Climate Change: Relegating Traditional Wine Producing Regions to the Cellar of Wine Production

The production of high-quality wine fundamentally connects to climate.  Moisture and growing season temperature critically affect successful viticulture and implicate suitable areas for wine grape cultivation.  Traditionally, Mediterranean climate regions characterized by a narrow climatic range without extremely hot or cold temperatures yielded the highest quality grapes and such climate regions presumptively produced the highest quality wines.


A study published by the National Academy of Sciences projected that changes in temperatures and precipitation would result in substantial geographic shifts of suitable viticulture areas.  Using seventeen global climate models, the study mapped potential changes in climate suitability for nine major wine-producing regions and then evaluated the impact those changes might pose to freshwater systems and ecosystems.


The study projected temperature increases and precipitation reductions will result in major geographic shifts in viticulture suitability by 2050.  Specifically, extreme heat could significantly diminish wine grapes’ quality in the Mediterranean climate regions, including regions in California, Chile, France, Italy, and Australia, corresponding to dramatic decline of viticulture suitability in those regions.  On the other hand, the study projected increased suitability in higher latitude and higher elevation areas, most significantly in New Zealand, western North America, and Northern Europe.


In traditional high-quality wine-producing regions, climate change could create an increased demand on freshwater systems.  If precipitation in these regions declines as the study projects, vineyards would require augmenting irrigation water.  And if temperatures increase, additional water may be required to cool grapes through misting or sprinkling to reduce heat stress, which compromises the quality of the fruit.


The greatest threat to freshwater environments exists in wine-producing regions already experiencing water shortages.  For example, 95% of wine-producing areas in Chile already suffer from a water deficit.  This region, highly dependent on diminishing glacial meltwater, is already highly vulnerable.  By 2050, the study predicts that most premium wine-producing areas in Chile will be unsuitable for viticulture.  To maintain viticulture in these areas would likely dramatically increase the strain on already over-burdened freshwater systems.


The study also predicts increased risk for natural ecosystems as the viticulture industry responds to geographically shifting viticulture suitability and expands vineyards into the higher latitude and elevation regions, particularly in New Zealand, Northern Europe, western North America, areas near the U.S.-Canadian border.  The establishment of vineyards commonly involves the removal of native vegetation, plowing, soil modification, and fertilizer use, largely destroying the native habitat.


Projected climate change models predict a dramatic shift in geographic viticulture suitability.  As a result, traditional wine-producing regions are expected to further strain associated freshwater systems.  Furthermore, as new areas develop increasingly suitable climates to sustain viticulture, new vineyard development and expansion may threaten many natural ecosystems.  These changes to viticulture may foreshadow larger agricultural shifts and further threats to freshwater systems and natural ecosystems.