Wine Industry Advisor reached out to scientists and vintners around the world to get a sense of how vulnerable wine regions are addressing the “code red” climate threat.
In August, the United Nations’ issued a report that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres characterized as a “code red for humanity” regarding the current state and near future of the planet. Among their findings: global warming is nearing emergency levels, humans are “unequivocally” to blame, and while rapid action is necessary to ensure humanity’s future, certain weather patterns—including fatal heat waves, storms and droughts—are inevitable.
Though humans helped create this existential crisis, we are far from helpless in combatting it. According to a report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, almost one-third of the global emissions causing climate change are caused by agricultural activities, including the use of pesticides.
In California alone, the state applies more than 200 million pounds of agricultural pesticides annually according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Forty million of that 200 million are fumigants, which are 300 times more detrimental to the environment than carbon dioxide. In France, vineyards occupy just over 4 percent of France’s agricultural area, but use 15 percent of the pesticides, according to a 2019 report from the French Agricultural Ministry.
Considering what’s at stake, it may seem tasteless to mull the implications of climate change for the wine industry, but taken as a whole, the segment is expected to reach $434.6 billion by 2027. Millions of businesses, individuals, and entire regions depend on the continued ability to cultivate wine grapes for their survival, and grapes are some of the most notoriously delicate and vulnerable agricultural products on the planet.
In Bordeaux, Marie-Catherine Dufour, the technical director of the Bordeaux Wine Council, says they began seriously assessing and managing wine’s carbon footprint in 2008.
Between 2012 and 2019, they slashed their greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent by streamlining transportation of goods and their employees, using local vendors, and reducing the use of chemicals in the vineyard.
As a region, they encourage winegrowers to improve biodiversity and reduce reliance on chemicals through cover crops (they recommend 80 percent coverage), which attract beneficial pests; they are also currently devising a long-term strategy for water-resilient viticulture. The Bordeaux Wine Council is working alongside France’s National Research Institute to find more drought-resistant rootstocks and learn how to manage weather extremes in the vineyard through agroforestry (adding shade over vineyards) and vineyard management practices, like pruning and canopy management.
But the most significant decision by far, Dufour admits, is the introduction of new red and white varieties— Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, Touriga Nacional, Alvarinho and Liliorila—which they chose (after experimental plantings of 52 varieties) with the goal of helping the region adapt to climate change while “maintaining the quality of the wines.”
In 2011, Chile formalized its focus on sustainability through the Sustainability Code for the Chilean Wine Industry (SCWI), which encompass goals for viticulture, production, workers and tourism.
Since its inception, SCWI has been adopted by all of the country’s leading producers who encompass 123,550 acres of vineyards and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports. In the past decade, individual wineries have reduced energy consumption by between 4 to 30 percent and water consumption by between 3 to 55 percent.
“Chile is a geography of extremes, and from a viticultural point of view, it will be less affected than other regions,” Mario Pablo Silva, president of the R&D Consortium Vinos de Chile, says. “Together with research in existing and potential production areas, the use of plant material better adapted to new conditions and our consistent research and adaptation ensure our future for many generations to come.”
In Alentejo, Portugal, summer temperatures can regularly top 100°F; average annual rainfall rarely reaches 23 inches. These numbers equate to the region being on of the most vulnerable to climate change.
“Our biggest challenges are water and heat-related,” says João Barroso, who spearheads the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program. “But at the same time, we have one of the highest numbers of native grape varieties in the world, more than 300, and we are researching how much heat and water stress they can withstand.”
Barroso explains that they also have stringent rules in place to prevent over-development and infringement on the ecological habitats that increase biodiversity around vineyards, and are actively installing “functional barriers around vineyards, and are planning to plant 50,000 trees to help mitigate climate change.”
In Washington, the State Wine Commission is just weeks away from launching its first-ever statewide certified sustainability program. President Steve Warner says they anticipate “majority participation,” first among wine-growers, and then vineyards.
Right now, Washington is most concerned with the increased incidence of wildfires and smoke impact and is heavily investing as a region in “research to help our winegrowers and winemakers prepare and deal with smoke issues.”
Sicily is already on the cutting edge of sustainability, with the largest organic vineyard area in Italy, or a total of 34 percent of Italy’s organic surface area.
But, in the past 20 years, “harvest has begun about 10 days earlier, and four to five days earlier for varieties with shorter maturation cycles,” says Antonio Rallo, president of the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Doc Sicilia.
Currently, the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Doc Sicilia and Assovini Sicilia have come together to establish the SOStain Sicilia Foundation, in a bid to measure and actively reduce the “impact that agronomic and oenological practices have on the land, and to facilitate the sharing of best practices in order to respect the ecosystem, while also providing transparency to the consumer.”
South Africa’s Strategy
Wines of South Africa (WOSA) began introducing sustainability guidelines in 1998. Since then, 95 percent of growers and vintners adhere to them.
The approach is holistic, encompassing environmental and social initiatives. Key elements include: limits on chemicals, the introduction of natural predators in vineyards, water management, and respecting the health and safety of workers. In the past five years, the industry has set aside 120,000 hectares for conservation and re-wilding. Currently, the focus is on experimentation with climate and disease-resistant varieties (like Nero d’Avola), and research into water efficient rootstocks and varieties.
Companies Take on Climate Change
Other large wine companies, with holdings around the world, are also taking serious strides toward sustainability.
Jackson Family Wines, with 40 brands across the globe, recently announced a 10-year plan to combat climate change. Dubbed Rooted for Good: Roadmap to 2030, Jackson has committed to cutting its carbon footprint by 50 percent, and by becoming climate positive by 2050.
Farm for the Future
Atmospheric scientist and CEO of Abacela Winery in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, Dr. Greg Jones, believes that when it comes down to it, the UN’s report doesn’t change much.
“The only thing the report changed is that it states with certainty that humans have had a role in climate change,” Dr. Jones says. “But it’s important to keep in mind that no wine region is on the precipice of collapsing.”
The shift in paradigm that the report represents does mean something though, he acknowledges.
“When I started giving talks on climate change in the 1990s, no one took me seriously,” he says. “I recommended that Bordeaux vintners consider planting new grape varieties that could withstand climate change in 1995, and it took them 25 years to do it.”
To contend with the changing climate, Dr. Jones recommends all vintners look at the grapes they’re planting, their farming practices generally, and how they can deal with the world as-is while preparing for the future.
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox