Weighing in on Climate Change, The Wine Industry, and Conservation

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the effects of climate change on global viticulture, and is something that is imminent and that must be openly discussed. Ultimately, positive actions are required to protect the trade as well as to protect the environment. This particular topic hits very close to home for me, as it marries two of my greatest loves: wine and environmental science/conservation. I have a Master’s degree in Environmental Science as well as a strong love of the grape, so topics such as these really fascinate me.

This particular paper today was in the news a little over a month ago, so I’m a little late to the party, I know. However, I felt the need to share the results with you and express my own personal opinions on the topic, as it is an ongoing/imminent issue that we shouldn’t just think about briefly and then forget about it. Yes, while many of you are already familiar with this study, I did have several requests from readers to give my own thoughts on it, so by request, here we go!

The wine industry, particularly viticulture, is very sensitive to climate change, for in order to produce quality wine, grapes have very specific requirements in terms of temperature, soil characteristics, rainfall, and many other unique

Photo by Becca Yeamans (copyright 2013) taken at Afton Mountain Vineyards in Afton, VA.  Do not use without permission.

Photo by Becca Yeamans (copyright 2013) taken at Afton Mountain Vineyards in Afton, VA. Do not use without permission.

environmental factors that give each region its own sense of “terroir”. Not only will climate change affect worldwide viticulture, but it will also greatly affect all other types of agriculture, as well as the habitats for all the plants and animals currently occupying the planet. We need to think more broadly than just “how do we solve the viticulture climate change problem” and shift our focus toward conservation of the environment as a whole; including grape vines, other agricultural crops, human expansion, and protection for all other flora and fauna. We need to think on a global scale, and not what do we need to do to ensure we maintain the status quo for viticulture and viniculture.

When you plant a vineyard, you affect the ecosystem in that area. For example, when you plant a vineyard, you cause long-term changes in the quality of the environment for other plants and animals, which results from a significant change in water use and water resources in that ecosystem. When you plant a vineyard, you are essentially displacing the native plants and other critters, and attract a lot of fast-spreading invasive or other non-native plant and animal species. Along with the frequent (though sometimes occasional) use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, this significantly disrupts the balance of the ecosystem, thus conservation is greatly needed when even considering planting a vineyard in a new area.

In terms of water use, some regions use water to protect their grapes against frost damage, while other areas use water for irrigation purposes. With a warming climate, some vineyards may resort to using water to cool their grapes to avoid scorching, which combined with a predicted decrease in precipitation for some regions, will place even more stress on the environment in terms of water availability.

The goal of the study presented today, which many of you may have heard about elsewhere in the media blogosphere, was to use computer models to determine the potential changes in viticultural suitability throughout the world, and to determine how these changes could affect the entire ecosystem and how we might need to strategize different conservation programs to protect those species that would be negatively affected.


Just a brief description of the methods, as there is a lot of modeling terminology that I will spare you from for now. Of course, if you have specific questions about the model, please ask and I’ll see what I can dig up.

For current climate information, the WorldClim global climate dataset was used (years 1961-2000). For future climate information, 17 Global Climate Models (GCMs) were employed and run.

The ecological footprint was determined by the Human Influence Index (HII) in order to evaluate the areas of natural habitat that are impacted or will be impacted by current and future viticulture practices.

Vineyard suitability of an area (current or future) was determine by models that took into account temperature, grape variety, heat summation phenology, and other factors that go into determining if an area is suitable for grape vines or not.

Water Stress Index (WSI) data was determined by the WaterGAP2 model, which represents the ratio of domestic, industrial, and agricultural demand to the runoff in a particular watershed.

The Freshwater Impact Index (FII) was defined to be the combination of the decrease in the current viticulture suitability, the projected average decrease in precipitation between the year 2000 and 2050 in the GCM models, and the area of water stress (WSI) greater than 0.2 (an area is considered to be under water stress when the WSI is greater than 0.2).


Suitability and Ecological Footprints

• Between current time and 2050, the GCM models showed major changes in vineyard suitability on a global scale.
o Suitability is projected to decline in current major wine producing regions (specifically Bordeaux, Rhône Valley, and Tuscany).
o Suitability is projected to increase in Northern regions of North America and Europe.
o Suitability in the current “smaller areas of wine-production” are expected to be retained according to the models.
o Areas that are not currently suitable for viticulture are expected to become more suitable in the future.

Figure 1 from Hannah et al, 2013.

Figure 1 from Hannah et al, 2013.

