How can we protect wine from the warming climate?

·5-min read

Kwaw Amos is an investment banker, but he’s also the founder and owner of New York’s first operating and producing African-American owned winery. Here he discusses the future of wine and what producers are doing to protect their grapes from climate change.

This morning I was in New York City and when I woke up to leave the apartment I noticed there was a thicket of haze in the air that I’ve never seen before. It looked like there was a massive fire.

But there was no fire, at least not in New York. 3000 miles away fires burned in Oregon. Fires so large that the smoke moved across the US and plunged the city into overcast.

Horribly these types of fires have not been limited to Oregon. Napa and Sonoma wine countries have burned as well. In Niagara County, home to a growing wine industry, hail the size of golf balls was reported during a recent storm that flooded the area and destroyed vegetation.

Floods in parts of Germany, where two months of rain fell in 24 hours have destroyed large swaths of land including prestigious vineyards in Ahr Valley. Water shortages in the vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina, have put the wine industry at risk. In the Finger Lakes changes in humidity have made vineyards more prone to pests, fungal diseases, mildew and cluster rot.

What do all these phenomena have in common? Climate change.

To those of us in the wine industry, we have been living with the full reality of climate change for years. Grape bud-break is happening earlier than ever. Harvests also occur earlier than ever. For example in Burgundy studies have shown that harvests now begin an average of 13 days earlier than recorded history.

Global greenhouse gas concentrations and specifically, those generated by human activity, have shattered new records. This is bad news, because those gases don’t disappear. They stay in our atmosphere, trap extra heat near earth’s surface and cause global temperatures to rise.

If the earth continues along this trajectory, the planet is on course to experience a global mean temperature increase of nearly 5.76˚F between now and the end of this century.

Environmental volatility is detrimental to wine-making

Surprisingly climate change has brought on some benefits to parts of the wine industry. Warming does have the ability to create a situation in which some varieties may actually do better.

If you’re growing a grape varietal in too cool conditions and it suddenly warms a little, you’re going to get more consistency, and more consistently good vintages. That said, while global warming has expanded the areas once considered viable for grape growth - it has created environmental volatility.

Anyone who trades financial stock knows that when your stock is up and going up it’s great, but when it’s down no one is happy. Any short term benefit certain areas may see from climate change is far out-weighted by long term risk and damage.

So does that mean the wine industry is on course for a long term down fall? We must find ways to fight back.

Finding ingenious solutions to climate change

Today wine producers are finding ingenious ways to combat climate change while still making great wine. You have the best minds in the industry working in conjunction to look at weather patterns and determine what vines can successfully grow where.

For example some growers may head for higher elevations that house less heat while still sustaining sunlight and consistent temps. Other producers are rethinking canopy management, vine trellising, and pruning techniques. The key will be much more sophisticated monitoring of our environment. More progressive farmers will be aided by better record keeping and the use of software to analyse trends across vineyard plots.

Growers are installing cover crops to stabilise their soils and revolutionising how they irrigate their fields.

Growers are installing cover crops to stabilise their soils and revolutionising how they irrigate their fields to mitigate the impact of water deficits.

Most interestingly wineries are making decisions regarding varietals as well as optimum approaches to growing those grapes. Bordeaux is one such place. The Union of Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supérieur winemakers unanimously approved a list of seven new varietals (Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, Touriga Nacional, Alvarinho, Liliorila and Petit Manseng).

This change will allow Bordeaux to adjust to the changing future and still produce great wine.

At my own Gotham Winery in New York we’ve partnered with Hunt Country to help us produce our wine. Hunt Country is a revered seventh generation farm/winery that has a 350 solar panel array that provides the majority of the farm's electricity needs.

The vineyards and farm are managed as a complete ecosystem, providing ample habitat for a diverse community of bees, birds and other wildlife.

They were an early adopter of extensive geothermal heating and cooling, and installed a system which has replaced the conventional A/C and heating in the tasting room, winery and warehouses. It’s the only Finger Lakes winery to provide free electric vehicle charging stations to customers. The vineyards and farm are managed as a complete ecosystem, providing ample habitat for a diverse community of bees, birds and other wildlife.

This means the wines we continue to produce will be more sustainable and contribute to a lower carbon footprint.

How to ask for a sustainable bottle of wine

All this being said, our choices are meaningless without the consumer finding their voice. The future of sustainability in the wine industry must begin with consumers.

You must ask for wine that has been made with an eye for sustainability, which is not always the same as “natural” or “organic”. You must be willing to try new grape varietals that allow wineries to use new techniques.

You must demand that we become more sophisticated in our practices and that we not only focus on our bottom line.

Why? Because you drive the bottom line. This will ensure that the wine industry not only adapts to our changing environment but helps lead the solutions to fix it.

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