Archeologists have discovered evidence of winemaking as far back as 8,000 years ago. That’s right; our wine-loving roots run deep, and while the basic process of harvest, crush and ferment hasn't fundamentally changed since the early days, our understanding of how to make a crude fermentation into a coveted bottle of wine has certainly evolved. We know now more than ever that terroir, the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, is probably the most important element of making a great wine. We also know that one of the heaviest factors of a wine’s terroir is, you guessed it, climate. Weather patterns can make or break a harvest season that is worth millions, and times... they are a changin’.
In Burgundy, harvest records date back to the 1300s. In fact, historians recently used original archives to compile 644 years of harvest dates and weather conditions in the region. These records show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that climate change is already impacting the wine industry: grapes are ripening sooner with higher sugar levels and less acidity, unexpected rainfall in traditionally dry Mediterranean growing regions is wreaking havoc on harvests, early bud break is threatening entire vineyards, and from old world to new, Alsace to Yarra Valley, harvests are happening 2-4 weeks earlier than they were just 50 years ago. All phases of the vineyard’s growing cycle are affected by temperature rise.
Harvest season underway at Howard's Folly in Alentejo, Portugal.
Three Ways Climate Change is Already Altering the World of Wine:
Vineyards now face an increased risk of loss of crop.
Bud break, the moment when tiny buds on grapevines start to swell and green leaves appear, is a welcome sign of Spring each year for grape growers. Budbreak can vary greatly by region, variety, and even vineyard topography, but the World over, unseasonably warm weather is causing buds to burst early. The timing of bud break is important; a frost after bud break and before flowering can kill an entire vintage. Loire Valley, among others, has had recent vintages of early bud break with a great risk of frost. While the threat of frost after bud break has always been a worry for winemakers, climate change has made it more unpredictable in recent years.
Bud break, the first sign of life each Spring on the vineyard.
Temperatures are changing the quality of wine we are making.
The wine grape is extremely sensitive to climate. When grapes are harvested closer to Summer than Autumn, they tend to have higher sugar content and lower levels of acidity. This produces wines with higher alcohol content and intense flavors, but less freshness and bright acidity. These aren’t exactly undesirable qualities, especially in cooler growing regions where grape growing can be a bit trickier, but ultimately this is a thin silver lining to ever worsening challenges facing vineyards. If temperatures continue to increase, the growing season will eventually become too hot in certain regions, and wine grapes will move through their life cycle too quickly, endangering the development of important characteristics like tannin and acid. If global warming continues to increase at the rate it currently is, some of the World’s greatest wine regions, and some of our favorite wines, will be affected greatly.
Periods of high temperature and drought are becoming more frequent and severe.
The World over, weather is becoming hotter and drier. Although the wine grape excels in dry climates, changes in weather have started to make droughts and searing temperatures too difficult for even these grapes to overcome. In Bordeaux, where wine can be made from just six authorized grapes, experts on the subject already predict that some of these varietals will not be able to survive in the region as weather continues to warm around the globe. Some winemakers there, who have always stripped vines of their leaves just before harvest, have already had to stop because the grapes now need the leaves to protect them from scorching in the now too hot sun.
Grapes that have shriveled from severe drought.
Why should you care about all of this? Between newly imposed tariffs on imported wine, climate change challenges, and travel bans for harvest workers, 2020 is turning out to be a real doozy for the industry we love.
What can you do about it? To start, support your local wine shops who support growers and winemakers. Look out for petitions that relate to tariffs and sign them. And be mindful about your “footprint.” Whether you believe in man’s responsibility for keeping the planet alive or not. Maybe try to use a little less plastic, take a walk instead of driving, drink more wine, wash your hands, be nice to people – it’s all good for you!