Climate Change and the Expansion of Winegrowing Regions

Joel Pérez - Director of Viticulture

2/18/2021
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Global warming is a constant source of discussion these days. It has permeated every facet of our industry from carbon sequestration in vineyard soils to low weight bottles, which require fewer gas emissions to produce. Ultimately everyone wants to do the right thing and continue to enjoy the pleasure of a nice bottle of wine with friends and family. But as our global community attempts to tackle increasing challenges, what does climate change mean for the average consumer? How is the wine industry adapting and can we expect some new and exciting creations to come from an industry which fancies itself at the forefront of innovation and consumer demand?

Winter vineyard covered in snow in SwedenIn 2018 Copenhagen Sweden hosted VitiNord, the cool-climate wine summit designed to foster conversation amongst wine industry members on subjects like business growth, tourism, consumer trends, and wine production. This conference happens every 3 years and is known to be hosted in places like Latvia and Nebraska. What truly made VitiNord 2018 unique, besides the fact that American producers traveled to Sweden to discuss their industry growth and status, was the fact that this was the first ever VitiNord held in Scandinavia. Yes, our Nordic brothers and sisters are now in the middle of a winegrowing revolution due to climate change.

Will Climate Change Alter Famous Wine Appellations?


With the renewed interest in wine production in the Nordic land comes some fear and excitement. Fear that what we are seeing will negatively affect our most famous wine appellations. Fear that our wine regions will become too hot to grow grapes. Regions like Bordeaux and Napa Valley rely on the predictability of weather to bring rain and sunshine which is so vital to our understanding of wine production. The tremendous structure of a great Cabernet, the deep color, the bold rich tannins, the hardy, and sometimes dark fruit aromas are intimately connected to the heat of the growing season. That sunshine brings ripe fruit as well as wine drinkers looking to bask in the ambiance that is the wine industry. So if appellations are warming up, shouldn’t this be a good thing for great wine production?


How Grapevines React to Increasing Temperatures


Red grape clusters still on the vine in Napa ValleyWhat we have been dealing with in our most notable wine regions are longer growing seasons as well as days that are too hot, which in places like Napa Valley is making the production of our best wines more difficult. The wines which we have come to love are the products of Eurasian grapevines, Vitis vinifera. Just like any other plant species, V. vinifera has optimal operating parameters. It likes moderate winters and plenty of sunshine. The sunshine allows the plants to pull in carbon dioxide, CO2, and turn it into sucrose. Sucrose, as the main transport sugar for grapevines, then travels down to the grapes where it is stored. The storage of sucrose also triggers color and tannin production, leaving ripe fruit with all the components we need for a world-class wine; sugar for alcohol, tannins for structure, and color for beauty.

This process of carbon sequestration and sugar production is vital to fermentation and wine longevity. But at 86°F, V. vinifera begins to slow down, and the processes which drive grape ripening become less efficient. At 95°F, V. vinifera becomes tired and tries everything it can to conserve energy and begins to shut down. At temperatures above 113°F, vines begin to receive damage on the cellular level. The fear that places like Napa Valley will become too hot to produce great wines is real, but that fear is countered by the excitement of new and exciting ways to “grow” wine. Traditionally cooler appellations have begun to see higher temperatures, while appellations which were unthinkable 20 years ago are now hotbeds for exploration. Ideas like replanting vineyards with different row orientations to maximize shading effects, changing vine structures, and replacing old varieties with newer, late-ripening varieties are beginning to take root, literally And new regions to grow grapes are being looked at with fresh eyes. Which brings us to VitiNord 2018.


VitiNord and Hybrid Grapevines


During harvest, a man holds red grape vines with trimming sheersSweden is no stranger to the wine industry. In fact, Copenhagen has long held the reputation of having the highest concentration of Sommeliers than any other location in the world. The Swedish people are no stranger to wine service, but can they produce what they serve?

So far, yes, but only to a small degree. The Nordic states are obviously colder than our American regions. But they are in fact seeing warmer winters and more heat accumulate in the Spring and Summer. As they begin to see the climate react to human impact, they are in a constant search to discover new breeds of grapevines that can stand the still cold, but also warming winters. This search has involved the use of French-American hybrid plants. Hybrids were a way for wine growers to establish vineyard in locations where the winters would normally kill V. vinifera grapevines. In places like Vermont, the small wine industry is exclusively hybrid driven, primarily because these grapevines can survive the extreme cold of a New England freeze. But what has always dogged hybrid wine has been a distinctly American varietal odor and taste, which has often been described as a “foxiness”, sometimes associated with a fizziness, or a licorice-like substance which can be pleasant in very small amounts but can also be perceived as a fault.

In the search for new varieties to suit the new Nordic landscape of vineyards, there are several characteristics which everyone is seeking: cold hardiness, accumulation of sugar for fermentation, and a lack of “foxiness”.

The Swedish wine industry is breeding grape hybrids which will distinguish their region, while avoiding the “foxiness” which has plagued any serious talk of French-American hybrid expansion. New breeds like Froya, a hybrid between Frontenac and Bolero, show promise of early ripening and red color development. Others like Rosling (Riesling and Balder) are making the possibility of red and white wine production in Sweden a real prospect. And while some are looking at breeding, other regions will be exploring grapes which need longer growing seasons to ripen fully. Varieties like Barbera and Dolcetto, which need a longer growing season to help decrease acidity, might find new homes where Cabernet once ruled as king. No one can say for sure if these new varieties will become commercially acceptable.

What is certain is that the worlds' wine industry is filled with innovative and imaginative people who will not take no for an answer. The new variety race will continue, and the consumer will be the ultimate winner.

Cheers.

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Author Bio: Joel Pérez is a grape researcher and owner of Vine Advancement L.L.C., a vineyard consultation company which focuses on technology and regenerative techniques for large and small winegrowers. He is a 10 year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, and has worked in the Washington wine industry since 2011. He is also the Director of Viticulture for the Institute for Enology and Viticulture of Walla Walla.