Your Favorite Wines May Taste Different Soon Thanks To Climate Change


So much goes into making that glass of red or white that you enjoy at the end of a long day. The grapes need to be harvested at a precise time. Then they are crushed and pressed and go through a fermentation and clarification process. Next, the wine is aged and bottled. You can only then enjoy your favorite glass of vino on your back porch while unwinding from your stressful day.

Some people consider winemaking an art form (I would agree!). But it all starts with the condition of the vineyard. The state of the vineyard depends on the climate and other environmental factors.

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It’s no surprise that winemakers have always had to contend with the weather, it’s just something that comes with the job. But the job is becoming increasingly difficult due to climate change, especially in areas hardest hit by the changing weather patterns. Everything from droughts, wildfires, and temperature changes can have a huge impact on crops. 

Wildfires, Smoke, And A Lack Of Water

Wildfires continuously pose a threat to vineyards and wineries. California has seen large numbers of wildfires for decades and vineyards are feeling the effects. And it’s not just the immediate threat to their vineyards and wineries, although that is a major problem.

For example, the Glass Fire in 2020 was active for 23 days and destroyed structures at 30 wineries in Northern California. But that was just one of a staggering 9,900 wildfires in California that year.

Smoke from the 2020 Walbridge Fire billows behind a vineyard in Santa Rosa, CA.
2020 Walbridge Fire near a vineyard in Santa Rosa, CA. (Gibson Outdoor Photo/Shutterstock.com)

The lingering effects of wildfires on grapes are also undeniable. Smoke can alter the taste and smell of the grapes, sometimes completely ruining the wine. Winemakers have coined the term “smoke taint” to describe the effect on their wine. Some wine might smell or taste like a campfire or ashtray, while other wines can be unaffected by the same smoke.

Droughts are another issue that many vineyards, from California to Europe, are facing. Vineyards in France, Germany, Tuscany, and Napa have all experienced droughts in the past year. And while wine grapes can sustain arid conditions, they can only survive so much drought.

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In some cases, winemakers have decided to harvest their crops earlier, which could potentially change the flavor profile of the wine. If picked too early, the wine could be excessively tart due to high acidity.

There is a delicate balance to harvesting grapes for wine. The pH, sugar, and acidity of the grape all have to be in harmony. And the vines need the appropriate amount of nutrients in the soil, the correct amount of water, and the necessary amount of sunlight to thrive.

Rising Temperatures

The ideal temperature to grow grapevines is between 77 degrees and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But heatwaves have had temperatures soaring over 117 degrees in places like Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This typically cool weather area produces wines like Pinot Noir. The heatwave could have had devastating effects, but luckily, it didn’t last long enough to cause major damage.

Excessive and sustained heat can have many detrimental effects on wine grapes. If the weather gets too hot too early in the season, the grape may ripen too soon. This could result in a flavorless but highly alcoholic wine. And eventually, if the temperature is too hot for too long, it could make the grapes shrivel and become unsuitable for wine.

A bunch of withering grapes.
(Stephen Farhall/Shutterstock.com)

Winemakers Are Fighting Back

Winemakers have their work cut out for them. Some vineyards have opted to grow different types of grapes than they normally do to contend with climate change. These growers are choosing varieties that tolerate heat better. Choosing Malbec or Zinfandel grapes instead of Pinot Noir or Riesling could help the transition for winemakers as temperatures rise.

Wastewater recycling, dry farming, and controlled irrigation are other solutions, at least in the short term. As water-use restrictions are in place and droughts continue or worsen, finding creative solutions to keep crops thriving is essential. The water used in water recycling uses treated water, which shouldn’t affect the taste or quality of the grapes.

Dry farming is a technique that is more environmentally sound and doesn’t use an irrigation system. It relies on rainwater and the soil’s residual moisture to get it through the growing season. Dry farming wouldn’t be suitable for all vineyards though, as it depends on the type of soil and the amount of rainfall during the rainy season.

Controlled irrigation could be used in areas where water stress is present. Drip irrigation is the most expensive but also the most controllable. Evaporation and runoff are reduced in this type of irrigation and the water is distributed straight to the root system.

Drip irrigation used in a vineyard.
Example of drip irrigation. (Nolte Lourens/Shutterstock.com)

We can only hope that these systems and techniques help winemakers keep their vineyards thriving for years to come. In the constant struggle to battle climate change, we are glad that some winemakers are considering alternative methods to keep the quality of their products delicious.

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