Wine O'Clock is Ticking: Climate Change and the Future of Wine

Wine O'Clock is Ticking: Climate Change and the Future of Wine

 

It's Andi Healey here, Art of Living's Website Development Manager (or Andrew's Mancunian typesetter, if you prefer). As Andrew is away this week, on his model railway Summer Retreat, I thought I'd step into the breach.

Every year, or so, I write a piece for The Riedel Shop's newsletter subscribers about climate change, its effect on the wine industry and, more optimistically, what innovative winemakers are doing to combat it.

The recent, unprecedented heatwave across much of Europe, and the world, has had me scribbling in my notebook and working on an update.

Which I'd like to share with you today. I have been known, on occasion, to tease Andrew about his verbosity, after this I won't have a leg to stand on.

So you may want to put the kettle on before you start!

A bit of background.
The global warming that we are currently experiencing, caused largely by human activity and the emission of greenhouse gases, will have an irreversible impact on our ecosystems. Since the vine is a part of these vulnerable ecosystems, the consequences of these changes could disrupt wine and winemaking forever. Production, taste and even the location of the wine-growing regions themselves could and, more than likely will, change.

If you look at a map of the classic wine regions of the world, you’ll notice they all have something in common: latitude. In each hemisphere, the vast majority of quality wines are produced between the 30- and 50-degree parallels. This isn’t a coincidence. Vitis vinifera vines, the species responsible for most of the world’s popular grape varieties, need very specific growing conditions in order to thrive, including a lack of extreme climate conditions. If exposed to too much heat or cold, the vines will shut down and stop producing fruit.

The effects of climate change, however, are causing these regions to shift away from the equator. They’re moving further north in the Northern Hemisphere and further south in the Southern Hemisphere, where climates that were previously too cold to grow wine grapes are becoming better suited for viticulture. This doesn’t mean your favourite wine regions will be disappearing, but it does mean that winemakers in those areas will need to make changes in order to adapt to rising global temperatures and other effects of climate change.

Graphic shows where major wine producing regions were, are and will be in the future.

 

Climate change poses a number of threats to vineyards. It could increase the frequency of severe weather and cause fewer winter frosts, which may encourage the spread of pests. But a rise in temperature could have an even more dramatic impact and lead to a major shift across the whole industry.

Wine grapes are susceptible to changes in climate. They grow in narrow geographical and climatic ranges where temperatures during the growing season average 54-72°F (12-22°C). This means global warming could impact the yield and quality of established wine varieties that were selected to best suit the local climate at the time of planting.

Another consequence of climate change is an increase in the number of severe weather events. In particular, the number of fires in regions such as the south of France, Australia or California.

Although a natural part of Californian life, the frequency and intensity of wildfires has increased. 2017, 2018 and 2020 all saw devastating bushfires sweep the state, ravaging millions of acres; and in 2020 at least a dozen wineries were damaged with a small number destroyed completely.

The fires in, in 2021, in the Provance region of France affected 73 wineries and 5 cooperatives, whilst the severe flooding in Germany, in July 2021, destroyed vineyards throughout the Ahr Valley, home to producers of some of Germany's finest Pinot Noirs and Rieslings.

2021 also saw France’s smallest harvest since 1957, which cost the industry almost £2 billion in sales. One vineyard in Champagne, which would normally send up to 50,000 bottles to market, produced nothing because of too much rain and then a heatwave.

The recent extreme weather across much of Europe, and indeed, the world, means that the preliminary forecasts for 2023’s harvest are that it will be the worst for over 70 years.

 

However, it's not all doom and gloom, winemakers are fighting back in a number of ways.

The grape varieties are on the move.
Whilst wine-growing regions that are already hot now, such as Italy, Spain, and Australia face the biggest challenges, cooler wine-growing regions such as Germany, New Zealand and the U.S. Pacific Northwest could become suitable for warmer varieties like merlot and grenache, while varieties that prefer cooler temperatures, such as pinot noir, could expand northward into regions that are not currently suitable for growing grapes.

