Climate change threatens European wine production

89% of grape samples were contaminated by pesticides. [Roberto Verzo/Flickr]

The EU is the world’s biggest wine producer, but a recent publication has revealed the extent to which the sector is under threat from climate change. EURACTIV France reports

The harvest is already over for many Beaujolais wine makers. Early harvests have also taken producers in many other French regions by surprise.

Some wine makers were concerned by the unusually hot summer, but the resulting high sugar content in this year’s grapes, which guarantees a high level of alcohol in the finished product, is seen by many as a good thing.

But the authors of the book Threats to wine. The challenges of climate change, Valery Laramée de Tannenberg and Yves Leers, fear the celebrations could be short lived.

“High levels of alcohol have never meant good wine. You have to take all the factors into account,” warned Nicolas Joly, a world-renowned organic wine maker from France’s Loire region.

Climate change

Acutely conscious of changes to the natural environment, Nicolas Joly cannot hide his concern about climate change. “There is the heat, the lack of water, and then the incredibly strong winds that change three times a day. It’s very recent, and it’s due to climate change,” the specialist said.

For the grapevine, which has already survived hot periods between the 10th and 14th, centuries before having to re-adapt to a cooler climate, it is the speed of the current change that presents a particular threat. This is the conclusion of Valery Laramée de Tannenberg and Yves Leers.

EU, the world leader in wine

As the producer of 17 billion litres of wine per year, 45% of the global total, this is an important issue for the European Union, especially as production is picking up elsewhere. In just ten years, China has climbed to second place in the world with 800 million hectares of red wine vineyards. Production in the EU, on the other hand, is slowing down, even if France has managed to stay on top, just ahead of Italy.

France’s most important wine region, Bordeaux, could become too hot to produce quality wine by the end of the century. Climatologists predict that the average temperature will rise from 14°C to 18.8°C. Temperatures are rising faster in the region of Aquitaine, of which Bordeaux is the capital, than in almost any other French region.

Changing areas of production

The picture is just as bleak across other areas of Europe. The best wine regions will change drastically, while local weather conditions may disappear altogether.

“By changing the influence of the oceans on weather systems, global warming could completely alter localised weather systems and limit production in the region of Sauternes. The same fate could befall producers of Coteaux-du-Layon in the Loire, Jurançon in the Pyrenees, Tokay in Hungary and Slovakia and Trockenbeerenauslese in Germany and Austria,” the book’s authors wrote.

But rising temperatures are not the only challenge. “It is more the changing of local and regional climates that risks affecting the development of the vine and the grape,” Valéry Laramée explained.

To adapt to the temperature changes that have already occurred, a rise of around 1.5°C in France, for example, there is not an overabundance of solutions. Vineyards will migrate towards the North of Europe, boosting the budding wine industry in the United Kingdom, but posing a serious threat to the large scale industries of countries like Italy and Spain within as little as 20 years.

An organic resistance?

Covering only 3.3% of farmable land in France, vineyards absorb 15% of the country’s fertilisers. For Yves Leers, this is unreasonable, as “we can do anything we want with chemicals, except fight climate change”.

Chemicals also tend to deplete soil quality by impoverishing the natural flora, they do not prepare vines for droughts, and their use even contributes to climate change, as many products come from oil, and the use of nitrogen fertilisers emits greenhouse gases. 

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