Using the past to tackle the future of climate change in the wine industry – analysis

Human resilience as well as lessons from the past will help the wine industry face into climate change, according to a group of experts speaking at the Act for Change Symposium in Bordeaux this week.

Gilles Brianceau, director of Inno’vin; Jérémy Cukierman MW, director, Kedge Wine School; Marta Mendonça, manager, Porto Protocol; and Nathalie Ollat, research director, Ecophysiology & Functional Genomics of the Vine joint research unit at the University of Bordeaux were speaking on a panel entitled: Climate change and winegrowing: what are the consequences?

Host Rupert Joy first asked the panel about a tipping point in terms of grapes ripening at a pace that the industry can no longer manage.

“I always speak about that graph that was developed some 20 years ago by Gregory Jones, about heat summation and grapes,” starts Cukierman. “He was speaking about the tipping points. And if we look at that graph, there should not be Pinot Noir anymore in Beaune, or there should not be any Malbec, or any good Malbec production in Mendoza, which obviously is not the case.

“So, I think human resilience is very important and best practises and so on. We have lots of answers already.”

Cukierman also says that while there's a climate emergency, the vocabulary the trade uses is important.

“I don't like this term 'tipping point'. We've reached a point at which climate action is extremely important, which is very different.

“We need to be very careful when we phrase things because the new generations have inherited a world that is worrying for them. And we are responsible for that, and the past generations as well.

“So, if we tell them that it's a disaster, then what are they going to do? Not much obviously, and there are a lot of things to do. So, the focus should be on climate action and what we can do. There are many things we can do and many, many things that are being done already.”

Ollat says a recent survey of Bordeaux vineyards suggests climate change is high on the agenda, though more in terms of regularity of production than quality concerns.

“Climate change is not only about riper fruits but also frost risk and heatwaves,” she says, outlining weather events and their disruption to the regularity of production.

The panel went on to discuss the suitability of grape varieties, with suggestions that Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are becoming less suitable for the Bordeaux climate.

Ollat says that if she was planting a vineyard today, she would diversify and “not plant too much Merlot”, though she also points out that the industry has adapted over the years, in terms of grape varieties.

“A hundred years ago, there was not much Merlot in Bordeaux.”

She says the whole sector is always evolving in terms of both the way in which wine is produced and the way it is sold.

Brianceau adds that in Bordeaux, at the end of 1960s, 55% of Bordeaux’s production was white wine and now it’s 80% red.

“We often say that climate change could affect the typicity of Bordeaux wine but typicity is a concept which is evolving and changing the market, with the consumer,” he says.

However, he adds that another challenge with global warming is producing lighter wine, with less alcohol – certainly a trend that is growing in terms of consumer demands.

Mendonça says typicity as we know it is “completely changing”, and so are wine regions - she gives the example of England. “That was never a wine region and now they are making amazing Champagne-like products.”

She adds that producers around the world are looking back to “the way things were done” to address new challenges.

Ollat says that experimentation in the vineyard is key when it comes to finding solutions, including diversity in varieties, which includes looking back at historical planting to find more suitable grapes.

Cukierman also says that sharing examples between countries or learning from drier climates is important. He talks about Swartland in South Africa having a “very dry, pretty warm” climate with dry wind. “They pick earlier, and they adapt the way they vinify their wines and they produce very elegant, very taut, very pure wines nowadays. And these wines last for a long time.

“So, sometimes it's very basic: picking earlier, and then doing some shorter macerations and using less oak and so on.”

Elsewhere, the panel agrees that consumers need a better understanding of climate change and wine, with the adage of ‘drinking less but better’ making an appearance.

Cukierman says: “We must accept that maybe we should not produce wine everywhere and there are some places where you have no sense of place and no terroir. I'm very sorry but the Central Valley, California, or the Big Rivers in Australia, for instance. I don't see these as great terroirs. You have to irrigate a lot there.”

The future will involve more collaboration across the industry and more work to educate consumers on climate impact, speakers say.

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