Global Warming and Wine – How Are They Linked?

Harry Lambourne
26th January 2022

Environmental concerns are increasingly affecting people’s purchasing habits. Whether it’s solar housing panels and electric cars, or simply vegan chicken nuggets. The environmental impact of what we’re choosing to surround ourselves with is coming to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Global warming and wine is no different. The link between global warming and wine is undeniable.

Wine has a two-way relationship with the environment. So, it’s important to look into the relationship between global warming and wine in detail. Winemakers can promote biodiversity and employ organic farming methods. These in turn can have a positive impact on the environment. Yet, it is also global warming which is impacting the wine and wine industry.

Rising temperatures and natural disasters can impact the wines flavour and profile, as well as the production of the wine. This article can take you through both the environment’s impact on the wine industry, as well as how the wine industry can look to reduce it’s impact on the environment.

How Does Global Warming Affect Wine?

Sugar and Alcohol Level in Grapes

Essentially, in the wine-making process, the sugars in grapes are eaten by yeast. This is then converted into alcohol. This factor is key. The rising temperatures associated with global warming leads to grapes with higher sugar content. The higher sugar content, then leads to wines with a higher alcohol content. Global warming and wine is therefore bound together with the sugar levels in wine.

Sugar In Wine
Sugar Levels are a key factor in Global Warming and Wine

Indeed, this may not sound inherently bad. I love a big and bold 14.5% Rhône Valley red wine, as I’m sure many of you do. There’s scope to think that people’s penchant for the big and bold may have caused some winemakers to embrace these changes. Global warming and wine may be informing people’s palates without them realising.

Yet, as with all things pertaining to climate change, there is a tipping point. Maybe the 14.5% reds are enjoyable, but will it be the case when things hit 15%, or 16%?

Taste and personal preference are not the only things to consider. There are health implications. Drinking two glasses of a lower alcohol wine, that sits around 11%, is not the same as drinking the wines on the boozier end of the spectrum. Beyond that, the high sugar content could have unwanted health implications.

Changes in Flavour and Production

Global warming and wine’s relationship doesn’t solely concern additional sugar and alcohol content. The increased temperatures also cause grapes to ripen more quickly. A Burgundy region with records dating back to 1354 noted that the time of harvest, has moved forward over two weeks since records began. This may not sound severe but it’s demonstrable evidence that the seasons are changing. Indeed, a large amount of this change has happened in the 20th century.

The quicker ripening has implications for flavour. As the grapes have less time to ripen, the yeast eats up less sugar. High sugar and low acid content can lead to an unbalanced product.

Terroir also has an undeniable effect on the final flavour profile. This includes the climate of the region. As climate continues to change, so will the distinct and unique flavours of many of the wines and wine regions we know and love.

This is evident in the fact that we have seen new varieties and indeed new wine regions emerge. English sparkling wine now rivals many Champagnes. German wine was once known for its sweet Riesling. Although now, wonderful Spätburgunder and Weißerburgunder have become more and more prominent.

While these factors may seem like exciting new developments, there could come a time when these regions are too hot to produce the excellent wine they do currently. Who knows? Before long there may be Malbec growing on the banks of the Tyne. Could global warming and wine lead to new and exciting grape varieties in unheard of regions?

The Impact of Natural Disasters on Wine Production

Rising temperatures, floods, drought, water scarcity, fires, storms and declining biodiversity are all cited by the UN as consequences of climate change. These factors are all going to impact global wine production. Global warming and wine production are certainly linked. Global warming and wine is no different to any other industry. The implications are far-reaching.

€50 million of wine was lost in the floods in Germany in 2021. The rising water levels decimated huge areas of land in the Ahr wine region.

Wine from the west coast of America is also facing challenges. Wine in the Oregon and California regions are becoming increasingly affected by ‘smoke taint’. The prevalence of forest fires are affecting taste and quality of the wines being produced, causing them to be thrown away.