Mediterranean Climate: Average suitability decreases between 25% (Chile) and 75% (Mediterranean Australia) for one set of models, and between 19% and 62% in those same respective areas for a second set of models.
o Mediterranean Europe: Potential ecological footprint is projected to increase by 342%. Vineyard suitability is projected to expand into the upslope of montane areas.
o Chile and Australia: The main areas expected to increase in suitability are in already well-populated areas of the region thus it would be unlikely to see any ecological footprint change in this area (unless all the people were replaced by vineyards, which is highly unlikely).
Cape of South Africa: Ecological footprints/suitability are expected to increase by on average 14%.
Non-Mediterranean Australia: Vineyard suitability is projected to decrease slightly.
New Zealand: Large increases in suitability are projected for this area.
Northern Europe: Average suitability is projected to increase by 99% for one set of models, and by 84% for a second set of models.
Western North America: Average suitability is projected to increase by 231% for one set of models, and by 189% for a second set of models.
o California: Should see an ecological footprint increase of on average 10%.
• The largest ecological footprints (i.e. the largest area with land availability and suitability for new vineyards) are projected to be in the regions of New Zealand, western North America, and Northern Europe.

Water Impacts

• As temperatures rise in some traditional wine regions, water use is expected to increase in order to help keep the grapes cooler.
• Projected increases in temperature, decreases in precipitation, and current states of water stress in some traditional wine regions will require some serious water conservation efforts.
o Most at risk, according to these models, is Chile (specifically Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua). Many of the wine-producing regions will become unsuitable due to increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation (particularly decreased snow runoff in the spring due to warmer winters and less precipitation to begin with).
o Water availability will also become a problem, both for viticulture and the entire watershed/ecosystem, since there is projected to be 1) higher temperatures; 2) less precipitation; and 3) increased need for irrigation and cooling of the grapes.
• Western North America, according to the models, has the greatest potential for ecological footprint increases (19x), particularly in the Rocky Mountain region near the US-Canada border.
o Exactly how much the vineyard ecological footprint would increase depends on how vineyard owners and conservation groups (such as the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative that works to protect large mammals in the area) collaborate and work together.
o There are already new vineyard areas expanding in this region, possibly as a response to the change in climate that we’ve already begun to see, particularly in the Columbia River Basin of eastern Washington state, the Snake River Valley in Idaho, and the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia (where we’ll be at the end of this week for the 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference!!).
• 168 out of 170 models were in agreement that Mediterranean climate regions will see a decrease in viticultural suitability, while Northern Europe, western North America, and New Zealand will see increases in viticultural suitability.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m not going to regurgitate all the points I made in the results section—you can gaze at the bold print to catch the major results. Instead, I’ll use this time to tell you what I think might happen, and what I think should be done. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions on what should and should not be done, and I think a health discussion and collaboration is absolutely necessary to come up with the most logical decision for both the health of the earth and the health of those living therein, which ultimately means that both sides might have to give a little.

There appear to be a lot of models that are projecting the same thing—global viticulture is going to change. Am I surprised by this? Heck no. It’s just nice to see it all laid out in one place. It seems to be that some places are going to be affected more than others, and by identifying these areas most likely to be adversely affected we can begin working together to find an appropriate solution. Should we give up entirely on these regions? Should we rip up all the vines and transplant them to the regions that are most likely to experience increases in vineyard suitability? I don’t necessarily think that, but I think we can all agree the status quo will need to change if current viticultural areas at risk want to continue producing quality wines in the future.

Current At-Risk Regions

If the models are accurately representing what’s going to happen in many current traditional viticultural areas, we need to rethink our current vineyard management practices. If the models are correct, these areas will see increases in temperatures as well as decreases in precipitation. If we simply combat this issue by using water to cool down the grapes to avoid scorching, we’re going to run into another problem very quickly, and that is significantly reducing the water availability for other plants, animals, and even humans! With an increase in temperatures, we’ll see an increase in evapotranspiration rates. With a decrease in precipitation, we’ll see a decrease in the replenishment of the water

Photo By www.bluewaikiki.com (Flickr: Napa Valley) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By www.bluewaikiki.com (Flickr: Napa Valley) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

table. This is a system not in equilibrium, and is a system ripe for drying up completely and eliminating a significant portion of the ecosystem.

So, what do we do? One solution is to just rip up all your vines and move someplace else. If you ask me, that’s a pretty radical idea that is likely impossible for most vineyard owners in the affected regions. I think what we need to do as researchers is to try and come up with a new system of vineyard management that allows us to use significantly less water, and perhaps a way to become more efficient in water recycling so that any water than is lost to the environment can be captured and reused without going to waste. This is also going to be a very hard thing to do, but there’s a lot of intelligent people in this world that I think if they work together, they can come up with something effective.

