THE BLOG
04/20/2016 10:10 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2017

How Climate Change Will Transform What's in Your Wine Glass

After the publication of a recent study about the impact of climate change on French wine, several articles misrepresented the study, resulting in misleading headlines such as An Upside to Climate Change? Better French Wine, French Wine May Be Improving Due To Climate Change , and Climate Change Giving The World Better French Wine. While the stories implied that any benefit of climate change on French wine would be short-term, they failed to press on a key point: Climate change will transform what's in your wine glass and continue to do so as long as it remains unchecked.

Here in the U.S., the assessment of the future of the wine industry is pretty grim: the land area capable of producing premium wines could decrease by as much as 81 percent by the end of this century. The major impact of climate change on wine grape production is through increasing temperature; as the growth of grapevines is mostly dictated by temperature, climate change has been resulting in earlier bloom and harvest dates, with most major wine regions being impacted.

Major wine-growing regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Napa Valley have at least a few strategies available to them. One is that they can maintain the status quo by growing the same grape varieties that they grow now. As temperature increases, sugar accumulation in the grape increases, resulting in a higher alcohol wine. Acidity of the grapes decreases, color can be reduced, and compounds that are responsible for the typical aroma of some wines can decrease. Will consumers adapt to these changing styles? It's difficult to say.

A potential adaptation strategy for the industry would be to adjust production practices - which is easier to do in some regions than others. The American wine industry has substantially fewer regulations regarding vineyard and winery practices compared to most European nations. Wine makers in Bordeaux and Burgundy don't irrigate vines or add water to wines to reduce alcoholic strength.

Without changes in production regulations, some European regions will have a more difficult task of maintaining their characteristic wine style. The greater need for more freshwater for irrigation and other vineyard uses is also anticipated to have considerable environmental impact.

A third option for wine regions is to change to new varieties that are better suited to current and future climate trends. That's another option that is currently easier to do in the U.S. compared to much of Europe. But will consumers clamor for Napa Valley Zinfandel or a Bordeaux Grenache?

Whichever options the current premium wine-growing regions choose to follow to adapt to climate change, a certain result is a loss of wine culture and history. Vineyards in the French wine region of Burgundy, for example, are inscribed as a UNESCO site, as are several other historic wine regions. In much of Europe, the long history of winemaking has resulted in such a perfect marriage between grape varieties and geography that wine is named for the region.

Fifty years from now a red Burgundy might not be Pinot noir grapes and Chianti may not be primarily made from Sangiovese as they have for centuries. Certainly emerging wine regions may take up these cultivars but the styles of these wines will be difficult to replicate without the importation of the knowledge and culture that has developed over hundreds of years of working with these grapes. European cuisines, in particular, where food and wine pairings have reached a perfect balance over the years will be affected.

Certainly there are some glimmers of hope that the future for wine might not be so dark. From a potentially slower temperature change for the Napa Valley, to new vineyard regulations in Europe, and arguments about the methodology of quantifying the ability of the industry to maintain the status quo, there are valid caveats to contemplate when considering impacts on the future of wine. But there's no argument that climate change will not alter the wine industry, and potentially even less of an argument that there won't be a high financial cost associated with it.

The recent reports of better wine with climate change are misleading. While the study does report higher vintage ratings in warmer years, the ratings are from a single wine critic. There is not a lot of consensus among red wine critics when rating Bordeaux wines, and even less when they are rating different regions.

So let's be clear: Despite the recent headlines climate change will not improve wine, but it will significantly change wine styles and production practices. The wines of the future are unlikely to be the same variety and style that we currently enjoy, but thankfully they will have the potential to be amalgamated into our culture and cuisine the way premium wines are now.