Will Climate Change Redraw the Wine Map?



Grapes aren’t like row crops – tomatoes, corn, beans, etc. Farmers don’t put seeds in the ground every spring and harvest Cabernet Sauvignon a few months later. To plant a vineyard is to make a long-term investment. It takes two or three years alone for the vines to establish themselves, and if all goes well, they’ll produce for thirty years or more.

That’s what makes climate change kind of scary for the wine industry: Thirty years from now, we might be living in a very different place when it comes to winegrowing.

Uncertainty abounds about how exactly things might play out, but already we’re seeing vintners in some of the world’s most famous wine regions preparing for a very different future.

True story: The Bordeaux wine board is asking to be allowed to test-plant now-banned varieties like Petit Verdot and Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. According to BloombergBusiness, growers are worried that Merlot, in particular, might become overripe and indistinct in a warmer Bordeaux, where the average temperature has already climbed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s – and they want to be ready.



It’s a fact that grapes can and will grow in any reasonable sunny area, even if it is extremely hot. But wine, particularly fine wine, is all about matching specific grape varieties to specifics places, and climate is a huge component in the equation. It’s why Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown in Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy, Sangiovese in Tuscany and Chenin Blanc on the Western Cape.

Climate change threatens to redraw the map.

The climate-change alarm bells for winemakers really started to go off in 2013, when the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a peer-reviewed paper that looked at 17 global climate models to try to forecast what might lie ahead.

What did the researchers find? “Major global geographic shifts in suitability for viticulture are projected by the consensus of our wine grape suitability models between current and 2050, with high agreement among the results obtained with the 17 GCMs.”

climate and wine

At top, South Africa; at right, the North American West Coast. Images from “Climate, change, wine, and conservation.”

It’s not only the Bordelais who have reason to be concerned – as the above maps of the West Coast of North America and the southern tip of South Africa show, there could be plenty of change in those familiar growing regions. But the news might be a little more nuanced and hopeful than some of the headlines that greeted the 2013 report made things out to be.

For one thing, the study noted that coastal areas – home to some of the best New World appellations – could be relatively unscathed. That’s because while scientists say climate change will undoubtedly bring substantial large-scale warming, the impacts in specific places could vary. As the Napa Valley Vintners noted in 2011, “Globally, the years 1998, 2005, 2006 and now 2010 were the warmest years on record, but they were some of the coolest for the Napa Valley.”

Still, even in Napa vintners realize they will need to be flexible and ready to adapt in order to continue to thrive. As one grower told the Great American Adaptation Road Trip blog, “[We can’t] take our eyes off the ball. We need to keep talking. The sooner we see a pattern, the sooner we can react.”

Meanwhile, other regions are already taking advantage of the opportunity to become The Next Big Thing in winemaking. This just in: “Climate change is good for English wine.”

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