Global Warming Will Push Vineyards Into Cooler Regions. Irish Wines, Anyone?

Global Warming Will Push Vineyards Into Cooler Regions. Irish Wines, Anyone?


There have been multiple attempts to start vineyards in Ireland. Most have failed. But one is doing well… Llewellyns Orchard, who produce Lusca Wines. This is mainly down to the expertise of the vineyard owner and his ability to trick the wines into thinking they are in hotter climes. But generally speaking, Ireland just isn’t quite hot enough or dry enough to make the cut as wine country. But this is changing and fast.

purple-grapes-553463_960_720As the climate heats up, the south of England is now emerging as a promising centre for wine, especially the bubbly varieties. Global warming will also make Ireland  a contender – especially in Wexford, in the south East. While other countries at similar altitudes get frost problems with their grapes, the North Atlantic Gulf Stream’s moderating influence keeps Ireland rather toasty in comparison.

Ireland’s rainfall is high, and this is a problem for Irish vineyards today. It increases the risk of disease and mould. However as the climate heats up and drought gets its hooks into our island, the right climactic conditions for higher-end wines may just emerge.

EU climate models estimate a reduction of 25% to 40% of summer rainfall for Wexford by 2050. But a 25% fall is enough. It’s even better than enough – it brings Wexford in line with ACTUAL wine producing regions in Europe. Some estimates say the year 2030 will be a great time to crank up the vineyards in Ireland. And the year after that, we can all stand around with our wine glasses out, waiting for a fill-up. Climate change, come on over!

Many factors go into making good wine: grape variety, harvesting practices, a vineyard’s slope and aspect, soil, climate and so on – that unique combination that adds up to a wine’s “terroir.”

luscaYear-to-year weather also matters greatly. In much of France and Switzerland, the best years are traditionally those with abundant spring rains followed by an exceptionally hot summer and late-season drought. This drives vines to put forth robust, fast-maturing fruit, and brings an early harvest.

A study out this week in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that warming climate has largely removed the drought factor from the centuries-old early-harvest equation.

Temperature is the main driver of grape-harvest timing, and in the last 30 years, progressive warming has pushed harvest dates dramatically forward across the globe, from California to Australia, South America and Europe. In France, where records go back centuries, since 1980 harvest dates have advanced two weeks over the 400-year mean. These earlier harvests have meant some very good years. But it won’t remain good for long. Eventually it will become too hot for traditionally-grown grapes in these regions. Vineyards may then have to switch to hotter-climate varieties, change long-established methods, move or go out of business. The earth is shifting, and terroirs with it.

Up until the 1980s, without the drought, vineyards could not get quite hot enough for an early harvest. That has now changed; the study found that since then, overall warming alone has pushed summer temperatures over the threshold without the aid of drought. On the whole, France warmed about 1.5 degrees Celsius during the 20th century, and the upward climb has continued.

“Now, it’s become so warm thanks to climate change, grape growers don’t need drought to get these very warm temperatures,” said lead author Benjamin Cook, a NASA climate scientist. “After 1980, the drought signal effectively disappears.”

The regions affected include familiar names: among them, Alsace, Champagne, Burgundy, Languedoc. These areas grow Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and other fairly cool-weather varieties that thrive within specific climate niches, and turn out exceptionally after an early harvest. Elizabeth Wolkovich, an ecologist at Harvard University, said that the switch has not hurt the wine industry yet. “So far, a good year is a hot year,” she said. However, she pointed out that the earliest French harvest ever recorded, in 2003, when a deadly heat wave hit Europe and grapes were picked a full month ahead of the once-usual time, did not produce particularly exceptional wines. “That may be a good indicator of where we’re headed,” she said. “You want to harvest when the grapes are perfectly ripe, when they’ve had enough time to accumulate just the right balance between acid and sugar.” But with climate change, this is getting harder to judge. Wines can be harvested earlier, but pretty much, they will be crap.

Across the world, scientists have found that each degree Centigrade of warming pushes grape harvests forward roughly six or seven days. With this effect projected to continue, a combination of natural climate variability and human-induced warming could force finicky Pinot Noir grapes completely out of many parts of Burgundy. Other reports say Bordeaux could lose its Cabernets and Merlots. Another study says that by 2050, two-thirds of today’s wine regions may no longer have climates suitable for the grapes they now grow.

But other regions might beckon. Grapes no longer viable in California’s Napa Valley may find suitable homes in Washington or British Columbia. Southern England may become the new Champagne; the hills of central China the new Chile. Southern Australia’s big wineries may have to land further south, in Tasmania. “If people are willing to drink Italian varieties grown in France and Pinot Noir from Germany, maybe we can adapt,” said Wolkovich. And let’s start thinking about Irish wines again.

Liz Thach, a professor of management and wine business at Sonoma State University, said the study is telling growers what they already know. “Some people may still be skeptical about global warming, but not anyone in the wine industry,” she said. “Everyone believes it, because everyone sees it year by year – it’s here, it’s real, it’s not going away.”

Irish wines? You bet.

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