policy. But again, as the old regions lose production, the newer regions gain in production and balance will be restored. There will be wines that we will miss and wines that we will welcome. Just like with friends. So let’s drink to that.

by Linda Johnson-Bell