The science journalism world loves to talk about how climate change will ruin wine. (Almost as much as we like talking about how it’ll make chocolate go extinct.) But while rising temperatures could render some of the world’s best viticulture regions too hot or too dry for today’s most popular varietals, that doesn’t have to mean the end of the world for oenophiles.
It could just mean wine growers need to expand their genetic portfolio.
That’s according to a perspective paper published Monday in Nature Climate Change, which explored how the genetic diversity already present within the world’s thousands of wine grapes could help the industry adapt to the climatic challenges of the future. That’s good news for those who need their vino fix at the end of the day, because shifting the world’s wine growing regions to save chardonnay is likely to take generations.
It’s also a reminder that the buck shouldn’t stop at chardonnay, like ever.
Indeed, while most of us can probably only name about a few familiar wine varietals, it turns out there are roughly 1,100 different wine grapes used in commercial production worldwide. These thousand varietals have been bred over millennia largely for their flavor characteristics, and their ability to produce consistently high yields under a variety of climate conditions.
Wine grapes harbor a wealth of genetic diversity in traits that affect cold, heat, and drought tolerance. They also possess high diversity in traits affecting phenology, or the timing of key life cycle events like flowering and grape maturation. Rieslings, chardonnays, and pinot moirs mature faster to match their cooler, northern European climates, while southern Europe varieties like monastrell develop slowly over long, hot seasons.
The problem, according to the authors, is that in a globalized market, a select few varietals have risen to dominance. This isn’t just another unhappy consequence of neoliberalism—it’s been happening for centuries.
“Back when many new [wine] regions were established (for example, in the 1550s for Chile and South Africa, and the late 1700s in California and Australia), the breeding of new varieties that became popular with consumers was rare and attempts to use uncommon varieties generally failed,” the authors note in their paper.
European colonists exported a small sliver of their Old World wine preferences pretty much everywhere. That why today, just 12 grape varieties cover more than 80 percent of wine-growing land in Australia and New Zealand, 78 percent of planted land in Chile, and 70 percent of land in the U.S. These 12 varieties represent less than one percent of the total diversity of wine grapes found in Europe.
“Globalization of the market is clearly a major driver,” of the erosion of wine diversity, the authors write, adding that today the global market “is investing in an increasingly limited portfolio at exactly the time when a large diversity of varieties is most needed.”
In particular, the authors note that late-maturing varieties of wine grape “are almost entirely excluded” from commercial operations, despite the fact that these varieties are expected to be best suited to rising temperatures.
To help wine weather the coming heat, the authors say we need to start exploiting currently known diversity. Climate models used to predict how wine growing regions will shift in the future are largely focused on the environmental preferences of today’s major varietals. By incorporating more varietal diversity into these models, we may be able to identify wine grapes actually suited for the future climate of today’s wine-growing regions. From there, researchers and growers can start planting these varietals in the field, all the while collecting and sharing additional data.
This approach demands that growers overcome their resistance to messing with the all-sacred terroir, that mixture of grape varietal and growth environment that folks with more refined palettes than me are apparently holding hostage.
“There’s a real issue in the premier wine-growing regions that historical terroir is what makes great wine, and if you acknowledge in any way that you have climate change, you acknowledge that your terroir is changing,” lead study author Elizabeth Wolkovich, a biologist at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, said in a statement. “So in many of those regions there is not much of an appetite to talk about changing varieties.”
In Wolkovich’s mind, the wine snobs basically need to get over it. “With continued climate change, certain varieties in certain regions will start to fail—that’s my expectation,” she continued. “The solution we’re offering is how do you start thinking of varietal diversity.”
At least one outside expert, Cornell University viticulturist Bruce Reisch, agreed with the authors’ assessment.
“I feel strongly about broadening the genetic diversity used in viticulture,” he told Earther. “We’re asking for trouble if we don’t and few crops out there rely so heavily on ancient varieties as the wine grape industry does.”
Adapting to climate change is going to be hard. But if we begin that hard work now, future generations will still able to pour out a refreshing glass of riesling at the end of the day. Or, you know, something with superior climate genetics that maybe doesn’t taste like grape juice. And that pairs well with cactus.