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Climate Change: A Burning Issue

Arid conditions in a Spanish vineyard
© AFP | Arid conditions in a Spanish vineyard
Climatologists tell Suzanne Mustacich why the wines of Alsace and Beaujolais may never be the same again.

It's circa 2050 and shoppers are stopping off at Ikea to buy fine wine made in Sweden.

A Nordic fantasy? Not according to climate experts who say the Earth's warming phase is already driving a wave of change through the world of wine.

As new frontiers for grape growing open up, the viability of some traditional production areas is under threat from scorching temperatures and prolonged droughts.

And in between the two extremes, some long-established styles are being transformed. Some whites once renowned for being light and fresh are getting fuller and less crisp, while medium-bodied reds are morphing into heavyweight bruisers.

"Some people are alarmists, I prefer to be an optimist," says Fernando Zamora, oenology researcher and professor at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain.

"I have no doubt that we will still have vineyards in traditional regions, but we have to think of new strategies. And we will also have new zones for vineyards, that's for sure.

"Already in Germany, they are making fine red wine where it used to be very difficult. And in Denmark, now they've started making wine."

Climatologists working with the wine industry around the planet predict temperatures will rise by one to two degrees Celsius by 2050, a trend that is expected to be accompanied by an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events.

"Can any region continue to grow the exact same varieties and make the exact same style of wines?" asks Gregory Jones, oenology professor at Southern Oregon University in the United States. "If what we know today is correct, that is highly unlikely."

New vineyard projects in northern Europe will be risky, given the increased unpredictability of the weather and the potential for one cold snap to destroy an entire crop.

So it may be that the biggest change will come in the range of wines produced in areas that, until recently, have struggled to ripen some varieties.

Tasmania, parts of New Zealand, southern Chile, Ontario and other parts of Canada, England, and the Mosel and Rhine Valleys in Germany are among the regions that could benefit.

New Zealand regions like Central Otago could benefit from global warming
© Two Paddocks | New Zealand regions like Central Otago could benefit from global warming

Says Jones: "You can look anywhere in the world where there are relatively cool-climate regions that today are much more suitable than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago, because the climates were too cold then. People couldn't ripen fruit."

He and Zamora are both part of an international committee for the agriculture and forestry climate change program (ACCAF) run by France's agricultural research institute, the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA).

They are tasked with formulating strategies for helping everything and everybody – from plants to politicians – to cope with climate change.

While wine grapes may not be necessary to feed the Earth's population, grapevines are more sensitive to climate than plants such as rice, corn and soya beans, and this difference could provide valuable insight for future producers of essential food supplies.

Water stress, temperature change, inopportune downpours and frosts are just a few of the variables that have profound effects on the balance of sugar and acidity, the ripeness of tannins, and aromas.

"In Alsace, climate change is already a problem," according to Jean-Marc Touzard, a coordinator of the ACCAF, "because it's changing the aromatic profile, the balance of sugar and acidity. If the consumers accept the changes, it's not a problem. If they don't, it is."

Will Alsace's wines be changed forever by global warming?
© AFP | Will Alsace's wines be changed forever by global warming?

Producers of Beaujolais, meanwhile, see warmer weather improving the quality of their product in a region where winemakers have often had to add sugar to bolster alcohol levels.

"In 2003 [when France suffered a severe summer heatwave], our wines tasted more like Côtes du Rhône," says Jean Bourjade of the regional trade association Inter Beaujolais.

Jones adds: "Beaujolais has seen that they can make better wine in a warmer climate, so there is a benefit. But is there a limit to that benefit? Does it go on forever?"

Touzard predicts that "for 10 years, they'll be happy. Then they'll have problems."

The Languedoc region already faces these problems. Hotter, dryer weather is making the area's already-robust wines more full bodied and more alcoholic, at the expense, some say, of finesse.

But all is far from lost. Touzard reports that in the Languedoc, "the growers have already begun adapting – planting at a higher altitude and on different soils."

Another solution is to change the grapes legally allowed under Europe's strict appellation laws, sourcing the indigenous varieties from hot-weather climes such as Sicily, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Researchers also say that once these grapes have been genetically decoded, they could be used for plant breeding.

Portugal alone has between 100 and 150 indigenous varieties that virtually nothing is known about, according to Jones. "Some of the more southern, really warm places that have genetic material could be a real hotbed for dealing with heat tolerance in the future."


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