Management Briefing

Sustainability in Wine - Part II: Adapting to Change

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Part two of Ben Cooper's look at sustainability in the wine sector considers the adaptability of wine and the risks the category faces going forward.

The picture painted of climate change, wine and conservation in the much-discussed paper published in 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America' (PNAS) last year, represented a stark view of how climate change might eventually alter the world's wine landscape.

However, two important keywords here are "might" and "eventually". While there is little dispute today about the overall effects of climate change in terms of rising global temperatures, the pace of those rises is far from certain. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has defined four models, known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), which set out the possible pace of climate change based on the levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The maximum impact forecast in the PNAS report is based on RCP 8.5, effectively the IPCC's worst-case scenario. The IPCC's most optimistic model, RCP 4.5, would also have a dramatic impact, but the divergence between best and worst case is considerable. This divergence hinges principally on how effective current and future climate change mitigation might be.

As the PNAS report itself states: "Lower greenhouse gas concentrations (as in RCP 4.5) produce lesser decreases in current wine-producing regions and moderate the amount of newly-suitable area, indicating that international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can reduce attendant impacts on viticulture and conservation."

Moreover, making precise predictions of how sweeping overall changes in global temperatures might precisely affect wine production across - and within - numerous regions and locales is extremely problematic and complex. One only has to read a fraction of the material produced on micro-climates to know that wine production is hugely sensitive to even minor fluctuations in climate, and that the success or failure of a wine region or a wine vintage is subject to myriad climatic and other factors.

Furthermore, there is human intervention and endeavour to consider. Predictions of exactly how wine production will be impacted in any given area will be affected by how wine regions adapt to gradual shifts in climate. And this is where the word "eventually" becomes central to the discussion. For all the justified calls for urgent action on climate change, these shifts in climate are gradual and will not be felt at their most devastating for decades. In the meantime, wine regions will adapt to gradual changes in climate, as they have always done.

On the other hand, one clear distinction between the discussion of climate change today and ten years ago is the acknowledgment that the effects of climate change are being felt now, both through perceptible upward temperature trends and, perhaps more crucially at this stage, in extreme weather patterns. However, in many areas this means the process of adaptation has begun too.

One rather reassuring aspect about the situation the wine industry finds itself in today is that the process of gradual adaptation has been a constant in viticulture and wine production, arguably for centuries.

"Wine grape growers in general are very adaptive and have done things over the years that have become very good adaptive measures," says Professor Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University, an expert in the climate change impacts on wine production. However, the changes that are likely to take place over the next 25 to 50 years will test the industry's adaptive capabilities to the full. "We have some pretty big differences coming so I think that we need to be nimble and to be nimble in terms of adaptive capacity."

Adaptive strategies range from changes in vineyard management, such as the use of shading, water cooling or replanting to reduce direct exposure to the sun, or the use of different grape varieties with different climate tolerances, such as varieties which may require less water.

The PNAS report points to how the wine producers in countries such as South Africa and Chile are working with other partners to mitigate both the environmental impacts of adaptation measures in existing regions and the impacts of the introduction of viticulture to new areas.

There is good reason why environmentalists are concerned about the impact on ecosystems and habitats. Rightly, the PNAS report points to the continuing commercial imperative for wine production. As long as demand is growing for wine, ways will be found to cultivate wine even in challenging areas and, most certainly, new areas will be developed. The existential risks are far greater for what might get in the way of this development.

"A growing and increasingly affluent global population will likely create an increasing demand for wine and ensure that wine grapes will be grown in current wine-producing areas to the extent that available land and water will allow, as well as expand into new areas, including natural habitats important for their ecosystem services," says the PNAS report. Climate change adaptation strategies that anticipate indirect impacts are "particularly important for creating a future that is positive for vintners, wine consumers, and ecosystems alike".

One adaptive measure that could emerge as significant - but also controversial - in the coming years is genetic modification (GM). Although conventional plant breeding has been a much employed technique in wine cultivation for many years, the application of its contemporary, high-tech equivalent has not been widely discussed in viticulture. 

Professor Jones sees GM as "a tool in the toolbox" that should be embraced if it can offer solutions. Plant breeding has offered solutions to problems for viticulturists for years so, Jones asks, "why not use genetics to better understand how we can make a plant more saline-resistant, or nematode-resistant or leafroll-resistant."

Alistair Nesbitt, climate researcher at the University of East Anglia who has worked with the English wine industry on sustainability guidelines, also expects more discussion of GM in the future. "My gut feeling is it is going to have to be talked about more over time. If you want your industry to be as resilient as it can be to climate change and its effects then I think it's something that needs to be looked at."

Undoubtedly, there will be decisions and judgments to be made and, given the wine industry's historical attachment to rules and regulations and for self-examination and fierce discussion of what might be best for any given region, there will be some lively debates too.

In particular, it will be interesting to see how wine regions with comparatively tight strictures controlling which varieties of grapes are grown and how will react and respond to climate change.

While he has confidence overall in the wine industry's capacity to adapt, Professor Jones sees some differences between the Old World and New World with regard to climate change adaptation. "I think there might be some broader differences between the Old World and the New World that need to be looked at. In the New World of wine grape production, the ability to experiment and control what you do relative to production and what the market is demanding is much, much greater than when you go to the Old World. If climates change as much as we think they're going to change over the next 50 years, some of those regulations, the policies and rules that are protective in nature, are going to need to be looked at."

A further fascinating question is how climate change might impact on the style of wines and possibly might have an impact in shaping consumer tastes. Some would say this has already been seen in the broader wine market over the last two decades or so, with greater demand for sweeter, fruitier wines stimulated by the wider availability of such wines from the New World. 

The emphasis in climate change adaptation may be on striving to retain the properties that a region might be known for, but inevitably new varieties, new wines and new wine styles will emerge, whether from existing regions which have had to adapt or from entirely new wine regions. To a degree, this speaks to a marketing challenge for the wine industry. In this regard, it must be said that the wine sector is extremely adept at marketing products on the basis of unique or novel characteristics borne out of production techniques and provenance. Far from fazing wine marketers, the prospect of having to market new styles of wines created by the geographical and climatic variations forced on the industry by climate change plays to one of the industry's great strengths.

The contention that responding and adapting to climate change has already begun is examined in the final two sections of this management briefing, which look respectively at measures to combat the drought in California and the growth opportunities for the English wine industry.

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