Veni, Vidi, Vino

The end of wine as we know it?

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By 2050 the world's current vineyard space will decrease between 25 percent and 73 percent throughout all major wine regions—so says a new study that was just published by researchers at the University of Texas. Needless to say, the prospect of losing one-quarter—never mind three-quarters—of the world's fine wines is enough to make both winemakers and wine drinkers run for the cellar.
But the focus of this study is much broader than just an examination of potential losses; it examines the impact of global warming on wine regions and includes wider environmental issues, chiefly the strain on freshwater resources and conservation of natural ecosystems and endangered species.
It takes a lot of water to grow grapes, and therefore vineyards use up a lot of freshwater resources—something that is of paramount concern to areas already faced with water shortages. Ninety-five percent of Chile's wine-producing valleys are already under water stress, and the study predicts that the majority of Chile's regions (the Maipo, Cachapoal and Colchagua valleys) will be largely unsuitable for wine production by 2050. Similarly, suitability will decline throughout France's Bordeaux and Rhône valleys, Italy's Tuscany region and large swathes of Australia.

But while global warming will render hot, dry wine regions unsuitable for grape-growing, it will also open up other regions that were previously inhospitable—namely those at higher elevations and higher latitudes. In this respect, Canada stands to benefit significantly from a world in which the vineyards are moving northward. Imagine grapes growing in the Yukon.

Indeed, examining Canada's winemaking history yields evidence that this change is already well underway. Being at the northern extreme of the winemaking zone (which extends in two bands around the globe between the 30th and 50th degrees of latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres), the Okanagan Valley's harsh winters and short growing season makes it difficult to grow Vitis vinifera grapes (the European variety responsible for all of the world's fine wines). But with the advent of new research into winter-hardy clones combined with winters that just aren't as harsh as they used to be, the Okanagan's wine industry is now booming.

But while an expanding wine industry spells good news for Canada's economy, it also pits the demand for new vineyard space against the need for conservation of natural ecosystems, particularly in areas with endangered species. The study notes that future wine regions could stretch into mountain regions in China that currently provide habitat for the giant panda, while the current Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (which seeks to provide habitat linkages for species like the grizzly bear, gray wolf and pronghorn), has already been affected by expanding wine regions in the Okanagan, Washington's Columbia River basin and Idaho's Snake River valley.

While it will be devastating to lose even some of the current major wine regions—I, for one, do not want to imagine a world in which Bordeaux is a thing of the past and wine is no longer synonymous with Tuscany—the ultimate thrust of this study is the need to balance wine development with conservation. Emerging regions must balance their own development with preservation of the natural terroir—for wine is an embodiment of place, and the health of that place is manifest in the glass. V

For more information and to read the original article published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of North America, visit pnas.org.

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