Historically, many great wines have been made along the "ragged edge of the possible" (great quote from Eric Azimov of the New York Times). Grapevines thrive where they are most challenged, whether in poor soils that force roots to plunge deeply to find moisture, or in marginal climates where they must struggle to ripen.

For some of the world’s best-known grapes, including pinot noir, chardonnay, nebbiolo and riesling, these borderline environments permit a combination of low yields and phenolic ripeness, in which sugar, acid and tannins are in perfect balance and produce excellent wine.

Conversely, if these grapes are planted in overly fertile soils, in warm climates, the wines they make will seem dull and flabby, with little of the character and nuance that made them so sought after.

As the climate warms, regions that were once considered too cold are now demonstrating that they, too, can produce fine wine, as long as the other elements are in order. In pursuit of the best sites, wine producers are moving north in the Northern Hemisphere, and south in the Southern.

England is a perfect example. Thirty years ago, nobody had ever heard of English sparkling wine. But as the climate has warmed, a world-class sparkling wine industry has developed, with new vineyards being planted at a dizzying pace, primarily along the south coast.

From Kent in the east through East and West Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and as far west as Cornwall, fine sparkling wines are being made, produced by the same method as Champagne, but with their own character.

Many of the best vineyards are planted in chalky white soils that are geologically identical to the most prized soils of the Champagne region of France. Those soils have always been in England, but until recently, the climate was too cold. Now, Champagne companies like Taittinger and Pommery have invested in English vineyards, hedging their bets as the once-marginal climate in Champagne has warmed.

In June this year, Kent winery Chapel Down set up a "pop up" in the town square in Reims, the unofficial capital of the Champagne region. Under the playful guise of “Chapelle en Bas”, a literal translation of 'Chapel Down', they invited French consumers to try their Brut alongside Moet et Chandon Brut Imperial.

Le verdict? 60% of consumers preferred Chapel Down to Champagne. Ooh la la! 

And it’s not only England. Vineyards have been planted in Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, some with hybrid grape varieties bred specifically for colder weather, but others, like the vineyard in Norway, with vinifera grapes, the species that accounts for all the classic European rieslings. Grapes for fine wines are now being grown in northern Germany, and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia.

In the Southern Hemisphere, growers are pushing south, deep into Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. 

Winemakers Are Seeking Higher Ground
Vineyards are now being planted at altitudes once considered inhospitable to growing wine grapes.

There are no hard-and-fast rules limiting the altitude at which grapes can be grown, it depends on a region’s climate, the quality of the light, access to water and the nature of the grapes. But clearly, as the earth has warmed, vineyards are getting higher.
 

In response to climate change, Familia Torres, a global wine producer based in the Catalonia region of Spain, has planted vineyards at altitudes of 3,000 to 4,000 feet in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

“Twenty-five years ago, it would have been impossible,” said Miguel Torres Maczassek, the general manager.

At higher elevations, peak temperatures are not necessarily much cooler, but intense heat lasts for shorter periods, and nighttime temperatures are colder than at lower altitudes. This increased diurnal shift — the temperature swing over the course of a day — helps grapes to ripen at a more even pace, over a longer period of time, than where temperatures remain relatively stable.

But pushing altitudes also creates challenges. Soils, particularly on higher slopes, are generally poorer, water is scarcer and unexpected weather events like frosts and hailstorms are always a threat.

Even in the heart of Burgundy they are seeing the effects of warmer temperatures. The Hautes-Côtes region, divided between the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, were not thought to have great potential because they are situated at the top of Burgundy’s slope, about 1,200 to 1,300 feet up.

At that height, the grapes ripened a week or two behind those planted in the choicer areas, closer to sea level. Sometimes it was too late and the grapes would not ripen fully. Even in the best years, the wines were lighter and thinner.

Now, the grapes are ripening earlier and more consistently and the wines are getting better and better.

What's Actually Causing the Problem?

A growing world population means that we need more space to live, which reduces the amount of land available for agriculture. So, when land is used for growing crops for alcohol production, it clearly reduces food-growing capacity.

Unlike food, alcohol is not essential to life (apparently!), and a perverse situation has arisen, where growing rice and potatoes for alcohol production is prioritised over supplying those who need these foods in many parts of the world.

