Management Briefing

Sustainability in Wine - Part I: A New World Order for the Wine Sector

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The last of just-drinks' management briefing series on sustainability focuses on the wine category. In part one of the four-part report, Ben Cooper surveys what the future could hold for the sector.

Climate change forecasting offers a stark and frightening vision of the future: A perfect storm created by rising global temperatures, growing water scarcity and a global population possibly exceeding 9bn by 2050. But, amid the doom and despond, it also throws up some fascinating and intriguing views of possible futures created by radically-altered circumstances.

Given the cultural significance of wine production from antiquity to the present day, it is no surprise to find imaginations pricked by the possible changes to the World's wine atlas that climate change may bring. The prospect that, in 2050, a wine cognoscente might be savouring a precocious Swedish Cabernet Sauvignon while musing that it lacks the structure and tannins of one of the great Chinese 'Cabs' may sound a whimsical notion, but contemporary science suggests it is far from fanciful.

A paper, entitled 'Climate Change, Wine, and Conservation' that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) last year, attracted much media attention. It gave one of the most comprehensive projections of how climate change will affect global wine production and was probably among the most pessimistic forecasts to date.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has defined four possible models of climate change, known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), and the PNAS report looks at possible impacts both under the worst case scenario, RCP 8.5, or the IPCC's most optimistic forecast, RCP 4.5.

The impacts are still fairly devastating in both scenarios. "On a global scale," the report concludes, "the impacts of climate change on viticultural suitability are substantial, leading to possible conservation conflicts in land use and freshwater ecosystems." It forecasts that the area suitable for viticulture will decrease by 25% to 73% in major wine producing regions by 2050 in the higher RCP 8.5 concentration pathway, and by 19% to 62% in the lower RCP 4.5 pathway.

Suitability is projected to decline in many traditional wine-producing regions, such as the Bordeaux and Rhône valley regions in France and Tuscany in Italy, and increase in more northern regions in North America and Europe, under both RCP 8.5 and RCP 4.5, the report states.

Gregory Jones, Professor of Environmental Science & Policy at Southern Oregon University and an expert in the climate change impact on wine production, believes the wine sector is in a markedly different position from other drinks categories, because of the geographical specificity that has become associated with so much quality wine production.

"We don't have the same problem with vodka because vodka can be made from almost anything that comes from anywhere, but when you start looking at things like wine the characteristics are really associated with finite climate structures that small changes can really bring about big differences in how they're produced," Professor Jones tells just-drinks. "The basic issue is that the wine industry has developed historical characteristics that are tied to variety, place and style and we may need to rethink some of that. And it's not so much that it's a bad thing, it's just that we may need to rethink some of it."

For Professor Jones, one reason why such a re-thinking need not necessarily be feared is that this process of adaptation and reinvention has always been a feature of viticulture and wine production, even if the coming decades may require a greater degree of adaptation than has previously been required.

"We don't grow grapes and make wine the same way we did 25 years ago," he says. "If we did we would be shooting ourselves in the foot because we need to be able to as an industry adapt year in year out and in the long term to how these changes come about. So I think the industry has the great potential to do that and already has to some degree." Adaptation is discussed in greater detail in the second section of this briefing.

Regarding how climate change has the potential to make wine cultivation possible, or more productive and commercially viable, in other regions, Professor Jones points to how Pinot Noir cultivation has become increasingly possible and profitable in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. "In the '50s and '60s you really couldn't do it [grow Pinot Noir]. It was too cold. The Willamette Valley was challenged in the '50s and '60s to even ripen fruit. Today it's one of the top Pinot Noir producing regions in the world."

As for the regions that could experience that sort of progression during the coming decades, Professor Jones views Tasmania as having strong potential. Tasmania is "burgeoning today", he says, and is where "some of the largest investment in grape growing and wine production is happening".

England is also a notable area for the development of wine production, he adds, while the South Island of New Zealand "is becoming only more suitable over time". Like many, Professor Jones includes parts of China as having considerable development potential for viticulture, along with areas on the East Coast of the US. He also sees "a greater potential for wine grape growing" in the Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula areas of Washington in the Pacific North West region of the US, and believes this area could be the Willamette Valley of the future.

However, the PNAS report also details potential impacts on wildlife habitats and ecosystems created by wine production moving into new areas, either further north or at higher elevations, citing North America and China as examples. The potential impacts on wildlife habitats could affect public and political attitudes towards the expansion of wine cultivation and adaptive measures, and at the very least may spark acrimonious debates and possible conflicts with campaigning organisations.

Possibly more pressing than competition for land use will be competition for water. As the PNAS report points out: "Attempts to maintain wine grape productivity and quality in the face of warming may be associated with increased water use for irrigation and to cool grapes through misting or sprinkling, creating potential for freshwater conservation impacts. Agricultural adaptation and conservation efforts are needed that anticipate these multiple possible indirect effects."

In particular, the report notes problems of water stress that are likely in Chile. "Chile is likely to experience among the greatest freshwater impacts in Mediterranean-climate growing regions. By 2050, a majority of the premium wine-producing valleys in Chile (Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua) will become mostly unsuitable under RCP 8.5, and the suitability of other regions (Aconcagua and Maule) are projected to decline considerably, leading to possible water use for grape cooling and heightened need for irrigation as a result of precipitation decreases. Strain on water resources is already high in the region, with 95% of the area currently suitable for viticulture already under water stress, the highest of any of the Mediterranean-climate wine-growing regions."

The PNAS report may suggest the global wine sector faces an uncertain and difficult future but the winemakers and viticulturists have proved generally to be extremely resourceful. In addition to the opportunities created in new wine-producing regions, there appears to be much that can be done in terms of adaptation in established wine regions. The second section of this briefing looks at the subject of climate change adaptation in the wine sector.

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