As wine regions are defined by the balance between grape variety and local temperature, climate change is likely to have major implications for the wine industry. The challenges ahead were discussed by 350 professionals from the wine world, including producers, scientists and winemakers, at a conference held last week in Barcelona. Jane Anson was there too and reports.

If proof were needed of the growing importance being attached to environmental issues in the wine industry, one need look no further than the recent Climate Change and Wine conference, held last weekend in Barcelona.

When this event was first launched last year, the audience numbered 70 and, organiser Pancho Campo explains, it was a fairly tough challenge to drum up interest at all. In its second year, the conference attracted some 350 delegates, comprising producers, scientists, winemakers and journalists from 36 countries.

This, Campo believes, demonstrates that the wine industry, although it may contribute just 0.1% of the world's total carbon load, is one of the few industries taking a lead in addressing the increasingly high-profile question of climate change.

Richard Smart, a leading viticulture consultant and expert in canopy management, warns: "Some of us think climate change is something our children and grandchildren will have to worry about, but it's for all of us, and it's already having an impact on the world of wine."

So what exactly does climate change mean for the wine industry? Well, to begin with, a potential identity crisis. The development of wine production during the past 200 to 500 years has been shaped by the balance between grape variety and regional climates. Indeed, it is the unique balance between these factors that has created some of our most celebrated wines. This, according to most experts, will all be thrown into turmoil over next 50 years by a 1-2ºC temperature rise. That may not sound much, but with only a 2ºC rise in Healdsburg, Sonoma, the region will become like Modesto in the Central Valley, where already wine grapes are barely grown as the temperature is really only viable for table grapes. A similar rise in Bordeaux would give it a climate similar to the Languedoc today. Already harvests are two weeks earlier in Bordeaux and four weeks earlier in the Rhône than 20 years ago.

If, or as it would appear when, this happens, the world's vineyards will see fewer spring frosts, warmer winters, hotter summers, more peaks of extreme heat, earlier bud break, flowering, veraison and harvest, increased water use, and more vine pests and disease. In terms of the effects on the final wine, likely changes include loss of varietal flavours and typicity, loss of colour, higher alcohol and lower acidity. Red varieties should adapt better than white, meaning a further global shift towards red grapes. Read that list again, and many of the scenarios are already regular features of wine news reports.

The effects, of course, will not all be equal: the winners are likely to be cool-climate vineyard regions such as England, Denmark, Tasmania, Northern France and parts of New Zealand, while hot areas such as Australia, Spain and California will need to alter their approach radically, moving vineyards either to higher altitude or closer to the cooling oceanic breezes along the coast. Before Europe gets smug, however, overall the northern hemisphere will be more affected than the southern, as the greater expanse of ocean in the southern hemisphere will mitigate many of the effects. Chile in particular was described as 'the lucky country', as it has cold Antarctic currents running past it, a plentiful water supply from the Andes, and plenty of space to move its vineyards up to higher altitudes.

Rather than packing up and going home, of course, the conference focused on potential solutions to the crisis. A number of winemakers showcased their current plans. Banrock Station in Australia, for instance, has moved some of its wines into Tetrapak, a container with 80% less embodied energy than glass, while Spanish producer Miguel Torres told delegates that at his winery in Chile, he is pioneering "carbon capture and storage", whereby harmful CO2 emissions are trapped and stored underground. "We are trying to convert CO2 into something solid, which will remain in the ground, instead of being emitted into the air," he said.

Similarly, French consultant Pascal Chatonnet suggested varieties such as Petit Verdot, Malbec and Syrah should be planted more widely, as they are better adapted to heat. Pinot Noir will run into difficulties, in contrast, as it is so heat sensitive. Several speakers suggested we should get over our qualms about genetically-modified crops, as they offered the best hope for future adaptation.

But there are certain changes, according to the majority of speakers, which it is now too late to alter, and the rather dramatic message was that most winemakers face the alternative of either changing regions or changing varieties. Existing cool regions will be able to stay in the same place, but will have to adapt the grapes they grow. In instances where signature grapes have become unviable, there are naturally implications for the regions' international reputations. For Europeans, there was a further stark warning - that they cannot overcome global warming by regulations. The key question is whether traditional European districts will have the flexibility to change in time.

There are also two schools of thought about who will do best at convincing customers to accept the new realities. The New World has an advantage in that its present regions are not so well known to consumers, so if producers do need to develop new cooler regions, it won't matter so much from a marketing point of view. However, the New World has hung its hat on varietal labelling for the past decade, so if there is a need to change varietals, or to produce entirely new hybrids, they may encounter more resistance.

In contrast, Old World regions such as Burgundy could simply change the grape varieties, or begin to blend their wines differently. They won't need to change their entire appellation-led labelling, thus keeping a 'recognised' name to reassure the consumer. It is ironic that an often-criticised feature of the appellation system - namely the insufficient scope for varietal identification - could now be a saving grace.

Richard Smart sums up the challenge ahead. "We have perhaps 20 or 30 years to develop new varieties that are better adapted to the approaching climate realities. But we should also remember that the best terroirs of tomorrow may not have been discovered yet."