Future Regions for Vineyard Suitability

As I mentioned above, one way to combat the issue of changing climate for viticulture is to pick up and move to a region that’s projected to thrive in the future. Of course, that might not be very realistic, but investing in new vineyards now in order to develop new wine regions is something that I think must be done in addition to whatever water conservation efforts are done in the current at-risk regions. Let’s continue building upon the already expanding regions of western North America, and start thinking about planting new vineyards in other regions that we anticipate seeing increased vineyard suitability. We should also do some research on the wine regions of China. Right now, it’s not known for its quality wines, however, in the future with the right conservation and vineyard management practices, this could be a booming wine producing region due to the effects of climate change and development of the trade.

What About the Ecosystem?

As I mentioned above, one way to “work around” climate change would be to plant new vineyards in areas that are projected to be suitable in the future. However, is it really a good idea to just go planting new vineyards all over the place? I think the answer here is no. We need to be cognizant of the fact that we aren’t the only ones that live here, and that disrupting more ecosystems may

By Hans Stieglitz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hans Stieglitz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

continue to drive the rate of climate change and further damage the world we live in. We can’t just go planting thousands of acres of vineyards haphazardly without any consideration for the ecosystem around it. We need to study the entire ecosystem and try to develop ways to grow grape vines in a more ecological and sustainable fashion. We are already making some strides with new and improving organic, biodyanamic, and other sustainable viticulture methods, however, we need to continue this research and development in order to avoid simply adding to the milieu of climate change by disrupting the status quo with a monoculture.

Where To Invest

In terms of how to address the issue of the effect of climate change on viticulture, I think there are several things in which we could invest our time and resources, as well as acknowledging to ourselves and to the industry that some things may permanently change. These things not only apply to viticulture, but in reality apply to all agriculture, because you know what, grapes aren’t the be-all and end-all of crops (as much as many of us like to think that it is 😉 ). For the sake of length, I’ll just talk about grapes for now, but realize I think ALL agriculture needs to change strategies.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to invest in the research and development of more sustainable viticulture and winemaking methods. The fact of the matter is that non-sustaining agriculture and viticulture will not be successful, and eventually it’ll all go to pot and we’re left with nothing (OK, I’m being dramatic, but just work with me here). We need to invest in development of sustainable viticulture, winemaking, and all other agriculture in order to adjust to a changing climate AND to not help it get any worse! These investments can be anywhere from vineyard management practices all the way to changing how we use energy for these and other things. I won’t go off on a tangent with energy right now, but the reality is we need to change the status quo and really try to slow down the mess we’ve already created regarding climate change.

Next, we need to invest in new ways of establishing vineyards in a more sustainable fashion. This is very closely related to the previous paragraph, however not only do we need to develop ways to be more sustainable with our current vineyards, but we also need to develop new ways to establish vineyards so that we don’t significantly add to the carbon footprint or the disruption of delicate ecosystems that we already have. The vineyards of the future will (or should) look and function much different than they do now in order to be successful on a global scale.

Finally, we need to come to grips that the wine industry as we know it is going to change whether we like it or not. How much it changes all depends on what we invest in now in order to address these issues. I believe that we will still have amazing high-quality wines in the future. Will they come from Bordeaux or Tuscany? Or will we see fine wines emerging from places like British Columbia or Idaho? I think we need to get over the concept of “tradition” and start to embrace the changes that are befallen upon us. We are intelligent people: we can invest our time and resources to come up with new technologies that will allow us to produce quality wines in new regions without causing much damage to the ecosystems around those areas. Rather than push around all this “we’re screwed!” mentality, we should embrace this exciting new time in our lives and continue to develop new ways to grow our grapes and make our wines to be more sustainable and environmentally-friendly while still maintaining a high level of quality.

Wine is pretty damn tasty, and wine will always be pretty damn tasty. We just need to do the research required to keep it that way and accept the fact that there may be a “new traditional of the future” and that we need to embrace the change and not poo poo it so much! Let’s work with what we’ve done and with what we’ve got. In the end, we’ll still be OK in the end regardless of whether or not that mind-blowing wine in our glass is Chateau Lafite Rothschild or something new and equally as delicious.

Let’s have a healthy discussion on this issue! What do you think needs to be done? What sorts of new technologies have you heard/seen that will help address this issue of climate change in viticulture or other agriculture? Please feel free to comment!

