Focus - Global warming: Wine producers face new world order

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The doom and gloom of the economic downturn has for many eclipsed the long-term global problem of climate change, at least temporarily. But, writes Chris Losh, wine producers could be facing far greater turmoil for many years to come, after this and future recessions have come and gone, as a result of global warming.

There has been much talk over the last six months of disaster, of apocalypse, as the world's economic travails have had us transfixed. But, as gruelling as the current downturn is, the turmoil could be viewed as one of those periods of economic correction that seem to come round every 20 years or so. Cyclical rather than apocalyptical.

But when the economic clouds clear, we will still be facing a global phenomenon that better justifies the Wasteland imagery, namely climate change. This is particularly true of the wine world, which is facing a potential total redrawing of the global viticultural map by the end of this century.

Definitive research in this area is notoriously difficult. Ask growers themselves and they tend to point out that there haven't been big changes in their lifetime, and that the biggest influences on wine style have been man-made (technology and viticultural practice) rather than climatic.

Growers, though, are understandably short-term in their view, tending to be more interested in weather (here and now) than climate (overall trend). The scientific community is a more reliable witness, and most are concerned, having moved from ambivalence a decade ago to a position of alarm.

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) starkly.

The key, as most scientists agree, is carbon dioxide levels. Before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were at 285 parts per million. As recently as the 1950s they were 315ppm. Today they are at 380ppm, and growing fast.

It's the equivalent of layering more and more blankets round the earth, and temperatures are set to rise accordingly. But there's a lag, which perhaps explains why, thus far, impact has been limited.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, even were we to reduce our CO2 emissions tomorrow, because of this lag, the temperature would continue to rise for at least another 20 years.

According to the IPCC, until 2040 there will be little difference to the earth's temperature whatever we do: the world will be 1C warmer. After that, though, projections vary significantly.

If we lower our CO2 emissions, the IPCC forecasts, we can expect the world to be around 1-3 degrees centigrade warmer at the end of the century than now.

If we continue to increase our emissions, the IPCC predicts an increase of 2 to 6 degrees. The upper end of this scenario would fully justify the kind of language currently being bandied around regarding problems in the banking sector.

"A change of +5 degrees would be overwhelming, both literally and figuratively, all over the planet," says Chris Howell, of Cain Vineyard in Napa.

Set against a shift that would see Los Angeles become warmer than Death Valley, the IPCC's less cataclysmic 'best guess' of +2-4 degrees looks comforting. But this would still have a colossal impact on such a sensitive industry as wine.

As well as being generally warmer it is predicted that there would be more intense heat spikes and days over 38 degrees centigrade. Heat stress will be more of an issue, as will harvest temperatures. Water shortages will lead to restrictions on irrigation.

It's not just temperature, though. Weather would become more unpredictable (some say more turbulent), and pests and diseases would change. None of this would be familiar to the viticulturalists. The industry would have to adapt to the altered reality as it went along.

Dr Richard Smart describes the wine industry as "the canary in the coalmine", a bellweather that will record climatic changes in ways you can see and taste. He foresees reds with higher alcohol, lower acidity, less colour and shrinking plantings of white grape vines.

It's possible, of course, that shifts of a degree or so could be counterbalanced in the vineyard; undoing the techniques developed to maximise ripeness in favour of those that will curb it. But this will only work up to a point - and for the next 20 years. By 2050, more radical solutions will need to be sought, such as replanting vineyards with grape varieties that are better suited to the new reality.

Here, the more pragmatic New World has an advantage.

"In the Napa Valley, change has been constant," says Howell. "We don't grow the same wines that we grew 30 years ago, much less 100 years ago. It's safe to assume that we'll keep on changing - learning and evolving."

Smart sees more heat-resistant varieties growing in importance. But while it's possible to envisage Grenache or Petit Verdot selling well in Napa, it's harder to see them in the vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy or Chianti.

It may, in other words, still be quite possible to make wine if the global temperature rises by four degrees, but it won't be the same wine as now, at least not from the same areas. And today's A-list areas are unlikely to be able to make fine wine of real class and pedigree. New areas will need to be found in places that, up to now, have not been considered.

Smart foresees entire areas of the Australian interior becoming unsuitable for growing wine grapes at all, with the likes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir restricted to Tasmania. Certainly, climate change will benefit countries like New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, even China, that have vast areas that are currently too cold to support grapes. Some have even suggested countries like the UK, Belgium and Denmark will become prominent wine producers.

But it's worth remembering that it took hundreds of years to find the best grapes and the best sites in Europe. It's unlikely that the Bordelais will get it right first time if they decide to relocate their Cabernet vineyards in the Pyrenees, or that the Kiwis will suddenly find the new Montrachet in the Southern Alps.

Not that this has stopped Miguel Torres. Ever with an eye on the long term, he's already bought land in the foothills of the Pyrenees. At 1,200m up, it's too cold for grape vines at the moment. But if the scientists are right, it will not remain so for long.

Sectors: Wine

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