And it's not just the land - water supply is at a premium in many regions across the world. As global consumption of alcohol increases, so does the demand for water used to irrigate crops, and, therefore, in the manufacture of alcohol. One 500ml bottle of beer takes 148 litres of water to produce – and a single 750ml bottle of wine, 660 litres!

Alcohol is a thirsty product.

Another big issue is glass. The 750ml bottle, has long been argued over as a container. Why 750ml in the first place, and is the round bottle really the most suitable design? It’s often said that this standard size harks back to the days of hand blown bottles, when it was roughly the capacity of the glass blower’s lungs! The reality is slightly less exciting – the common 225 litre wine barrels (still in use today), when split down to a nice even 300 bottles, give producers and merchants their 750ml size.

A carbon emissions audit completed by Jackson Family Wines (California), one of the industry’s leaders in sustainable practices, found glass bottles made up 18% of their total carbon footprint, with other packaging such as cartons and corks bringing the total to 24%. (Wine bottles take significant fossil fuel based energy to manufacture, as glass is effectively melted sand, and sand doesn’t melt at too much under 1,700°C).

In total, wine production is responsible for about a third of the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine.

A number of drinks, especially spirits, are mainly produced in one area (think tequila and Mexico, rum and the Caribbean, whisky and Scotland) despite being widely available around the world; physically distributing the drink uses considerable energy, which contributes to pollution and carbon emissions.

Container ships and lorries that carry wine from New Zealand to Britain have to make an astonishing journey of 17 thousand miles. Unsurprisingly this is quite a fuel-intensive undertaking, and produces 2.1kg of CO2 per 6-bottle case of wine (calculated using ECTA Guidelines). For wine that comes from Argentina, each case is responsible for 1.5kg of CO2 emissions, and Australia is 2kg per case.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, does it?

Well, things get much more grim when you start adding it up. Over the course of a year, the UK imports a whopping 220 million litres of wine from Australia alone, generating 96 thousand tonnes of CO2. This is roughly as much as heating 35 thousand UK homes for a year. Importing wines from New Zealand, like the ever-popular Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, adds an extra 19 thousand tonnes of CO2 to that total.

And that’s before we even mention South Africa, South America and the USA!

 

What Can We, as Drinkers do?

Whilst many of us are more conscious about the environmental impact of the food we eat, how we travel and the clothes we buy – many of us won’t have given a second thought to the alcohol we consume. At every stage of alcohol production there is an environmental footprint: from growing the raw ingredients, to manufacturing; through to packaging and transporting the finished product. 

Shipping a 6-bottle case of wine from Italy or France generates almost a quarter of the CO2 than if it came from New Zealand or Australia. So, when the local supermarket entices you with an attractive deal on New Zealand Pinot Noir, it’s worth remembering that shipping that bottle causes four times more harm to the planet than the bottle of Italian Chianti sitting on the shelf next to it.

There is a strong message from environmentalists that we should aim to reduce “air miles” and eat produce and meat farmed locally—and that same spotlight is being turned on wine. Although the UK imports three times as much wine from France and Italy than it does from New Zealand, shipping wine from the Southern Hemisphere still generates far more CO2 than buying from countries closer to home.

It’s pretty simple – buy wine produced as close to home as possible. This doesn’t mean exclusively buying wine from Kent, Sussex and Surrey of course. France, Italy and Spain (the world's 3 biggest producers) are right on our doorstep.

We also need our winemakers to be creative and a British company, Garçon Wines has developed a "groundbreaking bottle” (that from none other than Jancis Robinson).

I only discovered these when researching this article and they are fantastic.

They are:

Flat - You can get 91% more wine on a pallet for transportation.

100% Recycled - Made from strong, pre-existing PET (Polyethylene terephthalate - the "plastic" in plastic bottles) that's more energy-efficient than glass and has a lower [manufacturing] carbon footprint, plus it puts material already in circulation back to good use to limit the amount of new plastic created.

Lightweight - Only 63g per bottle, 87% lighter than glass.

Food safe, BPA-free - The material is certified food-grade to USA and EU standards, making it good enough to eat. Almost.

