Ali Lowrey is a PhD candidate from the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Auckland
Although our wine industry is doing a good job reacting to climate change, it could become too hot to grow certain grape varieties – but that opens up an opportunity to grow others previously thought unsuitable
Comment: Sea levels and global temperatures are rising – and so are the alcohol percentages in wine. The first two are well recognized as the effects of daunting climate change. The third is not so well-known but when we look at what global warming means to the commercial production of wine, the glass is already looking half empty.
Of course, there are many more crucial industries where the effects of climate change will be more detrimental to human existence than alcohol production. You may well be thinking, “Why should I care about the fate of sauvignon blanc or pinot noir”?
Though wine is not essential to human survival, it remains a massive industry where the livelihoods of many people would be affected if it no longer existed.
What could climate change mean?
The industry could lose the ability to grow grapes in places where grapes have been growing for centuries, and the hotter climate will change the wine we know and love. Under the COP26 2C-warming scenario, it is predicted that Spain would lose about 65 percent of its wine-growing area. Italy, Greece, and most notably France, may become completely inhospitable to grape production by 2050. Most Australian regions only have about 25 years remaining to grow wine as they are now.
What will climate change wine taste like?
Climate change will alter how grapes are grown and how a wine will be made. With increasing temperatures, grapes will become more overripe. So, wines could be less acidic (think a crisp Marlborough sauvignon blanc that may no longer be as fresh). They will also generally have more sugar and body as grapes on the vine will be exposed to hotter climates, which encourages sugar to accumulate within the grape. When you have grapes of higher sugar content, the yeast during fermentation will churn out more ethanol production. Wines are currently about 12.5 percent alcohol, but we will see a lot more wines over 14 percent. More ‘cooked’ flavors are on their way – some red wines will have flavors of stewed plums, baking spices, prunes, and savory notes. There will be less flavors of bright, fresh red cherries and raspberries that I really like in a youthful New Zealand pinot noir.
It’s not all bad
Changes to wine production will become a balance of gain and loss. We may get to a point where it is too hot to grow a certain variety of grape, but that opens up an opportunity to grow another that previously would not have been suitable. The UK now makes some really decent sparkling wine. What will New Zealand switch to? Unfortunately, it is bad news for pinot noir lovers, as this is the most at-risk variety to disappear. More later-ripening varieties will be the way forward: cabernet sauvignon, grenache and monastrell.
What is the New Zealand wine industry doing about this now?
Our wine industry is doing a good job addressing and tackling climate change. Wine has lower greenhouse gas emissions than dairy, sheep, and beef farming, but there is a carbon cost from fertilizers, winery electricity, packing, and freight. New Zealand Wine released the 2022 Sustainability Report in time for Earth Day, where it stated that 46 percent of registered New Zealand vineyards reduced the use of herbicides, and 58 percent were implementing specific initiatives to minimize their carbon footprint. The industry also has set a carbon-neutral goal by 2050, and more than 10 percent of all New Zealand wineries hold organic certification.
What can you do?
Buy local – the next time you are celebrating and think you should buy some Möet, why not try some local sparkling wine? There is a new initiative called “Méthode Marlborough” and some amazing champagne-like wine is being made.
Also, look out for the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand logo on the back of a wine label.
Environmental sustainability and future-proofing one of our biggest export industries is something everyone should care about, whether you are a wine drinker or not. As we shift into an environment where climate change initiatives are at the forefront of successful sustainability, let’s look at the New Zealand wine industry as a glass half full.