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Wine and climate change

I’ve been to at least 30, maybe 50 vineyards since 2012.

At every one, I’ve asked the winemaker about climate change and temperature rises. All of them, bar none, have noticed higher temperatures than in the past. This is because, as you will likely know, alcohol levels are going up. More sugar in the grapes from earlier ripening of course pushes up alcohol levels. Meanwhile climate change makes weather more volatile, which doesn’t help grape quality.

As Jancis Robinson noted recently:”Hotter summers have played a key part in boosting average percentages of alcohol from roughly 12-12.5 in the 1980s to 13.5-14.5 today.”

So far of course, all this has been offset by much better vineyard practices, more technology used in wineries, yeasts, and increasingly, use of biodynamic farming methods to help with natural pest control and encourage soil balance and vineyard fertility.

But as Robinson points out, this doesn’t always solve the problem:”Growers have observed to their dismay that grapes have been accumulating the sugars that ferment into alcohol much faster than they have been accumulating all the interesting elements that result in a wine’s flavour, colour and tannins — the phenolics.”

Alcohol levels have also been pushed by competition in the old world with the new world wines which have more alcohol, climate change aside, due to growing temperatures. Add to this the ‘Parkerisation’ of much of the wine industry (By which I mean forward fruit, higher alcohol trends originally driven by the US market and US market-making of Robert Parker) and the picture does become complex.

But that hasn’t stopped top wine makers talking about having to add water to wine in the future. Or 99.999% of scientists agreeing the temperatures are going up. 0.8 of one percent globally so far, with a lot more to come, alas.

So climate change is a big worry for wine makers, drinkers and the industry in general.

One winemaker I met in Languedoc last year lost his entire crop in 2013 due to a tornado. That may not be specifically due to climate change. I am sure it wasn’t, but it may be a sign of things to come.

This article from JancisRobinson.com offers a few indications of how vineyards may soon tackle climate change.

Some of the changes afoot in the midst of recent 40 degree celsius weather in Bordeaux during June include:

  • Less trimming of leaves, normally done to give exposure to the morning sun
  • Using ‘roof tiles’ on young vines to protect them from the sun
  • Putting in anti-hail nets to protect fruit from volatile weather (like in 2013 in Bordeaux)

Other techniques I have heard about from winemakers (the Perrin family who own Beaucastel) include using new types of yeast in fermentation.

Another is physically planting vines in directions better suited to wind and weather. I’ll be looking into these in further posts.

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I'm Tobias Webb and I've been working in the field of sustainable business since 2001. Since then I've founded two conference and publishing companies in the area, the latest being Innovation Forum (IF). IF focuses on sustainable agriculture, land use, deforestation, sustainable commodities, and many related areas. Our debate-driven conferences are supported by analysis and podcasts, see Innovation Forum. In 2019 I set up Sustainable Wine Ltd, with Agatha Pereira. Sustainablewine.co.uk has lot of podcast interviews on what sustainability in wine means, and our first conference on the topic, The Future of Wine, takes places on November 4 in London: Register