100% Recyclable - PET is the most widely recycled plastic on the planet. Specially selected plastic caps and labels mean that the bottles are a dream for both consumers and recycling facilities as all components pass through the same recycling stream.

How clever is that?

They aren't that widely available at the moment, but are obtainable from Co-op, Ocado and an online retailer named after a big rainforest whose name I refuse to mention, as well as from companies like Moonpig and Funky Pigeon ('cos they go in a little, flat box that can fit through your letterbox!)

Andrew Jefford, from Decanter Magazine, said of them "The existing carbon footprint of wine is unsustainable... No single action would make more difference in the wine world than the swift adoption of bottles like this for every wine designed to be drunk on purchase (most wine, in other words)"

Paper bottles are also appearing online and on some supermarket shelves. These are essentially the same as "bag-in-a-box" wines, but the box is bottle shaped. The downside is that the "bottle", the bag, the aluminium neck section and the plastic cap all have to be recycled separately. 

I mentioned earlier about regionally specific drink production, such as tequila, rum and whisky, and the subsequent problem of carbon emissions during distribution.

I drink rum (some would say excessively!) and a couple of my favourites are Pussers, from the British Virgin Islands and Mount Gay, from Barbados.

Both come in heavy, glass bottles and have to be shipped from the Caribbean before I can enjoy them whilst shouting at the football on my TV.

However, I may be about to change my allegiance (rum-wise, not football-wise, obviously!) to Tres Hombres rum.

Made in the Caribbean? Yes.

Comes in a heavy, glass bottle? Yes.

So how is it more eco-friendly, you ask?

Well, it gets from Barbados to Europe on a 32m, traditional sailing ship! That you can sail along with!

Although, the transatlantic crossing does take about 8 weeks and the entire "round trip" (Netherlands to Barbados, via the Canaries, and back via the Azores) takes about 6 months!

The brigantine Tres Hombres was built in 1943 and was bought by three friends (hence the name) in 2007 in Delft, Netherlands.

She was fully restored over the next two years and has been sailing a transatlantic engine-less freight service ever since.

She is the flagship of Fairtransport and the sailing ambassador for cleaner sea transport. 

The cargo consists of organic and traditionally crafted goods such as cocoa beans, chocolate bars, coffee, tea, wine and rum. 

Whilst this couldn't work for all cargo (her capacity is only 40 tonnes), Fairtransport are showing that it is feasible for smaller companies, who are commited to reducing their carbon footprint, to ship their goods ethically.

As a former professional sailor, with over 130,000 nautical miles in my logbook (including 11 Atlantic crossings) I find their approach not only laudable, but also incredibly exciting.

So, here are 10 things that we, as consumers, can do to help.

1. Think about the provenance, packaging and transport of every wine you buy.

2. Do your research and buy from producers committed to minimising their environmental impact. Many are signed up to sustainability schemes and use logos on their labels.

3. Favour wine merchants and supermarkets that work with sustainable producers.

4. For immediate drinking, buy wines in alternative packaging such as aluminium cans and PET bottles that are less carbon-intensive than glass to recycle.

5. If you are buying still wines to keep for more than a year before drinking, avoid producers who use heavy glass bottles.

6. Seek out bottle refill schemes and encourage the retailers you use to introduce them.

7. Look for restaurants, wine bars and pubs that serve wine on tap from reusable kegs.

8. Bear in mind that wines shipped in bulk and bottled locally are much more environmentally friendly.

9. Drink local where you can. If a wine has come halfway across the world in a glass bottle, it will probably have a huge carbon footprint.

10. Use your influence as a consumer. Vote with your feet and choose retailers who are also trying to do their bit!

We can all play our part by being more conscious of the environmental impact of all our actions, from going on holiday, to buying a new car, to sipping a nice glass of wine on a Saturday evening.

I hope I didn't get too evangelical there and, I have to say, that researching these articles has actually left me a bit more optimistic than I was previously. There are a lot of intelligent, innovative initiatives out there that bode well for the future.

Right, I'm off to get a bottle of rum. Don't wait up, I could be 6 months!

Stay safe and be kind to each other.

Andi

Andi Healey
Art of Living Website Development


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