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Climate Crisis Could Destroy Most Vineyards

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Workers selectively harvest slightly under-ripe Syrah grapes to make a Blanc de Noir wine for the Israeli winery Zaza on Aug. 6, 2019 in central Israel. Israeli vintners are harvesting their grapes earlier than they did a decade ago due to shorter winters and more intense summers. David Silverman / Getty Images

The climate crisis may be coming for your favorite wines.


A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday found that two degrees Celsius of global warming—a temperature increase we are currently on track to burn past—would reduce the amount of vineyard land in wine growing regions by 56 percent, The Guardian reported. Four degrees of warming would raise the amount of wine-growing land lost to 85 percent.

"In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive," study coauthor Benjamin Cook from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies said in a press release.

The researchers looked at 11 different varieties of grape: cabernet sauvignon, chasselas, chardonnay, grenache, merlot, monastrell (also known as mourvedre), pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, syrah and ugni blanc. They then built models to determine when each grape would ripen with zero, two and four degrees of warming.

For example, if the climate warms two degrees, the land currently suitable for ungi blac would shrink by 76 percent, the land for riesling would shrink 66 percent and the land for the red grenache grape would shrink 31 percent, according to The Guardian.

However, all hope for wine lovers in a warmer world is not lost. The researchers found that by changing which varieties were grown where in response to the rising temperatures, the loss of vineyard land could be significantly reduced, the press release explained. Swapping varieties could cut losses by more than half to 24 percent in a two-degree warmer world.

"But we need to be aware that the more warming there is, the less chances we have to adapt," lead study author Ignacio Morales-Castilla from Spain's University of Alcala told Reuters.

In a four-degree warmer world, the shuffling around of grapes could only reduce losses by about a third, to 58 percent, according to the press release.

One example of a possible swap would be to grow warmer-weather grapes like mourvedre and grenache in France's Burgundy region, instead of pinot noir, which could expand northwards into regions it does not currently grow, the press release explained.

However, such changes would come with challenges for wine growers, as Steven Penfield, a crop genetics professor at the John Innes Center who was not involved with the research, explained to The Guardian.

"The challenge for the industry will be that local varieties often add distinctive characters to wines, and there will be a reluctance to let go of traditional varieties, especially in areas with strong cultural heritage," he said. "Can you imagine a burgundy without a pinot noir grape, for instance?".

It will also be harder for warmer countries like Spain, Italy and Australia, which already grow heat-loving grapes, to adapt. If the world heats four degrees, Spain and Italy could lose 90 percent of their vineyard land.

Currently, some wine-growing regions like California and Australia are also under threat from wildfires, as Reuters reported:

John Handmer, a Canberra-based science advisor for the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, said recent bushfires in Australia meant some vineyards were not just damaged but "gone" - and could take years to re-establish.

While it won't help vineyards blasted by fire, Morales-Castilla told Reuters that there were chances for adaptation that the study likely missed. It focused only on 11 varieties of grape, but there are actually around 1,100.

Cook's takeaway message was guardedly optimistic.

"The key is that there are still opportunities to adapt viticulture to a warmer world," he said in the press release. "It just requires taking the problem of climate change seriously."

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