Vignes & Climat
π Planet
Wine industry: a sector evolving in the face of climate change?

New vineyards: “England is mature for wine production”

Clément Boulle, Executive director of Polytechnique Insights
On March 18th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Cornelis Van Leeuwen
Cornelis (Kees) Van Leeuwen
Professor of viticulture at Bordeaux Sciences Agro and Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin
Alistair Nesbitt
Alistair Nesbitt
CEO of Vinescapes
Key takeaways
  • As a consequence of global warming, new regions – such as England, Belgium or the Netherlands – are becoming suitable for growing grapes.
  • As a result, the British may well become major wine producers. In 2018, Alistair Nesbitt and colleagues published a report identifying 33,700 hectares of land (equivalent to the Champagne region) in the UK suitable for growing grapes.
  • However, the climate, which used to be a fixed factor in winemaking, has become variable, and production is therefore not guaranteed from one year to the next.
  • Moreover, the consequences of climate change can be very different from one territory to another: reduction in yields, increase in water stress or, on the contrary, an increase in rainfall.

Where new geo­graph­i­cal regions are ready for wine production?

Cor­nelis van Leeuwen. The arrival of vine­yards in Eng­land, Bel­gium and The Nether­lands is a log­i­cal con­se­quence of cli­mate change. Eng­land, for exam­ple, is becom­ing an estab­lished wine-pro­duc­ing coun­try. It is now capa­ble of pro­duc­ing high-qual­i­ty wines cost­ing €25–30 per bot­tle on the domes­tic market. 

Today, these rel­a­tive­ly new “ter­roirs” are well suit­ed for pro­duc­tion of white and sparkling wines because their cli­mate require­ments are low­er than those of red wines. They require sus­tained acid­i­ty and grapes with low sug­ar lev­els, so can there­fore be pro­duced in regions with rel­a­tive­ly cool tem­per­a­tures. We have observed this in the French regions of Alsace and Cham­pagne, or in new wine-mak­ing coun­tries such as New-Zealand and Tas­ma­nia, which all ben­e­fit from the same characteristics.

How does glob­al warm­ing impact the devel­op­ment of these new terroirs?

Vines respond to tem­per­a­ture and sun­light, as well as water avail­abil­i­ty and soil min­er­al con­cen­tra­tions. These resources are dif­fer­ent in each loca­tion. Abun­dance varies from place to place, influ­enc­ing vine phys­i­ol­o­gy, which in turn affects yield, taste, ripen­ing, and grape com­po­si­tion. As such, cli­mate plays an impor­tant part in each of these aspects. Nor­mal­ly, nat­ur­al con­di­tions vary only slight­ly each year – giv­ing rise to the notion of “vin­tage”. But in the face of cli­mate change, this sta­ble ele­ment has become a vari­able. In the wine-mak­ing com­mu­ni­ty the first sci­en­tif­ic arti­cles record­ing the effects of glob­al warm­ing were pub­lished 20 years ago. Warm­ing accel­er­at­ed in the 1980s, yet peo­ple only became aware of this issue in the 2000s. 

In what way are the con­se­quences of glob­al warm­ing dif­fer­ent from one place to another?

Vine­yards are becom­ing hot­ter every­where in the world, and water con­di­tions are chang­ing too. North of the 45th par­al­lel (includ­ing Bor­deaux and Bologne), rain­fall is tend­ing to increase year on year. Where­as we observe a decrease in the South. Evi­dent­ly, the impact of glob­al warm­ing is dif­fer­ent depend­ing on the cli­mate of the region. North­ern regions have seen prob­lems with the insuf­fi­cient matu­ri­ty of grapes (aro­ma, exces­sive acid­i­ty, deficit in sug­ar) which can be resolved. How­ev­er, coun­tries like Spain or Italy are more impact­ed in terms of qual­i­ty and yield. It will be more dif­fi­cult for these regions to adapt. Between the 35th par­al­lel (Tanger, Tunis) and the 50th par­al­lel (Charleroi, Prague), lim­it­ing fac­tors to pro­duce good wine are not the same.

©Michael Blann

What is the sit­u­a­tion in the South? 

