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GreehouseTruth Blog  ::  Grapes of Wrath?

Grapes of Wrath?
Will global warming stymie wine production?
Posted July 14, 2006 by Nathan Cool

Recently, there's been a flood of headlines touting kitschy captions about California's future wine-producing woes. One such article was written by San Francisco's SFGate here, another at National Geographic News here, and at CNN here. It may seem disturbing to think that research money has been spent on the future of wine and not how we're going to feed the masses if things really heat up. But this new study means more than just a good or bad year for your favorite vintage.

These stories refer to a report issued by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS), issued on July 11, and printed on the 13th. Click here for PNAS report. This is an interesting development, one that not only could be pointing to a warming world, but also a consideration that things may return to what they once were back in the Medieval Warm Period of 1000-1270 AD (mentioned in chapter 4). Moreover, what is not necessarily discussed in most of these articles is that while some regions may be adversely affected, others will reap some palate pleasing rewards--but at a price.

Actually, the story on wine and global warming is old news. In fact, scientists have been talking about it for years, with one report especially interesting in the journal Science published in 2003 here. This report warned that global warming "...could shake up the geography of wine-growing regions around the world..." which aligns with points made in my upcoming book, Is it Hot in Here? where not all regions are affected equally.

Our world, in an ever-changing state of flux, continually shifts the growth of plants--especially delicate species--from place to place. While this isn't always a bad thing, it usually takes hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of years for such shifts to occur, thus allowing gradual adaptation. Still, some areas, even in the short term would likely be thankful for the shift. For instance, the 2003 report in Science discussed how over the next 50 years, 27 regions including the Rhine Valley in Germany would likely see grape-producing benefits from global warming since Germany's now chillier temperatures retard grape ripening; thus, increased temps would improve the quality of grapes in these regions.

Nevertheless, the other side of the coin is a bit gloomier--and not just if you like grapes or wine mind you. Some regions will be negatively impacted. When one region warms enough to enhance a plant specie's proliferation, then--in our zero-sum world--other regions (like California) that are now ideal for grape harvesting would likely become too warm to produce the fine fruits filling bottles of Merlot, Pinot, Chardonnay and a good Riesling.

The recent report by the PNAS points out how wine serves as a proverbial canary-in-a-coalmine...a sort of harbinger of horticulture. Premium wine production is limited to regions that have adequate heat accumulation, low risk of severe frost damage, and the absence of extreme heat. Although wine production is possible in an extensive climatic range, the highest-quality wines require a delicate balance among these three conditions, making grapes a delicate fruit indeed. Since these fragile fruits would feel the heat first, they serve as a signpost that other areas of agriculture could soon see similar circumstances.

Wine production, according to the PNAS report, could decrease by about 81% in the U.S. by the late 21st century--if temperature trends continue as anticipated. Time will tell what will actually happen, and if climate models are "spot on." Could California lose its wine business to Alaska some day? Perhaps not in our lifetimes, but perhaps in the not too distant future. In the mean time, the tiny grapes dangling in the California Sun amongst the vineyards carpeting the Napa Valley can serve as a bellwether of our changing climate, signaling something's awry if our wines merely wither on the vine.

More information on other bellwethers, agriculture considerations and other topics discussed in this blog are discussed in greater detail in my new book, Is it Hot in Here?. To get your copy, Click here.