Climate Change and Winegrowing

By Thomas Pellechia

Everyone working in agriculture wonders how climate change and global warming will affect their crops, and that includes vineyard managers. It’s not a new question; in a 2007 research paper Dr. Gregory V. Jones of Southern Oregon University predicted future climate change “will likely bring” increasingly scarce water supplies, changes in grapevine physiology, changing regional wine styles and new grape varieties to meet changing climate patterns.

His forecast is borne out by the facts: the European Environmental Agency claims the decade from 2006 to 2015 was 33.5°F to 36°F warmer than the average in pre-industrial times – it was, in fact, “the warmest decade on record,” they report. A US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chart tracking temperature fluctuations over time agrees.

Still, grape growers in the Midwest and Northeast US regions know the perils of precipitous winter temperature drops or severe late-spring frosts.

Climate change seems to guarantee that this year’s vintage, and those that follow, won’t mimic those that came before. The fruit, and how it grows in any given region, is slowly altering – but it’s not just global warming that threatens. Wildly erratic weather patterns have become the new normal: a vintage in a northern region might give us wines as if the grapes had been produced in a southern region, only to revert again the following year. Not only is it harder to determine grape growing and winemaking strategy under such shifts, it also confuses consumers, and that may affect wine revenues.

On April 26, 2017, unusually cold vineyard temperatures in parts of Bordeaux reached lower than 27°F. The Bordelais (i.e., people of Bordeaux) applied a combination of frost control methods – fans, sprinklers and fire drums. But bud loss, especially in the valleys, was estimated at 50 to 100 percent. In late May, Hervé Grandeau, chairman of the Federation of the Fine Wines of Bordeaux, roughly calculated an increase in wine prices by as much as 20 percent because of the April frosts. Those are tough numbers to take when you consider that all across Europe, warmer vintages for the past 10 years have led to wine styles that were lower in acid than in previous decades, even with German Riesling. The decade produced a string of memorable vintages all across northern France – and then came the frost.

Winegrowing has always been risky, and a research team from universities in Germany, Australia, Greece and the United Kingdom has formed to study today’s new, climate change-based uncertainties in grape farming. With fascinating statistics and maps, the WineRisk website lays out specific perils across the globe. One of the WineRisk scientists, James Daniell, PhD, Natural Hazards Risk Engineer at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, sees those risks as opportunities as well as drawbacks. “Climate change means that new markets are opening up for wine production,” he says. “Climate shifts demand investments in new grape varieties to accommodate changing harvest parameters and worldwide regional variations.”

Increasingly, French wine investors are invading Oregon wine country where, ironically, Dr. Jones issued his 2007 prediction. Most are Burgundians looking into the Willamette Valley’s Pinot Noir prowess, trying to formulate strategies for escaping the crazy climate changes of northern Europe. But WineRisk offers no secure place to hide: for US viticulture, frost and storms are among its top three risks.

Photo courtesy Finger Lakes Wine Country Marketing.

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