Climate change has significant implications for Europe's wine industry, according to a new just-drinks report. However, while rising temperatures are creating stern challenges for some of the region's most established wine-producing areas, production is becoming possible in northern regions where hitherto viticulture was not commercially viable. Ben Cooper reports.

As the claims regarding microclimates made on behalf of individual geographical denominations or wine estates appear to underline, even marginal differences in climate can have a significant impact on the character and quality of wine. By extension, major shifts in regional or global temperatures are likely to produce significant changes across an entire wine region, and so it is proving in Europe, according to a new just-drinks report.

Citing research carried out at the University of Southern Oregon, the report, entitled The Post Recessionary Face of the West European Wine Market, notes that the average growing-season temperatures in some 27 prime wine-producing regions around the world has risen by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit during the past 50 years. Some warmer regions are already reaching a threshold beyond which wine quality begins to decline and, the report states, "the dramatic decline is predicted for Europe".

However, at the same time, rising temperatures are creating opportunities for smaller established European wine producers like Austria, as well as for other countries in northern Europe with little in the way of wine-producing tradition, such as Denmark, England and even Finland. "Whilst the future of wine growing countries in the south of the region, including Greece and Portugal, are threatened by climate change, those further north are benefiting," the report states.

The shift of the "wine production frontier" northwards could provide some of the most striking outcomes of climate change, according to the report. While 50° N has been traditionally considered the northernmost latitude for successful viticulture, this limit is now being reappraised.

"Historically, Germany had been at the northern limits of wine production, where the grapes have struggled to achieve ripeness," the report states. "Now that warmer temperatures are coming more frequently, the wine production frontier has shifted further northwards into countries where the growing of vines was previously considered unimaginable."

To think that, in 50 years' time, a sommelier may lean over your table in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a premier cru from Sweden, Denmark or even Finland in hand may not be as fanciful as it might at first seem. 

Among the countries identified as possible beneficiaries are The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and England. "Thanks to the effects of climate change, winemaking in The Netherlands has become increasingly practical and the country is currently home to 180 commercial vineyards," the report states. 

The Netherlands currently produces around 8,000 hectolitres of wine a year, four times the volume produced in Sweden, but wine production is tipped to increase there too. According to Svenska Vinodlare, the Swedish wine growers' association, Sweden currently has an estimated 55 hectares under vine. While the majority of Sweden's wine producers are in the nation's southern region of Skåne, some wine producers can now be found as far north as the island of Gotland.

Meanwhile, the most northerly wine in the world is produced in Finland. However, under EU legislation, commercialisation of grape wine is not permitted in Finland. At present, vineyards are only kept as hobbies. There are thought to be around 40 to 50 farm wineries in the south-west of the country growing varieties such as Bianca, Siegerrebe, Agat Donski and Frühburgunder, which stand up particularly well to the northerly climate. 

Once the official EU sanction is given, however, the country's wine production could expand quickly, if the pattern seen in Denmark is replicated.

Having only received official recognition by the European Commission as a wine-producing country in 2000, Denmark had more than 60 commercial wine growers by the end of 2009, and today the Association of Danish Winegrowers (Danske Vingårde) boasts more than 1,400 members.

As Denmark's wine industry has expanded, production has also spread northwards. In 2005, 88% of the total vineyard area was located in the three southernmost regions of the country, namely southern Denmark, the Capital Region of Denmark and Zealand. Central Jutland and northern Jutland accounted for only 12% but, by 2010, this contribution had increased to 28%; climate change can be expected to bolster this trend.

While rising temperatures are benefiting the burgeoning wine industries in Europe's northernmost countries, the effects on Europe's traditional wine regions could not be more different. "Wine producers in traditional wine-growing regions face tough long-term decisions," the report states.

As temperatures increase, producers may be compelled to use more irrigation, according to the report. An alternative to increasing irrigation would be for European producers to accept a change in the character of their wines or switch to new grape varieties. However, for wines with a defined geographical appellation, losing specific characteristics that may have evolved over centuries is no trifling matter. 

Another recourse for European wine producers would be to plant new vineyards at higher elevations or re-site vines in places where there is more natural shade. However, it takes many years to mature vines for wine production, and, once producing, the vines may be expected to have a productive life of 50 years or more. Moving them, when feasible, would represent a major upheaval, not to mention a substantial investment.

"All solutions carry high risk and associated high costs. But the future for some could depend not only on how well they can adapt to the changing weather, but also if they can survive the new competition," the report states.

Traditional European wine regions have had to withstand hugely increased competition from the New World for some decades. As climate change exerts an influence on these regions, however, competition from within Europe itself, namely from those countries where wine production was previously either impossible or extremely problematic, may provide a further challenge.

A notable case in point is English wine, in particular English sparkling wine. "It was not so long ago that English winemaking was not taken at all seriously by more accomplished wine-producing nations, but more hospitable temperatures have seen product quality improving significantly," the report states. According to English Wine Producers, England won trophies for the world's best sparkling wines as many as nine times between 2005 and 2011, despite often unfavourable weather.

Wine producers will argue that there is a lot more to wine production than climate. The French term 'terroir' takes in climatic, geological and human factors. So, even if the climatic "sweetspot" for sparkling wine were to move from Epernay to Dorking, it will not be a silver bullet.

However, many wine cognoscenti believe the results that English sparkling wine producers have achieved to date, in spite of the vagaries of the English weather, augur extremely well for the future as the climate becomes more conducive to quality wine production.