Impacts of climate change on winegrowing

Climate change is altering our world in many ways. Not only is the average temperature rising, but extreme weather phenomena, such as storms, heavy rainfall, droughts and heatwaves, are becoming more common. Extreme weather phenomena have an impact on all forms of agriculture, including grape cultivation. In fact, wine is one of the agricultural products that is most sensitive to environmental changes.

“You could compare a grapevine to a canary in a coal mine in the olden days – when conditions in the mine became dangerous, the bird was the first to react. To purify the air, they ventilated the mine – and waited. Here on the surface, we need to take proactive steps to stop climate change,” says Taina Vilkuna, Master of Wine, Product Communications Manager. 

Periods of frost, heavy rains and plant diseases can destroy crops in an instant. The predictability of harvests is now also more challenging than before. For instance, in April 2021, the region of Provence in Southern France experienced its coldest nights in 50 years – and a massive number of grape buds were destroyed. In autumn 2021, as many as 80 per cent of the green Chardonnay grapes were lost in Bourgogne due to the combined effect of spring frosts, hail, plant diseases and mould. In 2021, French wine production fell by almost 30 per cent year-on-year. For the first time, Spain overtook France as the second-largest wine producer in Europe, right behind Italy. 

Taina Vilkuna
Taina Vilkuna, Master of Wine, Product Communications Manager.

Climate steers grape selection 

Although grapevines are sensitive to changes, the wine industry is prepared to adapt and safeguard its future. To date, the rise in temperatures has favoured Germany, a country with a temperate climate. While earlier, the country only had a few good – that is, sufficiently warm – years in a decade, now there are only a few years per decade that are too cold. Although Germany has traditionally focused on Riesling and other white wine grape varieties, the share of red wine has now increased to account for over a third of the country’s wine production. The warmer climate enables the cultivation of red varieties that need a longer growing season. 

“European wine legislation – which has been so strict as to be set in stone – has already become more flexible, even in the most traditional regions. Last year, Bordeaux in France permitted the test planting of new, more heat-resistant varieties,” says Taina Vilkuna.  

While regions that were previously favourable for wine cultivation might even become unfit for this purpose, new regions – and even entirely new countries – could become more suitable for winegrowing. One example is England and its sparkling wines. Many farmers in the Champagne region have prepared for climate change by buying land in England, where the soil is very similar to Champagne in terms of winemaking. It is forecast that sparkling wine production in Britain will grow from the current figure of about 15 million bottles to as many as 40 million over the next 20 years.

“The resilience of decades-old, deeply-rooted vines against extreme weather has earned them the respect they deserve, despite their small yield,” says Vilkuna. 

Old and hardy local varieties – such as País in Chile and Garró in Spain – have also started to emerge from under the shadow of international star grapes. It is clear that the toolboxes of all successful wine producers will include measures to improve vineyard biodiversity and respect for nature.