Vineyard near Orvieto, in the Umbria region of Italy
I don't drink alcohol very often. There are many reasons for this, but generally it is expensive and I don't care for many alcoholic beverages. However, it was my birthday yesterday (yes, I am now a quarter of a century old), so a friend and I went out for a drink on Friday evening. We sipped our half glasses of wine at Ripple in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of DC. This wine bar has the added draw of prioritizing wine (and food) that is local, seasonal, and "sustainable," so the wine menu actually noted whether a wine was produced using organic or biodynamic methods. This got me thinking. While I personally don't drink wine very often, many people feel very strongly about their fermented grape beverage.
And sustainability of production is an important and growing concern. As climate change is the hot button issue these days (except in the US...), it has inevitably worked its way into the wine dialogue. In fact, 2011 was the third year in which an international climate change and wine conference convened in Spain, with Kofi Annan (former secretary general of the United Nations) as the VIP guest speaker! An industry with broad appeal and considerable backing from consumers, viticulture actually faces significant hurdles under projected climate changes.
The taste of wines are a direct product of the temperature and precipitation during the growing season. Too hot or too cold; too wet or too dry; these factors influence whether the grapes will grow or produce a crop satisfactory for wine-making. Unfortunately, climate change is altering both rainfall patterns and temperature extremes. Let us take the west coast of the United States as an example. California and Washington both host high-quality and well-known wine regions.
Recent research by Stanford Professor, Noah Diffenbaugh, indicates that in the next thirty years the land in the Napa Valley viable for producing wine grapes could fall by 50%. While winegrowers can adapt by planting different, heat-tolerant varieties of grapes, the quality may not be quite up to the current standard in the valley. Washington's Columbia Valley, home to the wine I drank on Friday, may also experience similar yield decreases. On the flip side, these temperature changes may actually improve growing conditions in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which is currently cooler and wetter than the eastern growing regions on the coast. The Climate Impact Group with University of Washington has done similar analysis and explains some of the broader implications here.
So while this may not bode well for the winery hoppers and bike tourists (BUI anyone?) of the Napa Valley, these projections could prove invaluable to the future viability of the wine industry on the whole. Vineyards are a long-term investment and require planning well in advance. Decisions to plant certain varieties today are necessary to ensure the ability to produce a crop three decades down the line. But planning for the future is nothing new to growers around the world, many of whom have been cultivating grapes for generations.
The question is, will a long-term perspective and careful management of the land be enough to overcome this particular looming hurdle? I suppose only time will tell.