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By Marlene Tyner-Valencourt
60% of Americans say climate change is important to them, and for good reason. Climate change is critical from the perspective of national security, domestic safety, and ecological stability. But what you may not know is that climate change is also having significant impacts on global economic trends and regional culture. This is especially apparent in the viticulture, or wine grape, industry.
Climate change affects the distribution of temperature and precipitation patterns across landscapes. Wine grapes are particularly sensitive to both of these climate factors. That’s why wine grapes have been grown in very specific geographic areas for thousands of years – the terroir, or climate and soil conditions, have been just right for growing grapes that make premium wine varieties. The sensitivity of these grapes to even the smallest changes in climatic factors also means they make a useful ‘canary’ when assessing the impacts of climate change on the ‘coal mine.’
During graduate school, I was fortunate to work with Lee Hannah, conservation ecologist and Senior Researcher in Global Change Biology, and his research group on an effort to understand how climate change may impact the global distribution of wine grapes. Hannah et al. (2013) defined the climatic ‘envelope’ of temperature and precipitation ranges that best support viticulture, and then looked at climate models to understand where these specific temperature and precipitation ranges will be found around the world in the future. What our group found was that many of the places that are the current centers of wine production – southern Europe, South America, and South Africa – will lose 25% to 73% of area suitable to grow wine grapes by 2050. The climate envelope is predicted to shift to places where wine is currently not grown or is just starting out, such as North America’s intermountain west, northern Europe, and coastal New Zealand.
Indeed, we are already seeing evidence of this agricultural shift in the global markets today. Analysts are expecting a 5% reduction in global wine production for 2016, with output among the lowest in twenty years. The hardest hit areas include France (12% reduction), South Africa (19%), Chile (21%), and Argentina (35%), meaning that nice Malbec you like at Trader Joe’s is likely to become much more expensive. If that’s the case, check out wines from Australia, which saw a 5% increase in production, or New Zealand, which saw their production increase by 35%. It’s worth noting that these production trends follow Hannah’s predictions regarding the global shift in wine production.
The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) blame extreme El Nino-driven rain events for the impacts to the South American wine industry, but steadily increasing temperatures have been impacting grape production globally for some time. For example, between 1993-2009, Australia’s wine grapes ripened an average of 1.7 days per year earlier than historical phenological maturity times (Webb et al. 2011), affecting the quality of the vintage along with causing logistical challenges at regional processing facilities.
Additionally, climate change not only affects precipitation patterns, but also long-term access to water resources. Depending on the wine you’re drinking—where it was grown and how it was produced—a typical 4-ounce pour of wine uses somewhere between 14.2 gallons and 51.5 gallons of water. This is a serious issue for California, the largest wine producer in the US, as the state enters its sixth year of drought. Other climate change-driven risks to the wine industry include sea level rise at key coastal production areas, such as the Bordeaux region of France, parts of Portugal, and New Zealand, as well as increasing prevalence of insects and insect-borne crop diseases in viticulture stands (Mozell and Thach 2014).
Wine is not the only crop affected by climate change. Analysts and policy makers are projecting significant impacts to the coffee, chocolate, and corn industries, and predicting shortages, higher prices, and shifts in the distribution of global production of these crops and secondary products, like beef, over the next few decades. In other words, climate change is having very real effects on foods that millions of Americans eat every day, and is going to make our favorite bottle of Pinot Noir, coffee drinks, and steak dinner way more expensive really soon. 60% of Americans say climate change is important to them, but 100% of Americans will feel its impacts at the grocery store.