There is no shortage of stressors for winemakers around the world. From the usual suspects of pests and production delays, climate change has emerged as one of the top fears. Increases in global temperatures, wildfires in wine-growing regions, and general climate volatility has made action and collaboration on the environmental front a necessity.
The 2020 Vancouver International Wine Festival brought winemakers, scientists, and industry representatives together at its symposium on how climate change is affecting wine production.
Moderated by Michelle Bouffard, a Montreal-based certified sommelier, author, and founder of Tasting Climate Change, panelists from around the world discussed the broader implications of climate change to their wine regions, as well as their own personal perspectives.
For many winemakers, addressing the challenges is not as simple as covering roots or lighting candles to warm the vineyard during sudden cold snaps. Neither is ripping up old vines to plant new grape varietals that can withstand warmer temperatures. Such a process is not an inexpensive venture for winery owners, many of whom are small-business owners operating family-run enterprises.
According to Elizabeth Wolkovich, senior author of a University of British Columbia study on the issue, “half of current global wine-growing regions would be climatically unsuitable for today’s major wine grapes” if temperatures were to increase by more than two degrees. These include some of the most well-recognized and profitable viticulture areas in the world.
It’s not just temperature changes, it’s extreme climate fluctuations that may result in frost or freezing conditions, extreme heat, hail, or drought. All of which can be disastrous to wineries and vineyards.
Meteorologist Michael Fagin used 100 years of weather data to show temperature increases in California, where Napa Valley has risen by 1.3 Celsius degrees and Santa Barbara by 2.3 Celsius degrees.
There will be winners and losers if temperatures go beyond an increase of 2 Celsius degrees, and if rainfall decreases. Some areas will become too hot to grow grape varietals, while wine regions of old, such as England, Prussia, and even southern Norway could rebound.
Wine regions, though, are not ready to put a cork on their heritage. They are adapting to changes, some tackling the issues with vigour. Many French wine regions, including Burgundy, are harvesting grapes earlier than in the past. New varietals are being approved for planting, including those that are more resistant to heat and drought, and grown on north-facing slopes at higher elevation.
In British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, warmer and longer summers may result in some excellent Cabernet Sauvignon wine production. But climate change may delay spring or result in increased hailstorms.
One of the biggest risks for the Okanagan has been fire. The tinder-dry summers of 2017 and 2018 produced months-long stretches of forest fires throughout the area, which is about five hours by car east of Vancouver. Those fires threatened wineries and impacted the valuable wine-tourism industry, which generates about $250 million in annual revenue for British Columbia.
Katie Jackson of Jackson Family Wines in California, and founder of International Wineries for Climate Action, is leading the way on individual and collective responses to the challenge.
“We need to think about adaptation in the wine industry. Planting at higher elevations, changing root stock that is more drought-resistant, alternating our canopy management in the vineyards, and reducing our carbon emissions,” she says.
Jackson Family Wines is actively reducing its carbon footprint through its use of lighter weight packaging and glassware, employing renewable energy like wind and solar power, and sequestering carbon through the planting of cover crops and composting.
The International Wineries for Climate Action organization is a collaborative group committed to reducing carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 and sharing solutions and knowledge in a way that will spark change for the industry as a whole. Wineries are encouraged to apply for membership and to adopt the group’s best practices in order to help sustain the industry and encourage further experiential opportunities for wine lovers.