How north/south is too north/south for the worlds vineyards?

How north/south is too north/south for the world's vineyards?

Late last month, Chris Losh attended the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium, held in Brighton on the south coast of England. Among the presentations over the three days, delegates heard plenty of talk about the weather - something not uncommon in the UK.

It was a fitting day for a visit to the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium (ICCWS). A cool night with a shower of rain just after dawn had given way to bright spring sunshine and, while a brisk northerly wind ensured that visitors strolling along the Brighton seafront to the venue thought twice about taking off their jackets, for those out of the breeze, there was enough warmth in the spring day to roll up the shirt-sleeves and watch the English Channel glinting in the sunlight.

In 2012, the ICCWS took place in Tasmania. Now, with due deference to winemakers in Denmark, Norway and (incredibly) Finland, it had relocated to a place that's about as marginal as it's possible to make wine in sufficient volumes to call it an industry rather than a hobby.

Of course, British wine production is still small. Its 2,000 hectares of vine is a twentieth the size of Austria, and a fiftieth the size of Germany. But, it has doubled in size over the last seven years, there's no shortage of medals in wine competitions (especially for fizz) and, even allowing for my UK passport, I'd say that the British wine scene is going places. The question is, where? And, perhaps more surprisingly, whether factors out of its control might derail it before its journey has barely even begun.

As you'd expect, the ICCW featured useful technological presentations on things like 'sour rot etiology' and 'managing phenolics'. I was expecting more of the same from a presentation given by Dr Monika Christmann from Geisenheim University on 'Optimising Cool Climate Wine Styles'. It soon became clear, however, that her talk was going to be less about the practical difficulties of working with a cool climate than the threat to the latter posed by climate change.

"When I started at Geisenheim 15 years ago," she mused, "it was all about must concentration. Now, it's about alcohol reduction - about increasing the acidity and decreasing the alcohol."

Acidity, for many, is central to the whole concept of cool-climate wine growing: In Germany, average levels have dropped from 14g/litre to 11 over the last 50 years. Moreover, Christmann expects climate change to push that level low as nine.

And, while there are some obvious advantages to warmer weather, it's not quite as simple as 'more sunshine equals riper grapes'. Germany's climate, for instance, is not just warmer now, it's also harder to predict, and the country's growers are having to combat everything from water stress and sunburn to increased problems with rot.

"The real challenge is not only the increase in temperature," said Christmann, "it's the high variability. Temperatures are changing a lot from one year to the next."

By "a lot", she means 60%...

Christmann is an eminently sensible and respected academic, from one of the world's foremost wine universities. She is also the head of the Office International du Vin et de la Vigne. Not, in other words, someone given to cheap soundbites or unwarranted hysteria.

But, in case I required further proof that she had a point, her assertions were backed up a few hours later by Willi Klinger, the head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.

Klinger presented a thermal map of Germany's southern neighbour, outlining the gradual heating up of the country and offered the frankly jaw-dropping assertion that: "By 2100, Austria could be too hot for white wine if we do nothing."

In a sense, none of this is new. Indeed, I remember writing a column about the potential impact of global warming a decade ago. What is surprising, though, is the speed with which the changes seem to be coming about. It's hard for growers to keep pace even now, and the situation is hardly going to get easier.

To counter the effects of higher temperatures and more erratic weather, Christmann calls for "greater flexibility" from regulating bodies, pointing out that extreme climatic conditions are almost certainly going to require growers and winemakers to have more options at their disposal both in the vineyard and in the winery.

Nonetheless, there is a limit to how far technology can mitigate against the effects of climate change, and we are almost certain to see both a drift to areas that were considered too cool not so long ago, and a shift in what is planted in existing vineyard areas.

Klinger's assertion that Austria's vineyards could shift from white to red in the next 80 years – a kind of national veraison – merely echoes the findings of a Stanford University study from 2008 that (rather too breezily) asserts that California's coastal areas might soon be better suited to Emerald Riesling and Ruby Cabernet than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

It's not all bad, of course. Provided the climactic shifts don't also mean unworkable levels of rainfall, British growers must be licking their lips. But for established big-name areas, there are likely to be some monumentally-difficult decisions to be taken over the next 50 years.

Will Burgundy need to look at growing, say, Syrah as well as - or instead of - Pinot? Might Riesling one day be declassified in the Wachau? The fact that such scenarios are no longer even unthinkable is something of a wake-up call.

And, what about all the carefully-created cru systems? Will they all need to be reassessed? Given how long the changes in the Champagne DO are taking, there's a fair chance that the human race will be extinct before administrators manage to adapt to the new reality.

We are, in other words, approaching a three-way crunch point, between how much technology can smooth over the peaks and troughs of climate change - and how far we're prepared to let it, between how long existing vineyard areas can hang onto their traditional varieties and styles before accepting that they are no longer viable, and between preparing a largely disengaged public - and a doubtless reluctant industry - for the kind of changes that might be coming their way.

When regions jump, and how far, will be crucial questions in shaping the make-up of the world's vineyards over the next few centuries.

Who knows, the Cool Climate Wine Symposium of 2100 might be coming from Oslo. It's probably no more ridiculous than suggesting 30 years ago that it would be held in the UK.