Climate change poses challenges to winemakers worldwide | Global Ideas | DW | 17.05.2011
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Global Ideas

Climate change poses challenges to winemakers worldwide

The European Union is still the world leader in winegrowing - some 60 percent of the world's wine comes from Europe. But competition is growing and climate change is adding to the pressure on winegrowers.

A man with a wine glass

Rising temperatures could end up changing the way certain wines taste

Beaujolais, Riesling and Lambrusco wine producers are facing tough times ahead, with climate change casting a long shadow.

Grapes native to the region are still flourishing. But global warming has led to a significant shift in wine-producing regions. Wine producers have been forced to adapt to rising temperatures, longer dry periods and water shortages.

A helicopter watering a vineyard

Longer dry seasons mean vintners have to irrigate more extensively

Within Europe, countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Poland and Ukraine could soon see thriving wine production, while further afield, vineyards are set to become commonplace in Argentina, New Zealand and Canada.

China is another country with significant winegrowing potential, already home to five designated wine-growing areas, primarily in the north.

White wine – consigned to the past?

Herbert Formayer is a climate researcher at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. He's been observing the spread of winegrowing areas for some time and specializes in the effects on winegrowing of climate change.

These are relatively immediate. Hot summers, for example, mean earlier harvests.

"Sugar build-up occurs faster in warm temperatures," he explains. "This affects harvest time and winegrowers have to react."

The effects of climate change also depend on the type of grape. Basically, hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters provide ideal conditions for grapes. But white grapes need cooler temperatures; they can't stand intense heat as opposed to red grapes. That's why these sensitive vines are highly vulnerable to climate change.

Global warming is therefore bad news for white grapes, but improves conditions for dark grapes. These, however, are equally susceptible to new diseases and pests that spread more rapidly in warm temperatures.

Regional specialities under threat

Insects on grape

Climate change has brought with it new pests

German winegrowers have cause for concern. They might welcome the fact that southern black grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon now grow on German soil but they're also seeing a shift northwards of production areas for white grapes.

"In a worst-case scenario, winegrowers have to decide whether to actually give up an old grape and introduce a new one," says Formayer. "This can result in a loss of regional grape types." As an example, he cites the Schilcher rosé wine produced in Styria, Austria. "If climate change continue unchecked then this grape will no longer be grown," he observes.

Europe's traditional winegrowing areas aren't alone in facing new challenges due to climate change.

"We're seeing rainfall at times that used to be dry," points out Petra Mayer, spokesperson for "Wines of South Africa" (WOSA). "This can make the grapes rot during the harvest."

Wine producers thus need to harvest as soon as possible to avoid decay. But that's a difficult task in South Africa given that the grapes are harvested manually. One solution would be to mechanize the process, but as Mayer points out, this would lead to job losses and with them social sustainability.

With nature's help

Sustainability is a priority for South African vintners – both social and environmental.

WOSA collaborates closely with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In 2004, the two founded the "Biodiversity and Wine Initiative," which sets out to reconcile winegrowing and environmental protection.

Around 126,000 hectares of land were turned into a conservation area, with imported plant species uprooted to make room for indigenous plant life. A tree native to Australia and Indonesia, eucalyptus, for example, had been using up valuable quantities of water.

"Since South Africa produces few greenhouse gas emissions, the country's water footprint is much more important than its carbon footprint," says Petra Mayer.

The project also helps to raise awareness among wine growers about biodiversity, teaching them that snakes, for example, can help with pest control. "Winegrowers learn from nature," says Mayer.

Fighting climate change with expertise

A vineyard in South Africa

The grape harvest in South Africa is still mainly done by hand

The Wine Institute in California also makes education a priority. The state has a 90 percent share of US wine production.

"Climate change has already taken its toll on plant physiology, water supplies and pest control," observes Nancy Light, director of communications. "This has an effect on yield and quality."

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Program sets out to tackle the problem by teaching winegrowers about global warming.

Some 9,000 winegrowers and farmers have been been trained so far. "It's helped them adapt to climate change," says Light. They are also given support in switching to renewable energies.

Similar initiatives have also been introduced in other wine growing nations such as Chile. Here, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) provides similar support to six vineyards. They now include regenerative energy such as solar and geothermal power in the production process.

Long-term, these moves could help secure winegrowers‘ survival. Climate expert Herbert Formayer predicts that winegrowing will be transformed even though he is skeptical that Scandinavian countries and Britain will ever become significant wine growing regions.

"It's just too cold and wet there," he says.

Author: Po Keung Cheung (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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