Source: Hannah, L., Roehrdanz, P.R., Ikegami, M., Shepard, A.V., Shaw, M.R., Tabor, G., Zhi, L., Marquet, P.A., and Hijmans, R.J. 2013. Climate change, wine, and conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (17): 6907-6912.

5 comments for “Weighing in on Climate Change, The Wine Industry, and Conservation

  1. June 3, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Fascinating, if depressing reading, thank you. I wondered if you had seen that the Italian government in April passed a law allowing emergency irrigation for DOCG and other denomination wines. I wrote about it with regard to Brunello on my blog. http://www.ilpalazzone.com/il-palazzone-2/an-end-to-obligatory-dry-farming-for-brunello/

    • Becca
      June 3, 2013 at 11:57 am

      Hi Laura,

      Thank you for your comments and for the link to your blog post. I hadn’t read that yet, so I really appreciate you sending me the link and adding some excellent insight onto the topic.

      I think emergency irrigation is appropriate if it’s used on rare occasions, however, if things go the way the models are predicting, this could result in emergency irrigation being implemented on a more regular basis, thus causing even further problems for the environment in the future.

      I think we should be coming up with alternative solutions to the problem instead of just throwing more water at it! I suppose it’s all we have right now, but we’ll certainly need to see some technological progress and change if we want to make these practices sustainable!

      Thanks again for your comments!

  2. June 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Agreed! New solutions are required. The idea of a 342% increase in our footprint is unconceivable and definitely Not Sustainable. We recycle all rainwater and cellar water but currently dry-farm. From a taste/wine standpoint emergency irrigation can be a very hazardous enterprise. What will the future hold for us?

    • Becca
      June 3, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      That is the million dollar question right there! 🙂 We certainly need to at least develop a way to recycle the water that’s used in emergency irrigation, and then start to think about more long-term approaches that involve things from planting crops that don’t require as much water and other things that I haven’t thought of yet 🙂

      Even though it’s terrible that we’re even in this predicament, I’m kind of excited about unknown future of wine! I mean, I’m really looking forward to trying all the new wines that result from the new technological advances that will hopefully be made. I’m one who embraces the new and different, so to me, drinking completely different wines in 50 years than what I’m drinking now sounds great. Now, we just need to do things a little different in the future so we don’t make things worse for the environment as they already are!

  3. June 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Glad you took on this subject in your blog that I follow for some time now. In the Douro Valley of North Portugal (where Port and Douro wines come from) we have been tackling the issue a lot along the ways you mention. Firstly, ADVID, a private association of major Port houses, Douro producers and individual grapegrowers teamed up with Prof. Greg Jones to forecast impact of climate change in the region. The report, published last year can be found here: http://www.advid.pt/artigos (scroll down to 2012).

    Secondly, ADVID has been a strong promoter of sustainable viticulture practices since more than 20 years and actively trains growers and promotes systems following Integrated Production guidelines (as defined by IOBC; http://www.iobc-wprs.org/ip_ipm/IOBC_IP_principles.html).

    Thirdly, ADVID became a strong expert on functional biodiversity in viticulture with several works published regarding how biodiversity may help growers reduce their chemical footprint while keeping a stable and healthy income: pest parasitoides are researched, namely those of the European Grapevine Moth, a common pest in Europe now also making inroads in California; biodiversity for landscape management both for ecosystem service promotion and added-value touristic activities.

    Another aspect has been a 30 year old activity towards the conservation, study and usage of the natural variability of grapevines and their cultivars, of which about 250 are native to Portugal, now on the process of being converted in the world first conservation park for the grapevine where wild, varietal and clonal diversity will be preserved, studied and applied to vineyard management (the Park is planned to have 200 to 300 acres of vineyards, 50 000 clones and 250 domesticated cultivars, alongside a number of «wild» examples of grapevines gathered from riparian forests in S. Portugal, where they have been for millions of years).

    Finally, as the Douro is a semi-arid, warm region, irrigation strategies (or more correctly water stress management in the grapevine) have been adopted that simultaneously minimize water usage and increase grape quality. All this work is now in the process of being compiled for an adaptation manual that will be made available publicly in order to allow growers to make educated choices as to how should they make their vineyards resilient for the next 70 years. This final work, with necessary adaptations will also be possible to implement in other regions as well.

    Summing it up, what I meant to contribute is that biodiversity is an essential part of any sustainable viticulture system and grapegrowers, if they want, have a number of tools they can resort to in order to make their activity a lasting one. Not least among these tools is the extraordinary plasticity of the grapevine, provided its natural diversity is not curbed by savage selection processes that throw it away in the name of getting The Best Clone of The Best Varietal, something I contend does not exist, at least, for more than a couple of seasons.

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