The news this month that Castel has seen its wine operations in Ethiopia bear fruit suggests that the effects of climate change are already taking hold in the wine industry. Ben Cooper investigates.

A wine from a surprising or unusual location is generally seen - and sometimes marketed - as something of a novelty, so the launch last week by the French Castel group of a wine produced in Ethiopia has naturally attracted considerable interest.

However, Castel's new Ethiopian wines are far more than mere curiosity items. To begin with, its plans to produce wine in Ethiopia were founded on the basis that conditions in the Ziway valley, located around 150km south of Addis Ababa, are highly suited to wine production.

Moreover, Castel's Ethiopian wine project represents an example both of the inward investment and agricultural regeneration Ethiopia needs in order to cope with the effects of climate change, notably on its most important agricultural commodity, coffee. It is also represents a re-birth for wine production in the country which had begun in the 1950s, when Greek and Italian immigrants began producing wine in areas such as Asmara, Awash and Dukem.

Sadly, the fledgling industry did not survive the country's political upheavals in the 1970s.

Former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was a key instigator of the Castel project, even to the point of personally entreating the company to produce wine locally at a meeting as far back as 2007. The vineyards are situated on land leased from the Government. Some say Castel undertook the project at least partly in the interests of safeguarding its extensive beer interests in the country: Brasseries et Glacières Internationales (BGI) produces some 70m bottles of beer under the St George brand annually. 

In comparison with its Ethiopian beer operations, the Castel wine business is still small scale. Around half of the 1.2m bottle production in 2014 will be sold in Ethiopia, with the rest destined for export markets such as the US, China and the EU. However, production is set to rise to 3m bottles, and Castel believes there is strong potential for both wine production and demand to grow in Ethiopia.

As climate change is expected to lead to a fairly radical reshaping of the wine world, Ethiopia is likely to be joined by other countries new or less familiar to wine production, as the growing of wine grapes becomes viable in new areas and, more worryingly, extremely challenging if not impossible in some established and well known wine regions.

The most recent assessment report (AR5) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which details the likely impacts of climate change, published earlier this year, stated that reductions in the suitability for grapevine cultivation are expected in most of the wine-producing regions. It added that "wine grape production and quality will be affected in Europe, US, Australia". 

The bleakest projections for the wine industry came in a report last year in the US journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which forecast that as much as 73% of land currently used for wine growing could become unsuitable by 2050.

There will be some winners, however. The IPCC report identifies Portugal and British Columbia as possibly benefiting from climate change. The UK is not mentioned but reports from numerous sources suggest the climate in England is becoming more conducive to fine wine production.

Interestingly, because of its extreme sensitivity to climate, wine production has been used as a proxy to illustrate historical climate change. For instance, it is often pointed out that the Romans cultivated wine in Britain.

The IPCC's report was notable for the increased emphasis placed on climate change adaptation versus climate change mitigation. How climate change might allow for expansion and improvement in certain wine production regions or the addition of new wine production areas is climate change adaptation in action.

One of the primary ways in which wine regions can, in principle, respond to changing temperatures is to switch grape varieties which are more resistant to heat. Indeed, by the same token, wine production in England has long used hardy, cold-climate varieties such as Huxelrebe and Dornfelder. Going forward, however, the UK climate will likely allow for the cultivation of classic grape varieties. This is already happening in sparkling wine production, with some companies already switching to the Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir.

It has been pointed out that changing the grape varieties used will represent a greater challenge for wine regions where strict denominations of origin govern production, such as France and other European countries. 

Last year's report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also carried dire warnings of the impact of wine production moving to new regions in response to climate change. Typically, as wine production becomes impossible in certain parts of inland California and Mediterranean Europe, production will move north or to higher elevations. The north-west US is tipped for expansion, as are certain parts of China.

Wildlife conservationists are particularly worried that the expansion of wine production in China could have a further damaging impact on the natural habitat of the giant panda. In North America, the habitats of species such as moose and grizzly bears could be affected.

Environmentalists will be watching the wine industry closely as it adapts to climate change and seeks out new areas to cultivate. Guarding against habitat loss adds further to the litany of challenges presented by climate change, which include not only rising average temperatures but also extreme and erratic weather patterns.

Some experts believe that, while rising temperatures can be addressed through adapting viticultural techniques, earlier harvesting, switching varietals or ultimately by transferring production to another area, coping with increasingly frequent erratic and disruptive weather events will represent the hardest challenge of all.