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26 June 2024

The great wine climate-change challenge

As the planet warms this century, so wine-production regions and qualities will evolve with it.

By Andrew Jefford

Humanity’s hapless experiment with atmospheric chemistry gathers pace. Last year was the world’s hottest since pre-industrial times and we’re on track for 2.9°C of warming over the 21st century. Grapes are the world’s third-most valuable horticultural crop, after potatoes and tomatoes. Almost half of the 80 million tonnes of grapes produced in 2020 were transformed into wine and spirits: a processed food crop whose end use is more emotional than nutritional. Assuming we continue to allow ourselves the luxury of deploying agricultural land for mood enhancement, how will wine fare in the sinister decades to come?

Like all climate questions, the answer is complicated. A wide-ranging 2024 paper by Cornelis van Leeuwen and colleagues in Nature Reviews provided headline projections, notably that “90 per cent of traditional wine regions in coastal and lowland regions of Spain, Italy, Greece and southern California could be at risk of disappearing by the end of the century”. “Warmer temperatures might increase suitability for other regions (Washington State, Oregon, Tasmania, northern France) and are driving the emergence of new wine regions, like the southern United Kingdom.” But there’s ample nuance to add.

The world’s most valuable single plots of agricultural land are planted with wine vines (notably the 1.63-hectare Romanée-Conti vineyard in Burgundy, though it hasn’t been tested with a sale since 1869). Wine’s emotional significance means no annual crop grown on Earth is more extensively written about, analysed, discussed and scrutinised than “the wine harvest”. Tiny increments in wine quality (based on site and season) command wildly disproportionate increases in value; the world’s finest wines, indeed, are Veblen goods (those for which demand rises rather than sinks as the price increases).

Thanks to the centuries of fastidious vineyard record-keeping which this esteem commands, wine production is an excellent means of measuring climate change: we can track advancing phenological events (such as budburst, flowering, the mid-season changing of grape colour, and ripeness parameters) with great accuracy. Wine-grape harvests have generally advanced by two to three weeks over the past 40 years, and alcohol levels risen over the same period by 1.5 to 2 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume).

Recent harvests, though, surprised. The world’s greatest wines have historically been produced in areas towards the latitudinal limit for the ripening of their grape varieties, meaning that good vintages were uncommon and great vintages rare.

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No longer. Climate change has tipped these regions into unparalleled seasonal beatitude. Bordeaux’s best sites, for example, have just completed a record-breaking run of seven good or great vintages out of nine. Likewise Burgundy, at a time when its wines have never been more prized. Even California’s Napa Valley traded hazard for near perfection in 2023, for the fourth time in seven years. The world’s wealthiest vineyard proprietors have, thus far, been climate-change beneficiaries; it’s the least wealthy, in hardscrabble wine zones, who are suffering.

Can such felicity last? Great sites for growing wine are impossible to duplicate: each is a constellation of uniqueness. Plant 200km further north, plant a higher hill, change your grape varieties to those which ripen later, adapt your cultivation practices to combat heat spikes and drought, and the wine will be different. A hotter world will bring an increased incidence of extreme weather events and unforeseen catastrophes: floods, hail storms, the invasive stain of smoke taint from sometimes distant wildfires. No one, for example, predicted that vineyard damage from spring frost would worsen with climate change, but it has.

We won’t run out of wine, since new, modest-quality sites can always be found. Good wines may come from new places. But the finest wines will see their characters evolve and change, for better or worse, while the great sites may eventually be lost.

Which, of course, will be the least of our worries.

[See also: In praise of Languedoc]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine