How climate change could affect your next happy hour.

What makes a great wine? This is something the wine industry agonizes over, yet almost everyone agrees that the delicate balance of acidity and sugar are key. It’s what makes the difference between a table wine and a masterpiece.

Acidity and sugar are influenced by temperature and sunlight. As grapes ripen, acidity decreases and sugar builds up. Vintners all over the world have spent hundreds of years perfecting this balance in the vineyard as well as in the winery—and the best sites have been selected and cultivated accordingly.

So what happens when this carefully protected balance moves, as temperature rises with global climate change? Are we going to drink sparkling wine from Southern England instead of from Champagne, France? Will the new Napa Valley be in Wyoming?

Wine for a warming planet

A 2005 study found that the average growing-season temperature in 27 prime wine-producing regions had risen in the previous 50 years. Seventeen of these regions showed an average temperature hike of 1.26 degrees Celsius. By 2049,  temperatures in most wine regions are projected to shoot up another 2 degrees.

Another study published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the area suitable for viticulture will decrease by up to 73% in worst cases in major wine producing regions by 2050. So yeah, it’s looking pretty bad.Wineregions

Shifting vineyards

What are the possible conflicts that could arise in the future given new competition for land use? What happens when the prime wine-growing region overlaps with panda habitat in China or the protected wilds of Yellowstone National Park? One has to keep in mind that the US wine market has a total retail value of $36.3 billion. Finding ideal grape growing conditions is a multibillion-dollar question.

Some wine regions could actually benefit from rising temperatures due to extended ripening periods (resulting in higher alcohol levels). Researches reported in PLOS ONE that in Franconia (Germany), the sugar content of pressed grape juice (before fermentation) has risen 20 grams/liter each decade since 1962.

On the other side, Bordeaux and Champagne might lose some of their competitive edge. Vintners may also need to adjust their practices, not only where their fields are located. Trellising, irrigation, and canopy management may all need new innovation and methodology to adjust to climate change.

Grape vines are a perfect bellwether for other crops, as they are very sensitive to temperature change. According to Gregory Jones, from the Southern Oregon University, similar issues could soon arise for other crops such as coffee, cocoa, and hops.   

In vino veritas

As scientist Gregory Jones has pointed out, “The Romans said, ‘in wine there is truth.’ The truth now is that the Earth’s climate is changing much faster than the wine business, and it is advantageous for the wine industry to be proactive in assessing the impacts.”

swissnex San Francisco presents an evening of discussion around climate change and the wine industry on July 31, followed by a tasting of wines from areas likely to be affected: England, Germany, and Turkey.