Is the climate crisis coming for your wine?

In case you’re thinking of numbing your way through our dystopian future with a good glass of pinot…

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has some potentially grim news for oenophiles. “As temperatures rise and seasons change, the regions of the world that are suitable for growing wine grapes could shrink by half or more,” writes Sarah Fecht for Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Here’s what we’re looking at:

A 2 degrees Celsius increase: Suitable wine-grape growing regions in the world could shrink by as much as 56 percent.
A 4 degree Celsius increase: Suitable wine-grape growing regions in the world could shrink by as much as 85 percent.

“In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive,” says study co-author Benjamin Cook from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Now of course the best course of action would be for our species to stop being jerks and address the climate crisis with all we’ve got. But in the meantime, as far as grapes are concerned, the authors conclude that there are some workarounds: “Increasing diversity within crops may be a powerful way to reduce agricultural declines from climate change,” they write.

The team used European (mostly French) databases to forecast winegrape phenology and tested to see if swapping grape cultivars (varieties) changed predictions of future growing regions. They focused on 11 varieties of wine grape: cabernet sauvignon, chasselas, chardonnay, grenache, merlot, monastrell (also known as mourvedre), pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, syrah and ugni blanc.

The researchers found that “by switching these varieties around, you can reduce losses by a significant amount,” says Cook.

The authors explain:

“We find that cultivar diversity halved potential losses of winegrowing regions under a 2 °C warming scenario and could reduce losses by a third if warming reaches 4 °C. Thus, diversity – if adopted by growers locally – can mitigate agricultural losses, but its effectiveness will depend on global decisions regarding future emissions.”

Fecht writes, “With 2 degrees of global warming and no attempts at adaptation, 56 percent of the world’s wine-growing areas may no longer be suitable for growing wine. But if wine growers switch to varieties more suitable for the changing climate, only 24 percent would be lost. For example, in France’s Burgundy region, heat-loving mourvedre and grenache could replace current varieties such as pinot noir. In Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon and merlot could be replaced with mourvedre.”

Varieties that like warmer temperatures, like merlot and grenache, could be planted in cooler wine-growing regions such as Germany, New Zealand and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Varieties that like cooler temperatures – like pinot noir – could frontier northward into regions that have traditionally been too cool for grapes.

Though just swapping around cultivars and upending centuries-old growing traditions would not come without complications.

“Conversations in Europe have already begun about new legislation to make it easier for major regions to change the varieties they grow,” says Elizabeth Wolkovich at the University of British Columbia, who led the study with Ignacio Morales-Castilla. “But growers still must learn to grow these new varieties. That’s a big hurdle in some regions that have grown the same varieties for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they need consumers who are willing to accept different varieties from their favorite regions.”

“The key is that there are still opportunities to adapt viticulture to a warmer world,” says Cook. “It just requires taking the problem of climate change seriously.” Which sounds like a pretty great place to start.

In case you’re thinking of numbing your way through our dystopian future with a good glass of pinot…

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