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Soapbox: Can the wine industry survive desertification?

Published:  14 July, 2022

Nenad Trifunovic, director of business development at Wine & More, reflects on the future of a sector that is already feeling the heat.

Although deserts and droughts have been natural features of ecosystems worldwide since the dawn of time, the alarmingly increasing rate at which severe droughts – and the wildfires they provoke – are occurring is certainly a cause for concern. Droughts majorly impact the wine industry, not only by changing the timing and conditions of the harvest season – not to mention destroying the natural biodiversity – but also by altering the taste of the grapes themselves. The wine industry is suffering as a result of climate change and has been required to adapt its environment to an optimal wine-growing state in this new reality.

Many wine-producing areas are located in warmer climates, as these conditions have long been known to support excellent winegrowing. However, in the wake of climate change, droughts and increasing desertification, many of these areas are being negatively impacted. Since 2000, the frequency and severity of droughts have risen by 29%, with an even heavier impact expected by 2050. Alarm bells have already sounded in traditional wine regions such as the Mediterranean and Bordeaux, and even in countries with less-established winegrowing cultures.

There are measurable results indicating a change in climate conditions over the past two decades. Considering vine growing, especially in Croatia where I live and which has both Mediterranean and continental climates, we are witnessing several disturbing changes: more frequent and longer-lasting heatwaves, less rain and an average temperature increase. These changes literally influence the grape itself and the taste of the wine. In addition, decreased rainfall often means increased hailstorms, with sudden bursts from the sky threatening larger and larger areas with hail that damages vines.

The average temperature increase over the past 10 years has led to early budding, resulting in a greater risk of damage due to spring frost. Summer heatwaves encourage the grape to hibernate instead of ripening and therefore irrigation, which was once a dismissed technique, has become a must. As a result, harvests are starting earlier and earlier every year, vegetation time is shortened, and accumulated sugars in the grapes are higher, which means a higher alcohol content in the wine. Not only that, but all of these changes affect the chemical composition of the grapes to the point where their aromatic content and complexity are considerably reduced.

Endangered grapes

Apart from the change in taste and harvest patterns, there is also a high risk of some grapes becoming extinct over the coming decades. Referred to by many as the wine capital of the world, Bordeaux is currently experiencing a major change in its wine production. Merlot, an iconic grape variety that makes up to 60% of vineyards in the region, is facing extinction due to the gradually warming climate and the harvest season moving earlier and earlier in the year since the 1980s.

However, some winemakers are already making necessary changes to their growing practices to mitigate the issues.

The only thing every winemaker can do is to adapt. This means planting new positions for vineyards. Previously, no northern hemisphere winegrower would consider a northern-exposed plot of land as being ideal for winegrowing, but today, this makes sense. Irrigation used to be considered necessary only for less worthy vineyards, whereas today even the most stubborn winemakers are seeking it. Undoubtedly, new varieties of grape will need to be planted, and we are also predicting that more resistant clones of existing varieties will become dominant if these environmental trends continue. Consequently, production costs are sure to increase and water availability is becoming a major issue.

Over the next few years, Wine & More expects that inflation and increased production costs will lead to more people opting for local wines and starting to explore what local, family-owned wineries have to offer. The definition of natural wines, already quite loose, will further change the direction of sustainability. The perception of premium wines will also change more rapidly than ever before. What was once considered a top product may soon be replaced by another, previously lesser-known wine.

It is clear that the wine industry, along with numerous other industries, will have to change and adjust to rising temperatures. Despite this, there is hope that coordinated efforts to adapt and innovate will preserve the art of wine production, resulting in new and exciting grape varieties and combinations.