In the world of wine, climate change is a blessing and a curse. Growing season temperatures in 27 of the world’s major wine-producing regions warmed an average of 1.3°C over the last 50 years, according to a viticulture-focused study by research climatologist Greg Jones. And while winemakers in traditionally cooler zones like the Pacific Northwest and northern Europe have embraced temperature increases—which made their vintages  more predictable and palatable to the modern consumer—projected rates of future climate change worry winemakers elsewhere. Vintners in countries as far-flung as the United States and Australia are concerned about issues like shifting boundaries for grape-growing regions, scarce water supplies, and longer growing seasons coupled with earlier harvests.

In an industry as old as winemaking, few events have the power to precipitate major change. But global warming is one of them. In regions set to benefit and in areas that are suffering, forward-thinking vintners are doing more than just embracing evolving circumstances. They’re engaged in campaigns as multifaceted and complex as the wine they produce, incorporating innovative growing methods, reevaluating crop choices, and launching conservation efforts worldwide. For the winemakers of tomorrow, the key to surviving climate change is learning to adapt and persevere today.

To start, winemakers are rethinking land use. Torres, an award-winning Spanish family winery with production sites in Spain, California, and Chile, is buying land in higher, cooler altitudes to protect the business for the next generation. Other labels like Chapel Down in southern England are planting grapes that perform better in warmer climates. Chapel Down started growing cool-weather Germanic varietals in the 1980s but today has switched to grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “The growing envelope has moved north. Twenty years ago winemaking was marginal here; now we’re winning awards,” says Frazer Thompson, managing director of Chapel Down. “There’s no question climate changes are real.”

In the vineyard, practicing sustainability through organic farming and water conservation is the new status quo. When Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley began farming organically more than twenty years ago, the industry shook its collective head, according to Jonah Beer, the company’s general manager. “Now if you go to a party in Napa and aren’t talking about organic, you’re not with it.” The winery is still on the cutting edge: Frog’s Leap dry-farms, which involves mulching to preserve soil moisture and foregoing irrigation. The tasting center and business offices use geothermal heating and cooling, and its 1,020 photovoltaic solar panels collect so much sunlight that they sell excess energy back to the utility.

Across the world in southern Australia’s Riverland, Banrock Station is also concerned about water use—but on a scale that extends far beyond its property’s borders. When the winery was founded ten years ago, it vowed to invest in conservation both on the property—the vineyards overlook 1,100 acres of wetlands—and around the world. “Our projects are about biodiversity,” Tony Sharley, Banrock’s Wine and Wetlands Centre manager, explains. “Initially we wanted to protect habitats and improve water quality worldwide. Today we realize that wetlands are carbon sinks, too. Not only do they store CO2 in the soil and above ground but they consume it as living systems.” Sharley’s insights on water conservation led to a speaking engagement at Spain’s Climate Change and Wine Conference in February, which Al Gore also addressed. To date, Banrock has raised close to $5 million in twelve countries for its global wetlands restoration projects.

Older growing regions are responding as well. The Bordeaux region of France recently launched the Bilan Carbone project to measure the carbon footprint of its wines, reacting less out of urgency than out of a larger sense of responsibility and long-term preservation. Winemakers there have enjoyed exceptionally good vintages lately because Bordeaux is at its climate peak; according to Jones’ research, however, the region is projected to be at the upper end of its optimum ripening climate for many of its red grapes and outside the ideal range for its whites in 40 years. “If climate change is not stopped, all the benefits global warming brought to regions such as Bordeaux and Rioja will turn into challenges,” says Pancho Campo, Spain’s Wine Academy director.

In Oregon, one of the newest wine regions, winemakers try to view climate change with a mix of caution and “giddy excitement,” says Kevin Chambers, owner of Resonance Vineyard, a biodynamic vineyard in the Willamette Valley. “Climate changes have improved our consistency, but we do need to think ahead. What should I plant now that will sustain warmer temperatures for the next 50 years?” Like Thompson, Chambers recognizes that global warming has contributed to his personal success even as it marginalizes wine quality in warmer areas.

Despite undeniably shifting wine zones, deeply rooted places like Frog’s Leap Winery, famed for its sustainable practices, have no plans to decamp for cooler regions. What’s more, Beer believes a little perspective is in order. “We wake up every day thinking we need to find ways to reduce our impact on the environment,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, if you can’t grow grapes in Napa, there will probably be worse problems in the world as a result of global warming."

Story by Gretchen Roberts. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Some vineyards suffer while others thrive
As temperatures heat up in the world’s grape-growing regions, wine makers face incredible opportunities and unforeseen challenges.