Climate Change: The Death Of Terroir?

Posted: Dec 10, 2017

The climate debate is pretty much over for the wine industry, and the focus has shifted to mitigation.

In November 2017, scientists announced that, after a three-year plateau, emissions of carbon dioxide will rise to record highs by the end of this year.

The figures, as reported by the Global Carbon Project and published in several key journals, indicate that the international community is still far from achieving its goals to limit global-warming, with China and India proving to be the world's biggest polluters.

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Yet despite such overwhelming evidence, a colorful set of characters – or is that maniacs? – continue to make a lucrative living out of denying the science of climate change.

Senator James Inhofe is one of my favorites; in 2012, Inhofe released a book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, and once told the Senate that "man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people".

Inhofe obviously hasn't read about the 2003 vintage in Europe – arguably the wine industry's watershed realization moment.

Growers in Burgundy faced a 30 percent lower yield during the 2003 heat wave compared with the previous year, while the Champenois had to contend with one of the earliest harvests on record.

"Nobody can deny the reality of climate change, it's a fact‎. Clearly 2003 was an illustration of this fact, bringing very different fruits of what we are used to: much more maturity, i.e. sugar and alcohol potential, much less acidity i.e. freshness," observes Champagne producer Bruno Paillard.

"The previous generations used to pick in October, even sometimes until the end of October. Now we have to pick in September, sometimes even in August, so to keep the good alcohol/acidity balance, which is key to deliver the elegance we look for in our Champagne. This is the most spectacular illustration of climate change, precisely climate warming."

Indeed, the very concept of climate change denial is surely both ludicrous and offensive to Europe's vignerons. Winemakers and growers are not questioning the existence of climate change, they are living it, with the empirical evidence in plain sight.

Growers harvesting ripe Cabernet Sauvignon in Italy in July, for example. The warming of Champagne. The very existence of English wine. All proof, if any were needed, that climate change is real and the biggest threat facing the wine industry today.

But in the short term at least, certain regions and winemakers have conceded that global warming has been beneficial, at least in terms of achieving greater ripeness in certain vintages.

"Sichel is very concerned about climate change and is implementing everything we can to contribute to slowing it down through energy saving, water saving, recycling etc," says Charles Sichel. "That said, we can't say that the warmer climate has been a disadvantage, for the moment."

However, even the reasonably sanguine Charles Sichel knows that climate change is not simply about rising growing season temperatures.

Over the past decade, extreme and unprecedented weather patterns have plagued growers from Napa to Beaune – severe drought, summer hailstorms and wildly vacillating temperatures are making grapegrowing an increasingly difficult and expensive business.

"Climate change is definitely something Ornellaia has observed, even if it is a bit difficult to find a general pattern," says winemaker Axel Heinz. "What we clearly see is the higher frequency of climatical hazards – long-lasting drought, heatwaves or monsoon-like rainstorms. I believe that the extreme vintages experienced in Europe can be directly linked to climate change, and we are seeing more and more frequently extreme variations in the weather that rarely occurred in the past."

South Africa is another part of the world all too familiar with the nightmarish problems climate change can inflict; the Western Cape is currently suffering from a severe drought, according to KWV's chief Viticulturalist Marco Ventrella.

"It's the nature of the beast that extreme weather events are becoming the norm. Or rather that the norm is no more and we have to open up our minds to the potential issues thus flattening the bell of our climate curve to include 'new' challenges," says Ventrella.

"We have for some time now experienced a drying trend from the west coast of the Western Cape with significant movement in our winter-summer rainfall split favouring more summer rain yet also resulting in a net reduction versus long term average. In fact, when one considers the last six years of rainfall we see the current drought is actually six years in the making. The last two years have offered frost damage unseen in many years. It's all a little wild west to be sure."

But what does the scientific community make of these phenomenon?

"One should not blame any single extreme event on climate change. In the case of fires in Napa, for example, many issues come into play. The history of fire suppression is important – many little fires may be less damaging than a long interval with no fires and then a big one," says Richard B. Alley, Evan Pugh Professor at the Department of Geosciences at the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State University.

"That being said, hotter temperatures allow faster drying, and we have made temperatures hotter. We probably are affecting circulation in ways that bring unexpected conditions to some places at some times. The usual expectation is that climate change is increasing variability in the water cycle, with more intense rains when they come, but faster drying and some shifting of circulation in ways that give more floods and more droughts."

Drought is becoming an increasing problem for vineyards.© John Weiss | Drought is becoming an increasing problem for vineyards.
His views on our prospects for combating climate change are no less sobering. I ask the professor if it's too late to halt or at least mitigate its potentially devastating effects, hopeful of some light at the end of our conversation.

"In general, the damages from climate change increase 'super-linearly' with temperature – each degree of warming costs more and damages more than the previous degree of warming. More or less, we've warmed one degree, and averaged over the global economy that didn't cost much," he answers.

