Sour grapes: are we approaching the bottom of the bottle?

We could be facing a sobering future without wine.

Agricultural activity, that most fundamental of human survival endeavours, is inextricably and necessarily interconnected with climate. As such, the rapid climate changes we are seeing on our planet will have huge impacts on how and what we eat and drink in the future. Wine is no exception. As a product that relies on grapes, very specific weather conditions are required to create the optimum environment for cultivation. Only the smallest variation in these conditions can destabilise the process. The balance is delicate and fragile. Accordingly, with temperatures rising each year across the globe, we could see 63% of major wine regions in jeopardy by 2050[1]. Will our grandchildren be drinking what has come to be a substratum of western society, and a $30 billion industry to boot[2]?

One of the world’s premier wine regions is Bordeaux – home to a $4.2 billion industry[3], in a country where the wine and spirits market is the second most important industry after aeronautics[4]. Typically, vineyards in the area are family-owned and family-run. One such vineyard is Château de Pitray.

How is Château de Pitray being hit by climate change?

Château de Pitray specialises in Merlot grapes – a variety that is particularly sensitive to rising temperatures. Given temperatures in Bordeaux have risen almost one degree Celsius over the last three decades[5], this represents a challenge. Merlot is the region’s earliest-ripening red grape, meaning that it cannot afford the even earlier ripening that would result from warmer climates, else they risk “low acid, high sugar, high alcohol and cooked flavours”[6]. The upward shifts in seasonal temperatures, however, are resulting in just that. This is impacting grape chemistry substantially: distorted flavour, altered mouthfeel, and reduced colour potential.

Secondly, the reducing quality of oak, caused by changing weather patterns and carbon dioxide levels, serves as a risk to Château de Pitray[7]. Oak is the primary wood used to age wine and studies indicate that when it is exposed to increased carbon dioxide, the concentration of tannin reduces. The result is less tannins released into the wine, meaning a poorer tasting end product.

Lastly, rising sea levels – and the associated loss of vineyard acreage – is a challenge for wineries such as Château de Pitray. According to Tate, “a five-meter rise in sea level would inundate some of the planet’s greatest vineyards and wine producing regions with flooding”[8]. This includes Bordeaux.

What is being done? What should be done?

In response to the vulnerability of the merlot grape, Château de Pitray are seeking out new grapes that will mature more slowly. As part of this, the Bordeaux wine board has asked to “change the regulations of the AOC so growers starting in 2016 can try out grape varieties now barred under the label of the world’s most famous wine region”[9]. This regulatory change will be a crucial enabler to innovation and disruption in what has traditionally been a change-adverse industry.

To mitigate against the risk of reduced oak quality, Château de Pitray could consider moving towards glass carboys to age their wine. Generally used by amateur wine makers, they are not only significantly cheaper than oak barrels (c. $8 per gallon, versus $60 per gallon) but they also do not harbor micro-organisms[10].

Rising sea levels present perhaps the most significant challenge to vineyards around Bordeaux. In response, there has been much debate about the possibilities of growing wine at higher altitudes. Donner explains: “one variety that thrives now at 600 meters, or 2,000 feet, might be planted at a site 100 meters higher or situated with a different exposure to the sun, and so be coaxed to adapt to its new growing conditions”[11]. Though operationally complex, this should be a consideration for Château de Pitray.

It’s not all bad news for wine. Warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons across England, for instance, have meant a boom of almost 600 wineries[12]. But the wider message is clear: changes need to be made if we want to continue to be able to kick back with a glass of red in half a century’s time.

A final note

It is important to consider not just the impact climate change is having on your ability to drink, but also the impact your drinking has on climate change. We can all help by drinking wine that has been produced in the right way. Organically grown and produced wine, using sustainable practices, can contribute to slowing climate change by “reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting biodiversity, and creating carbon sinks”[13]. In the absence of regulation incentivising vineyards to follow these practices, it is up to consumers to buy responsibly.

 

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[1] L. Baehr, “22 Devastating Effects of Climate Change”, Business Insider, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/effects-of-climate-change-2014-6

[2] T. Patrinos, “Climate Change is Affecting Vineyards”, Groundswell, 2014, http://groundswell.org/climate-change-is-affecting-vineyards-an-ethical-guide-to-wine/

[3] R. Ruitenberg, “The Way That France Makes Wine Is About to Change Forever”, Bloomberg, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-15/merlot-faces-the-heat-as-bordeaux-seeks-climate-proof-vineyards

[4] M. Doezema, “As Climate Warms, No Sour Grapes in France”, Aljazeera America, 2013, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/11/1/as-climate-warmsnosourgrapesinfrance.html

[5] R. Ruitenberg, “The Way That France Makes Wine Is About to Change Forever”, Bloomberg, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-15/merlot-faces-the-heat-as-bordeaux-seeks-climate-proof-vineyards

[6] J. Santisi, “Warming Up The Wine Industry”, The Environmental Magazine, 2011, http://www.emagazine.com/magazine/warming-up-the-wine-industry

[7] M. Mozell, L. Thatch, “The impact of climate change on the global wine industry: Challenges and solutions”, Wine Economics and Policy, 2014, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212977414000222

[8] A. Tate, “Global Warming’s Impact on Wine”, Journal of Wine Research, 2010, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09571260120095012?journalCode=cjwr20

