Is Climate Change Making Your Wine Stronger?

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As temperatures have risen throughout the world, countries, communities and livelihoods are being affected in myriad catastrophic ways. But one of the more subtle areas in which climate change has come to bear on our lives is in wine production. Consider the fundamental link between the weather and plant growth, and it’s no surprise that warmer weather has had a profound effect on those precious vines. Now studies are showing that rising temperatures in wine regions across the globe have resulted in higher alcohol levels in our wine.

How Does The Climate Affect Wine Production?

As with all farming, what is grown is dependent first and foremost on the climate and the land it's planted in. This simple fact explains why there are “wine regions” at all and why Scottish wine remains a pipe dream (although sparkling English wine is flourishing). With all the modern interventions available to winemakers nowadays their expertise counts for nothing if their vines are planted and raised in the wrong place. Winemaking is a delicate science, in which the smallest tweaks can wreak havoc or produce exquisite taste.

France became the world’s preeminent wine producer not just because of its application and experimentation in wine making over thousands of years, but because the diverse landscape and climate permitted such experimentation. From scorching summers in the South to mild and drizzly ones in the North; from Atlantic hillsides in the West to rich fertile valleys in the East; the specialities of each region are dictated by the climate and the terroir. Certain grapes will never flourish under too much sun or not enough rainfall.

Temperature and water level are the fundamental elements at play here, but these are affected in myriad ways by other factors; the gradient and orientation of the land among them. Champagne is the birthplace of sparkling wine not because of the region’s more sophisticated culture, but because its cooler climes mean the grapes simply cannot ripen into the rich, sugary fruits that can thrive in the South. These younger grapes were only considered suitable for carbonation, thus were the humble beginnings of the bubbly treat we prize today. 

How Is Climate Change Affecting Wine Production?

It’s clear how climate dictates where grapes can be grown in the first place,  but can a relatively small increase in temperature really affect the quality of the wine we are drinking today? The answer is yes. First there are the destructive consequences of late frosts, floods and fires. But even modest increases in temperature can cause grapes to ripen more and faster, contributing to a higher sugar level in the fruit, and thus a greater percentage of alcohol when those sugars are fermented. The net result is consistently stronger wine over the last few decades; vines that were producing bottles at around 12% alcohol content are in some cases yielding 13% and 14% today. 

And it’s not  just the higher temperatures that are causing vintners problems. Lower levels of rainfall in some regions mean less water in the soil. Forcing winemakers to intervene, pruning their vines in order to reduce the sunlight in the photosynthetic process. Although these fine margins are where a vintner’s expertise resides, action is being taken out of necessity rather than choice. 

Although a trend towards more potent wines has also been traced to consumer habits and winemakers’ proclivities, there is no denying the unforeseen effect climate change is having on the wine industry. And with a newer trend (at least among critics and wine buyers) reflecting a demand for lighter wines and wines with less intervention (i.e. natural wines), the industry could face greater challenges ahead. Particularly so if temperature rises are not checked by concerted action on the climate crisis. 

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