While speaking to Bordeaux winemakers at the recent Millésime Bio Wine Fair, a number reported that they’ve lost huge numbers of crops due to frost and storms. Freak hail storms battered France and Spain through June 2021. The damage to budding vines has been thought to have cost the French wine industry €2 billion.

Global Warming and Wine – How Can Wine-making Practices Positively Impact the Environment?

It isn’t simply the all-powerful environment influencing the wine. Winemakers can take steps to employ farming methods which benefit mother-earth. Global warming and wine need not be a wholly negative relationship. While these steps may seem pale in comparison to cataclysmic weather conditions, they are indicative of an attitude that we all must take.

The attitude of think globally, act locally is very much at the centre of this. These winemakers have made changes to the way they produce wine. These small changes represent an effort to improve the environment. Do what you can, for the good of everyone.

If you’re a winemaker this can be implementing sustainable farming methods. If you’re a regular citizen, it can be recycling, being conscious of your buying habits, reducing waste, and many more small changes.

Organic Farming Practices

Organic wine, at a basic level, is wine made from organically grown grapes. This includes not using chemical herbicides and pesticides. Certification can vary greatly between country to country but ultimately, wherever they are, organic certification is a clear indication that a vineyard has implemented a more sustainable approach to the running of their vineyard. Obtaining organic certification takes several years. Those who have done so, or are in the process of doing so, are clearly committed to combating global warming.

The absence of artificial herbicides and pesticides are one factor helping the environment. Winemakers won’t spray artificial chemicals throughout the vineyard. These could affect crops and the surrounding environment. Instead, they employ novel pest control tactics. These can be eco-friendly pesticides, or even animals such as ducks and sheep which are used as a means of pest management and maintenance. As global warming and wine are inextricably linked, viticultural practices that are less harmful to the environment are of great importance.

Ducks in the Vineyard
Pest Control Hard at Work in the Vineyard
Promoting Biodiversity

Bio-dynamic farming is in many respects, another branch of organic farming. It seeks to promote health in the environment in and around the vineyard. The biodynamic approach came from Rudolf Steiner, as he sought to address the highly mechanistic view of nature, which had begun to develop in the early 20th century.

With the advent synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, (of the sort organic farming doesn’t allow), some farmers noticed declines in the health of the plants and animals in that environment. This led some to approach farming more holistically. It looked at the ecosystem, (in this case a vineyard), as a single cohesive element. To produce better wine, more expressive of the terroir, they need to consider the health of the soil, the plants, the animals that live there, even the cycles of the moon. All these factors could impact the final product.

If the grapes on the vine are to flourish, then so must all the natural elements which surround it. Indeed, this is key to not just global warming and wine, but global warming in general. We can’t flourish as humans, if the planet is crumbling around us.

Vegan Wine

For many, the use of animal products in the food and drinks industry is a key area of concern. Industrialised farming is a major strain on the earth’s natural resources. While vineyards may not have large scale cattle farms, they can often use animal byproducts in the production process.

If you’re wondering what prohibits wine from being vegan, then it’s fining agents. Essentially, different animal byproducts are fining agents in the wine-making process. Wine initially appears as cloudy. So, fining agents are employed to bind to these particles and drag them down to bottom of the barrels, allowing them to be extracted. These fining agents include things like; egg white, milk protein, gelatin and fish bladders, (yuck!).

As the pull of veganism grows, many winemakers opt to use fining agents which aren’t animal byproducts. This constitutes another way in which wine-making practices may have a positive effect on the environment. Global warming and wine, as with global warming in general, has a clear impact on farming. So, vegan considerations will play a part in the conversation surrounding global warming and wine.

There you have the two sides to the relationship between global warming and wine. While it is clear that global warming can have a number of harmful affects on wine and the wine industry, it needn’t be all doom and gloom.

Many winemakers are taking positive steps to try and address the balance of power. Through the promotion of organic, bio-dynamic and vegan farming methods the wine-making process can begin to have a more positive effect on the surrounding environment. The relationship between global warming and wine is ongoing.

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