We observe a water short­age. But the prob­lem with drought is pri­mar­i­ly a yield prob­lem. When the vine­yard is well man­aged and plant­ed with drought-tol­er­ant grape vari­eties and root­stocks, it is pos­si­ble to pro­duce high-qual­i­ty wines with only 300 or 400mm rain­fall per year. How­ev­er, to ensure finan­cial via­bil­i­ty, you must pro­duce fine wine sold at a good price, with suf­fi­cient yields as well.

There seems to be con­fu­sion as to the effects of tem­per­a­ture and water short­age. You can­not com­pen­sate excess heat with irri­ga­tion; and besides, vines are very well adapt­ed to drought. Wine­mak­ers in Men­doza (Argenti­na) have found an inter­est­ing solu­tion to deal with ris­ing tem­per­a­tures: they now plant at alti­tudes as high as 1,400m com­pared to tra­di­tion­al vine­yards were locat­ed at 800m. But obvi­ous­ly this solu­tion can­not be applied everywhere.

Irri­ga­tion of ter­roirs is there­fore a con­tro­ver­sial practice? 

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the large major­i­ty of vine­yards was locat­ed in Europe, where there was no irri­ga­tion, includ­ing in very dry regions such as Andalu­sia or Sici­ly. In the new world, irri­ga­tion is used for oth­er crops, and so could also be applied to viti­cul­ture. Nev­er­the­less, it is more a ques­tion of water avail­abil­i­ty and cul­tur­al deci­sions. Irri­ga­tion can increase yields, but it requires 1–4 mil­lion litres of water per acre, per year. It is upset­ting to see the devel­op­ment of irri­ga­tion on a large scale in coun­tries with lim­it­ed water resources, like Spain. To irri­gate, we often draw on ground­wa­ter, which is an envi­ron­men­tal crime.

UK cli­mate warmer, but less stable

Warmer tem­per­a­tures in the UK due to cli­mate change offer an envi­ron­ment more adapt­ed to wine pro­duc­tion. Viti­cul­ture cli­ma­tol­o­gist and CEO of Vinescapes, Alis­tair Nes­bit has been involved in the UK wine sec­tor for around 20 years. He says that “the sec­tor has grown 200% over the last few years in terms of scale and vol­ume. Peo­ple are grow­ing wine in areas that were too cold only 30–40 years ago. The UK now has around 3,000 hectares (ha) of vines with over 700 vine­yards pro­duc­ing wine.” Still com­par­a­tive­ly low when com­pared to oth­er coun­tries more tra­di­tion­al­ly known for their wine pro­duc­tion; ~800,000 ha in France, ~1 mil­lion ha in Spain or 650,000 ha in Italy 1

“Whilst oth­er coun­tries and regions are strug­gling with heat and drought, the UK wine sec­tor is ben­e­fit­ing from the warmer cli­mate.” In par­tic­u­lar a sta­ble 13°C aver­age tem­per­a­ture 2. “But not every­thing is as ide­al as it may seem,” he argues. After all, grapes need more than just warm weath­er to grow. British vine­yards are par­tic­u­lar­ly sub­ject to risk of frost and unsta­ble rain­fall, with much vari­abil­i­ty year on year; con­di­tions that grapes don’t bode well in. 

As such, even though the British wine sec­tor has seen much invest­ment, yields remain low. In a study from 2018, Alis­tair Nes­bit and his col­leagues point­ed out the fact that low yields were due to unsuit­able loca­tions of vine­yards 3. Their report iden­ti­fies suit­able land­mass in the UK of 33,700ha – equiv­a­lent to the French Cham­pagne region – with an aver­age tem­per­a­ture of 13.9°C dur­ing grow­ing sea­son, that could suc­cess­ful­ly be con­vert­ed to vine­yards in the UK.

Still, there is more under­stand­ing need­ed if the sec­tor is to be suc­cess­ful. A project between cli­ma­tol­o­gists, wine sec­tor spe­cial­ists and researchers at the Grantham Research Insti­tute and the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia, CREWS-UK, aims to look at future cli­mate con­di­tions in the UK and its poten­tial impacts on wine pro­duc­tion 4.


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