The climate crisis is changing the world of wine. Viticulture is one of the most sensitive agricultural practices, and record-breaking temperatures, unpredictable weather extremes, excessive droughts and raging wildfires are disrupting harvests in critical winemaking regions. Prosecco, for example, grown in tricky hillside and steep-slope landscapes in Northern Italy, could be wiped out due to the complex challenges of a rapidly warming world. At the same time, weather that makes for favourable winemaking seasons is shifting to surprising areas.
Climate change is a wake-up call for industries to radically innovate and switch to more sustainable practices. For viticulture, this means moving to growing methods that regenerate the earth rather than deplete it, while also looking at ways to reduce the environmental impact of wine’s entire life cycle – from production and packaging to distribution and consumption. “Anyone working in agriculture is having to adapt, the globe over” shares Rosie Finn of Neudorf Vineyard in New Zealand. “It’s undeniable.” Winemakers are embracing sustainable and regenerative tools to safeguard themselves and fight back against the escalating climate emergency.
Climate change is reshaping the world (of wine)
Climate change is threatening wines the world over, making it harder to produce the light-bodied reds of the Loire valley, California’s buttery golden chardonnay, and so many other iconic styles we’ve come to know as staples of the dinner table.
Heatwaves, for example, have increased in key wine regions across the world, from New Zealand and Australia to Europe and South America. Longer periods of hotter weather are pushing harvest dates forward every year while accelerating the grape ripening process, often leading to wines with higher sugar and alcohol content and less acidity.
“The most obvious [impact of climate change] is how much earlier we’re picking because the fruit is ripe earlier,” says Finn. “Over 40 years of production, we now finish picking before we used to start. Part of this is a stylistic change, but also certainly evidence of climate change. The other obvious example is the extreme weather patterns we see: hotter hots, dryer dries and wetter wets.”
This can be particularly destructive to traditional winemaking regions which depend on a delicate balance of environmental factors and sensitive intervention to create consistent harvests. The three most prolific wine-producing countries in the world – Italy, France and Spain – are also some of the countries hardest hit by the extreme weather and connected environmental vulnerabilities caused by climate change.
Drought and heat have decimated harvests in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain’s largest wine producing area, with winemakers predicting a loss in production of 22% in 2023.
Surprising spring frosts in Italy and France have growers using stoves and heat turbines to protect their harvests, with hail and frost impacting 10,000 ha of vines in Bordeaux this year.
Warmer, wetter summers in Italy have created the ideal conditions for the vine-destroying plasmopara viticola fungus to thrive, with experts expecting wine production to drop by 20% across central Italy and 30% in southern areas such as Sicily and Basilicata, potentially dethroning Italy as the number one wine producer in the world.
While climate change is negatively impacting many historic winemaking communities, it’s also carving out new markets in areas that were once too cold or temperamental to grow sought-after grape varieties, with favourable wine producing conditions shifting further away from the equator as global warming intensifies.
Viticulture is now one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in England and Wales – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir being the most popular grapes to cultivate – with the British wine industry increasing vine planting by 74% in the last five years.
Northern and Eastern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, are experiencing a winemaking boon. Vineyards in Sweden, for example, have expanded by more than 50% over the past few years.
New areas in China, Japan, and North America are also becoming popular hotspots for making commercially-viable wine, with China now being the second largest vine grower and seventh largest wine producer in the world.
But no matter where wine is produced in the world, shifting to more sustainable and regenerative methods can protect vineyards against the extremes of climate change, while also helping reduce viticulture’s own environmental imprint.
Cultivating sustainability across the wine industry
Fossil fuels are by far the leading cause of climate change, but agriculture plays a significant role. Our food system accounts for more than one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and agriculture is believed to be the driving force behind biodiversity loss worldwide. The global environmental footprint of viticulture is significant; the land needed to cultivate vines, the water required for irrigation and the complex relationship that carbon dioxide plays at different stages of the production and distribution process all have an impact on the planet.
“I wish international standards of organic farming were more cohesive across governments – we need to be encouraging more organic practices.” says Finn. “We also need technology to catch up to climate change and that’s not just in production but from start to finish – growing technology, the way we transport, product, packaging… the list is endless.”
The good news is that there are a number of sustainable and regenerative pathways for winemakers and value chain partners to improve resilience in the face of climate change while reducing the environmental impacts of production and distribution. These include:
- Planting grape varieties that will thrive in challenging conditions
- Using drip irrigation and strategic planting to conserve water
- Cover cropping to improve soil health and reduce erosion
- Using organic and non-chemical cultivation to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilisers, often welcoming animals to graze between vines
- Reducing the use of energy and resources in the winery and/or switching to renewable energy sources
- Using lightweight and recycled packaging and sustainable transportation methods
“We’re exploring new varieties (Albariño) and clones,” says Finn of her vineyard's own methods of adapting to and managing climate change. “We’re picking earlier to mitigate anything being over blown or rained out. But we also have plan B and plan C. With such extreme weather patterns there is no room for error so organic spray regimes are very regimented and can’t be missed. This is a huge effort from the vineyard crew to keep on top of every practise.”
Action for climate and nature: winemakers leading the way
The Wine Society is proud to partner with many winemakers who have already adopted more sustainable or regenerative ways of making wine.
Symington Family Estates, a 150 year old, family-owned wine producer located in Portugal’s Douro Valley, understands the value of long-term thinking, and has its very own sustainability strategy. Its “Mission 2025” plan includes measurable targets for renewable energy, CO2 reduction, solar panels, electric cars, resource efficiency, forest regeneration, low-impact packaging, local community initiatives & more. It’s also a registered B-Corp, meaning it’s part of a 7,000+ strong community of businesses worldwide committing to (and acting on) clear environmental and social targets.
Another B-Corp, Château Thieuley in Bordeaux, has been pioneering nature-friendly viticulture for decades. The “bee-friendly” producer has achieved Terra Vitis certification, a recognition of sustainable winemaking based on the three pillars of sustainable development: environmental, social and economic.
Emiliana Organic Vineyards is the first Chilean producer to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) status. Their organic growing methods mean no harsh chemical fertilisers or pesticides, they regenerate soils through the incorporation of compost and pruning waste and use cover crops between harvests. The winemaker also considers their climate impact and works to reduce it through recycling, energy efficiency, renewable energy use, and lighter bottles that generate less CO2 when transported.
These are just three of a swiftly growing number of viticulturalists and producers who are actively working to protect their vineyards – and local communities – from the impacts of climate change while making a positive imprint on the world of winemaking.