Climate Change and the Future of Wine

Alissa Bica | Oct 27, 2023

Grapes are one of the most finicky fruit to grow. They need just the right soil, amount of water and sunlight, and ideal temperatures; if any of these factors are off the grapes become flabby or tart, and the magic attained when opening a perfect bottle is lost. This is why climate change is fast becoming such a monumental issue within the world of wine.

The Beginning of the End?

But don’t worry, it isn’t all fire and brimstone. Cooler regions are actually thriving. In the past, wine production could occur only within the latitudes of 30 and 50 degrees. Southern England lies around 52 degrees, north of that traditional latitude window and once thought too cold for grapes to fully ripen. As temperatures rise, however, English wine production has been increasing with the introduction of first class sparklers from producers like Nyetimber and Chapel Down. And why not? There is an abundance of white, chalky soil in certain parts of southern England, the same soil so coveted in Champagne. The English use the same three grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Muenier) as their French counterparts to the south, as well as the same traditional method for wine production. English sparklers tend to have a little more orchard fruit and rustic qualities, but the top producers can spar with the best of them.

Champagne, on the other hand, once considered very cold and continental, only declared vintages in the best years when their grapes received ample sunshine to fully ripen. Global warming has brought an abundance of vintage worthy years, but there is now danger that the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction. If it continues to warm in this region, there is danger that the grapes will become flabby, losing the crisp, brioche-like minerality that Champagne is so known for. The solution is still up in the air, but a lot of producers have started setting up shop in new regions; the classic Taittinger in England and Roederer in Anderson Valley, California. Other previously too cold regions, like Norway and Denmark, are also getting into the wine game, which could result in exciting new varieties and styles.


Wine Production is Looking Up

For those who can’t expand north or south, production is starting to look up… literally. In Argentina, producers are pushing to new heights with vineyards in Salta planted at up to 11,000 feet. These grapes still receive sun and heat during the day, but benefit from a greater diurnal shift, the difference of temperature between day and night. Higher altitudes mean cooler temperatures at night which give the grapes time to rest, ripen more slowly, and keep that fresh acidity that is so important to great winemaking.

Washington producers are also starting to push upward with regions like Walla Walla Valley experimenting with heights of 3,000 feet. The wines are refined, with silky tannins and lush fruit. The alcohol per glass in Washington wines hovers closer to 14 percent, a welcome quality when so many Napa wines are sitting at up to 15.5 percent! This is because the hotter it gets the more the grapes ripen and the more sugar they contain. When the yeast eats the sugar it produces alcohol, hence more sugar equals higher alcohol after fermentation. One solution is to pick the grapes earlier in September instead of October when they aren’t as ripe, but without that extra hang time there is a risk of picking a less complete, complex grape.

The New Grapes on the Block

What if a producer can’t move north or upwards? One solution: introduce new grape varieties that can stand up to warmer weather. Bordeaux has a long history and reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc (Malbec, Carmenere, and Petit Verdot are also allowed in red wine). These have been the go-to grapes that made this region infamous. The French also take pride in tradition, so it’s an indication that things must really be warming up for them to consider change. For the first time in hundreds of years, new red grape varieties are allowed in small proportions to help producers adapt to climate change.

The new red grape varieties are Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, and Touriga Nacional. Arinarnoa is a cross (when two grapes of different pedigree cross pollinate) between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon created in France in 1956. Castets is a rare grape variety originating in southern France. Marselan was developed in 1961 from crossing the grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. Touriga Nacional is from the Douro region of Portugal and often used for port. All these grapes have something in common, they are late ripening, often smaller berried and thicker skinned; perfect for warmer temperatures and retaining structure and acidity. French law states that these new grapes can make up no more than ten percent of the wine blend, and the results will be reevaluated after ten years. Stay tuned for its progress.

Looking to the Future

The good news is that wine is an ancient tradition that isn’t going away any time soon. Scientists and agriculturalists continue to study both climate and fruit to develop solutions. More and more farmers are developing sustainable and biodynamic practices to rejuvenate the land. And we, as consumers, have more opportunities to buy local to reduce our carbon footprint. So whether you’re looking up, to the north, or trying something new, keep enjoying a great bottle of wine. I believe that’s one thing that will always good for the planet… and the soul.





About the Author

Alissa Bica is a certified sommelier at the Los Angeles restaurant, 71 Above, as well as US tasting coordinator and contributing editor at Wine and Spirits magazine. Every day, she feels humbled that she was able to turn one of her greatest passions into a career. She lives for the “aha!” moments that her guests experience when they taste a Premiere Cru Chablis next to a Napa Chardonnay and appreciate the differences. Her musings on wine, culture, and memory have been published in Wine Enthusiast magazine, and she runs the popular blog, Off the Beaten Wine Path, where she explores rare grape varieties and what their perfect food pairs.

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