A new study suggests that switching grape varieties could help reduce the devastation of vineyards due to global warming.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated January 29, 2020
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Don’t think the future looks bleak under current climate change scenarios? Maybe this will change your mind. Imagine grabbing a bottle of red Burgundy, and instead of Pinot Noir, it was made from Mourvedre and Grenache. You travel toward the coast—Bordeaux—hoping to find an intense red made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Nope. Just more Mourvedre. A new study released this week suggests this tale could become fact, not a mix of science fiction and horror, as increasing temperatures may force winemaking regions to swap grape varieties to combat vineyard losses.

For their paper—published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—a global team of eight researchers looked at two scenarios: what happens if global temperatures increased by two degrees Celsius and four degrees Celsius. The first number is a target used in the Paris Agreement; the second is a current projection of where temperatures may be by the year 2100. The study found that even at just a two-degree increase, the regions suitable for growing wine grapes could shrink by as much as 56 percent; under the four-degree scenario, that number jumps as high 85 percent.

Mourvedre wine grapes are harvested at Pipestone Vineyards in Paso Robles.
Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images

But the study isn’t simply intended as a doomsday prediction. As the title states, the team also found that “diversity buffers winegrowing regions from climate change losses.” The researchers looked at how rearranging which grape varieties were grown in which regions could allow vineyards to continue to be viable. Under the two-degree scenario, these kinds of swaps could half the potential losses to only 24 percent, and at a four-degree increase, though still bad, those losses could be cut by a third, meaning a slightly-less-devastating 58 percent decline. “By switching these varieties around, you can reduce losses by a significant amount,” explained co-author Benjamin Cook from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

But those changes won’t please wine traditionalists. The study specifically looked at 11 varieties of wine grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chasselas, Chardonnay, Grenache, Merlot, Monastrell (also known as Mourvedre), Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Ugni Blanc. One scenario they envisioned was the aforementioned downfall of two of the world’s most renowned wine regions—Burgundy and Bordeaux—into Mourvedre specialists. And that’s just the beginning: Current cooler regions would likely be fine, but with different grapes: For instance, suddenly Germany would be a hotbed for Grenache. Meanwhile, the worst losses would come in wine-growing regions that are already warm like Italy, Spain, and Australia.

However, Elizabeth Wolkovich, one of the lead authors from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, pointed out that swapping grapes isn’t easy. For instance, in Burgundy, laws dictate that Pinot Noir is the primary grape, so a future of  Mourvedre would require more than just planting new vines. “Conversations in Europe have already begun about new legislation to make it easier for major regions to change the varieties they grow,” she said. “But growers still must learn to grow these new varieties. That’s a big hurdle in some regions that have grown the same varieties for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they need consumers who are willing to accept different varieties from their favorite regions.”

In the end, the real doomsday part of the research is that these scientists didn’t seem to provide any thoughts on preventing this future, only dealing with it. “The key is that there are still opportunities to adapt viticulture to a warmer world,” Cook explained. “It just requires taking the problem of climate change seriously.”