Pull up a chair wine fans. Climate change is impacting your favorite glass of French wine. Is the warming climate a good thing or a bad? Well, it’s climate science. It depends…
Historically, the earlier the harvest, the better the vintage. New research in the journal Nature Climate Change points to an increasing number of early harvests and places the blame on climate change.
Be honest researchers. You wanted an excuse to go on a wine tasting vacation and wrapped science into it. Well played.
The warmer the weather, the earlier the ripening grapes develop sugars, acids, and tannins. For centuries, that has equaled better tasting vintages and plenty of accolades for France’s wine country.
“Before 1980, you basically needed a drought to generate the heat to get a really early harvest,” says the study’s co-author, Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “But since 1980, it’s been so warm because of climate change that you can get the hot summers and really early harvests without needing a drought.”
Better wines, right?
There’s a catch. Always a catch. Historical early vintages were marked by a cool, wet weather pattern that was followed by a pronounced and warm drought. If growers had that pattern, they could enjoy the awards and accolades.
Climate change has turned the common weather pattern into one that may be untenable for current producers. Grape harvests are occurring earlier in the season, but instead of the cool, rainy periods, the seasons are marked by a hot season that starts immediately.
Take 2003; a year hit with the climate change-related weather pattern. Early vintage but it didn’t follow the historical precedent of producing ‘good’ varieties in the region.
“But the wine quality was kind of middling,” Cook says. “That suggests that after a certain point, it could just get to be so warm, and the harvest so early, that you move into a situation where the old rules no longer apply.”
Growers would be forced into higher latitudes and elevations to escape the warming trend.
For Cook and his co-author, Elizabeth M. Wolkovich (Harvard University), the idea is to inform French winemakers rather than alarm.
“At the end of the day, people are still going to want to grow wine in Bordeaux in the future,” Cook says. “So, we wanted to get more information about what is happening here due to climate change, so that people could use that information. Winemakers do not need to be complete slaves to what the environment does.”
In the end, it comes down to details and how the models shape out. Take California, in the midst of a crushing drought. Climate change may make it untenable to grow in places like Napa and Sonoma in the future while effects in Europe may turn out to be moderate.
Not likely in the short-term. The research offers ways forward. Growers could adapt to more hot-weather varieties or shift productions to areas currently not used.
Who knows, you might be sitting on future wine country? Besides, do we think wine aficionados won’t figure this out? No way we can go without our Chardonnay.
Read the latest study focusing on the French region at Nature Climate Change, and the sweeping paper published in 2013 at PNAS.