"We're mostly committed to the second degree of warming, and that will cost more. But, the third degree of warming will cost more than the second, and the fourth more than the third. So, whenever we get this into control, we just missed something worse."

Nevertheless, the wine industry is clearly committed to at least attempting to manage the coming fallout – few vignerons can be accused of complacency.

In November 2017, a climate change conference organised by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and SupAgro Montepellier attempted to steer winemakers in the south of France toward adopting common policies to adapt to climate change.

"Over the last decade, some of the traditional wine regions have seen their production collapse due to droughts, floods, vegetal diseases, that are direct or indirect consequences of global warming," says Marc Nougier of the INRA.

"If we don't react now, Occitane/Languedoc could lose a significant part of its agriculture due to those threats, maybe not in the last decade but very probably after 2050. Many rural territories of the Languedoc-Roussillon live nearly exclusively out of vine production. In such a context, scientists and institutions have a duty to respond and be an active part for finding appropriate solutions."

Meanwhile, leading brands across Europe are formulating their own individual strategies for managing climate change. Approaches naturally differ, yet what unites winemakers is their willingness to mess with the formula.

"For some time now, Ornellaia has adapted by planting less Merlot to the benefit of more heat- and drought-resistant Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc," says Heinz.

"We have also changed our canopy management, looking out for shorter canopies and less leaf removal to protect the grapes from sunburn. Gobelet pruning has also been introduced in some vineyards, to see if this drought resistant training system works in the context of Bolgheri. These are obviously just some ideas, it is all work in progress."

A similar picture emerges in Spain's Castilla y Leon region, where global warming is forcing winemakers to look beyond Tempranillo. Mauro owner Mariano Garcia, for example, is increasingly experimenting with varieties such as Syrah in Tuleda del Duero and Touriga Nacional in Toro, where the families sister winery, Bodegas San Roman, is located.

"We planted Touriga Nacional in Toro as it maintains a high acidity even at optimum levels of ripeness, and therefore is a highly useful blending component in our wines," said export director Matthew Roberts.

However, Roberts also conceded that the DO rules specify that Touriga Nacional can only be planted for experimental purposes, and cannot officially be incorporated into the final blend.

"Global warming and climate change is clearly a concern for all winemakers in this part of Spain, and we wanted to be proactive in ensuring our wines don't become unbalanced – I'm sure the DO will adapt the rule in time."

In addition, there has been talk of certain properties in Paulliac experimenting with Touriga Nacional, although no one will officially go on record.

Their reticence is understandable, of course; the ability of global warming to radically change or even destroy a wine region's historical identity is surely the most pernicious aspect of climate change.

Chablis is a classic case in point. Today it is becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between a glass of Chablis and the majority of white burgundies – global warming has joined forces with significant winemaking changes to completely blur Chablis' classic identity.

Indeed, I recall my introduction to the category over 15 years ago – an austere, crisp glass of white lacking
the richness and weight of a good Meursault.

However, taste a top Chablis Grand Cru from a ripe vintage today and descriptors such as "austere," and "gunflint" seem hopelessly outdated. In another 50 years' time, will tasting notes from Californian Chardonnay and Chablis bear a striking resemblance?

It sounds far-fetched now, but if the higher temperatures do materialize, the outlook for Europe and France in particular is grim.

Bordeaux could become the new Languedoc, Cabernet Sauvignon may well thrive in Volnay and the South of France may be largely uninhabitable.

Even in the shorter term, global warming presents impossible choices. Do bureaucracies adapt and change the laws regarding permitted varieties and irrigation, or do they soldier on attempting to grow Pinot Noir in increasingly unsuitable conditions?

It's an interesting and topical question – terroir, we're taught, is the coming together of the climate, soil and the landscape. It is the combination of many interwoven factors which influence the biology of the vine, and, of course, what ends up in your glass. Climate, we're told, is just one of many key elements.

Yet would any grower question the axiom that climate, or indeed the growing season's weather is the most important deciding factor in determining style and quality?

Notions of aspect and slope are all well and good, but if Champagne eventually inherits the climate of the Cote d'Or, I can't see soil drainage or altitude making that much difference. It will surely no longer be a region suitable for producing world-class sparkling wine – Champagne will produce Pinot Noir akin to what is made in Burgundy today.

Of course, no one is suggesting that this will happen overnight, and the international community may yet find a lasting solution to rising CO2 levels. Furthermore, the wine industry is clearly committed to finding pan-regional solutions, and adopting a collaborative approach in tackling climate change.

But equally, it is undeniable that the current evidence suggests that temperatures will continue to rise, unless a dramatic shift in domestic policy occurs in both the West and nations such as China.

Who knows, perhaps future generations will regard the concept of Pinot Noir thriving in the Cote d'Or completely ludicrous in 2060, just as we find the idea of Chambertin being renowned for Cabernet blends unthinkable today.

By James Lawrence
December 4, 2017
Image Credit: @Dracaenawines


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