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The grapes of wrath: Climate change and the wine industry

As it happens, Alto Adige is the location of one of the most dramatic expressions of modern global warming: the discovery of the so-called Iceman—the frozen remains of a herder who lived in the region 5,300 years ago. The corpse was found in 1991 in a mountain gully, almost perfectly preserved—even the skin was intact—because it had lain beneath mounds of snow and ice since shortly after his death (a murder, forensic investigators later concluded from studying the trajectory of an arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder). He would not have been found were it not for global warming, says Hans Glauber, the director of the Alto Adige Ecological Institute: “Temperatures have been rising in the Alps about twice as fast as in the rest of the world,” he notes.

Lageder heard about global warming in the early 1990s and felt compelled to take action. It wasn’t easy—”I had incredible fights with my architect about wanting good insulation,” he says—but by 1996 he had installed the first completely privately financed solar energy system in Italy. He added a geothermal energy system as well. Care was taken to integrate these cutting-edge technologies into the existing site; during a tour, I emerged from a dark fermentation cellar with its own wind turbine into the bright sunlight of a gorgeous courtyard dating to the 15th century. Going green did make the renovation cost 30 percent more, Lageder says, “but that just means there is a slightly longer amortization period. In fact, we made up the cost difference through increased revenue, because when people heard about what we were doing, they came to see it and they ended up buying our wines.”

The record summer heat that struck Italy and the rest of Europe in 2003, killing tens of thousands, made Lageder even more alarmed. “When I was a kid, the harvest was always after November 1, which was a cardinal date,” he told me. “Nowadays, we start between the 5th and 10th of September and finish in October.” Excess heat raises the sugar level of grapes to potentially ruinous levels. Too much sugar can result in wine that is unbalanced and too alcoholic—wine known as “cooked” or “jammy.” Higher temperatures may also increase the risk of pests and parasites, because fewer will die off during the winter. White wines, whose skins are less tolerant of heat, face particular difficulties as global warming intensifies. “In 2003, we ended up with wines that had between 14 and 16 percent alcohol,” Lageder recalled, “whereas normally they are between 12 and 14 percent. The character of our wine was changing.”

A 2 percent increase in alcohol may sound like a tiny difference, but the effect on a wine’s character and potency is considerable. “In California, your style of wine is bigger, with alcohol levels of 14 and 15, even 16 percent,” Lageder continued. “I like some of those wines a lot. But the alcohol level is so high that you have one glass and then”—he slashed his hand across his throat—”you’re done; any more and you will be drunk. In Europe, we prefer to drink wine throughout the evening, so we favor wines with less alcohol. Very hot weather makes that harder to achieve.”

There are tricks grape growers and winemakers can use to lower alcohol levels. The leaves surrounding the grapes can be allowed to grow bushier, providing more shade. Vines can be replaced with different clones or rootstocks. Growing grapes at higher altitudes, where the air is cooler, is another option. So is changing the type of grapes being grown.

But laws and cultural traditions currently stand in the way of such adaptations. So-called AOC laws (Appellation d’Origine Côntrollée) govern wine-grape production throughout France, and in parts of Italy and Spain as well. As temperatures rise further, these AOC laws and kindred regulations are certain to face increased challenge. “I was just in Burgundy,” Pancho Campo told me in March 2008, “and producers there are very concerned, because they know that chardonnay and pinot noir are cool-weather wines, and climate change is bringing totally the contrary. Some of the producers were even considering starting to study Syrah and other varieties. At the moment, they are not allowed to plant other grapes, but these are questions people are asking.”

The greatest resistance, however, may come from the industry itself. “Some of my colleagues may admire my views on this subject, but few have done much,” says Lageder. “People are trying to push the problem away, saying, ‘Let’s do our job today and wait and see in the future if climate change becomes a real problem.’ But by then it will be too late to save ourselves.”

IF THE WINE INDUSTRY does not adapt to climate change, life will go on—with less conviviality and pleasure, perhaps, but it will go on. Fine wine will still be produced, most likely by early adapters such as Lageder, but there will be less of it. By the law of supply and demand, that suggests the best wines of tomorrow will cost even more than the ridiculous amounts they fetch today. White wine may well disappear from some regions. Climate-sensitive reds such as pinot noir are also in trouble. It’s not too late for winemakers to save themselves through adaptation. But it’s disconcerting to see so much dawdling in an industry with so much incentive to act. If winemakers aren’t motivated to adapt to climate change, what businesses will be?

The answer seems to be very few. Even in the Britain, where the government is vigorously championing adaptation, the private sector lags in understanding the adaptation imperative, much less implementing it. “I bet if I rang up a hundred small businesses in the U.K. and mentioned adaptation, 90 of them wouldn’t know what I was talking about,” says Gareth Williams, who works with the organization Business in the Community, helping firms in northeast England prepare for the storms and other extreme weather events that scientists project for the region. “When I started this job, I gave a presentation to heads of businesses,” said Williams, who spent most of his career in the private sector. “I presented the case for adaptation, and in the question-and-answer period, one executive said, ‘We’re doing quite a lot on adaptation already.’ I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ He said, ‘We’re recycling, and we’re looking at improving our energy efficiency.’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my, he really didn’t get it at all. This is going to be a struggle.’”

“Most of us are not very good at recognizing our risks until we are hit by them,” explains Chris West, the director of the U.K. government’s Climate Impact Program. “People who run companies are no different.” Before joining UKCIP in 1999, West had spent most of his career working to protect endangered species. Now, the species he is trying to save is his own, and the insights of a zoologist turn out to be quite useful. Adapting to changing circumstances is, after all, the essence of evolution—and of success in the modern economic marketplace. West is fond of quoting Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives…nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

This piece was adapted from Mark Hertsgaard’s forthcoming book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth for the Climate Desk collaboration.

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