[9] R. Ruitenberg, “The Way That France Makes Wine Is About to Change Forever”, Bloomberg, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-15/merlot-faces-the-heat-as-bordeaux-seeks-climate-proof-vineyards

[10] Unknown, “Glass Carboys vs Oak Barrels”, Wine Makers Academy, 2013, http://winemakersacademy.com/glass-carboys-oak-barrels/

[11] P. Donner, “Winemakers Rising to Climate Challenge”, New York Times, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/17/business/energy-environment/winemakers-rising-to-climate-challenge.html

[12] K. Willcox, “Climate Change Is Bad News for Many”, Vine Pair, 2016, http://vinepair.com/wine-blog/climate-change-sours-grapes-for-some-but-new-yorks-future-looks-pretty-sweet/

[13] T. Patrinos, “Climate Change is Affecting Vineyards”, Groundswell, 2014, http://groundswell.org/climate-change-is-affecting-vineyards-an-ethical-guide-to-wine/

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5 thoughts on “Sour grapes: are we approaching the bottom of the bottle?

  1. Very interesting. While I anticipated rising temperatures to impact the yield and taste of grapes, I did not think about impacts beyond the grapes. While I do find some of your suggestions innovative, I do wonder how feasible they are for quality and cost. For example, while glass carboys may be cheaper and would combat the Oak shortages, how will this impact the taste of the wine? From my understanding, it is used by amateur wine makers only out of cost necessity. Secondly, given Bodeaux is only 20m above sea level and the majority of is it flat- will your suggestion of elevating the wineries be geographically feasible and how cost prohibitive would it be for the smaller wineries?

    Great post & looking forward to a good discussion!

  2. Great post. I wonder what the long-term impact of climate change will be on agriculture in Europe. While average temperatures have been increasing over the past few years, a widely held theory suggests that melting ice caps are likely to disrupt the Gulf Stream – known to contribute to Europe’s mild weather – by adding a large volume of cold fresh water to the oceans. There are different versions as to what effect this will have on the continent’s climate. Some scientists believe that Europe could in fact get much colder – some go as far as saying that it could bring about a new ice age. However, a recent study by the University of Sussex, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the University of California, Berkeley holds that while Europe will continue to warm up, it will do so a slower rate than other parts of the world. This could in fact result in higher yields for a number of crops. It may not be the case for certain types of grapes grown in Bordeaux given their sensitivity to weather conditions, but the overall impact may not be so bad from an agricultural perspective after all – at least for us! That is not to say that climate change is not the biggest challenge that we face as a society: from a social, geopolitical, economic, and even from a moral perspective the need to act now to solve this problem is imperative. Europe should lead the way.

  3. I really appreciate your closing note regarding the role of consumer decision-making. Wine, as a luxury product, seems *ripe* for marketing efforts that relate sustainable methods (“all natural”?) to wine quality. A friend of mine once worked for a winery in Sonoma called Scribe Winery — they’re receiving hype for their bio-dynamic practices, including: using wild yeast, increasing biodiversity by growing other species near the vines, and more recently growing vegetables and other crops on the property (https://thebolditalic.com/what-to-do-in-sonoma-scribe-winery-pick-up-party-the-bold-italic-san-francisco-911b0a3dca60#.ds42mitzu). Especially in the eco-conscious Bay Area, this distinctive approach has inspired partnerships with restaurants, events, suppliers, and a loyal fan following. The wine is now part of a broader lifestyle brand.

    Your post also made me reflect upon how global the wine industry is: if I were to seek out a bottle of Merlot in a wine shop here in Boston, consider its carbon footprint! This would require a massive shift in consumer decisionmaking, but is there a responsibility for the industry to consider “miles traveled” from source to customer and reflect that GHG impact in the price tag? What implications would a “buy local” campaign have for the wine industry?

  4. Very interesting post which I appreciate outlines a tangible action plan that each of us can participate in. Too often I think we blame climate change on big businesses and governments, but tend to forget it is something we can individually contribute to in many different ways. Focusing on purchasing organically grown wine – in addition to other agriculture products – is something I will certainly do going forward. This post also highlights the global nature of climate change. France – where wine and spirits comprise the second largest economic contributor to the country as you mentioned – is arguably disproportionately affected by global GHG emissions. This reminds me of the importance of coming together across the globe to combat climate change and make sure our world remains a clean and sustainable environment for children, grandchildren and future generations to come.

    With respect to wine, Bordeaux is a globally recognized region. Because of it’s “celebrity-like” status, do you think they can launch a campaign to raise awareness to this issue? Alternatively, do you think they should partner with other farm / crop organizations to raise awareness to this broader issue? Wine is a luxury, but traditional crops such as wheat, rice, soybeans, etc. are not, and could bring a greater sense of urgency to this issue.

  5. Thanks for a great article on a topic many of us love! I wonder if there are scientific/technological innovations that could help mitigate some of the challenges in growing Merlot in an environment sensitive to climate change? For example, I think about the various solutions that were developed to address the Great French Wine Blight (http://io9.gizmodo.com/how-the-great-french-wine-blight-changed-grapes-forever-1691598233). Is grafting an option that could help to continue to protect the grapes? Alternatively, is there a potential to leverage what was developed by Indigo in altering plant biomes to make the grapes more suitable for the altered climates?

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