The State of Wine

Welcome to the State of Wine. We’re a winegrape research group interested in understanding the impacts of climate change on wine and helping mitigate negative consequences for wine through active and adaptive viticultural practices. We are especially interested in shifts in phenology due to climate change (earlier harvests, for example) and how growers can adapt through variety diversity.

The tremendous diversity of winegrapes is what started our research originally, back in 2011. Lizzie Wolkovich, an ecologist taking a break from her postdoc to study French in Toulouse, met Kees van Leeuwen to ask if winegrapes were as diverse as reported. And they are. Several years after this initial meeting, she began to formally study them at the Temporal Ecology Lab–a lab she founded at Harvard University in 2014 which broadly studies shifts in plant phenology with climate change. Working with colleagues in France and in Davis, California she realized winegrapes are an excellent study system for climate change research–both due to their tremendous long-term records (>700 years) and their diversity, which may allow growers to adapt to warming. The lab has continued research in these areas since moving to the University of British Columbia in 2018.

Much of what makes winegrapes remarkable and much of what defines terroir is variety diversity. Varieties include Pinot noir, Cabernet-Sauvignon, as well as others like Xinomavro which you likely hear less about.  Winegrape varieties harbor a remarkable amount of phenological diversity — two different varieties planted side by side could reach maturity over 5-6 weeks apart, so you could harvest one plant in September and wait until mid-October to harvest the other. This is incredible diversity and fundamentally fascinating to understand how plants that are genetically so similar could respond so differently to climate. It’s also critical for dealing with climate change. 

Across the globe, we have over 1,500 planted winegrape varieties but little of this diversity is used today. Diversity of most planted hectares of winegrapes is very low in the USA (70% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties, which we call ‘international varieties’), Chile (78% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties), New Zealand (92% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties), Australia (84% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties) and China (93% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties). Most hectares are planted with very few varieties, however, this is not equally true in Europe, where more varieties are planted overall and where each hectare planted is more diverse. This may have not been a major issue 30 or 40 years ago but climate change is a big challenge to agriculture as it forces growers to be more flexible and adaptable.

What’s changing?

Many things. But most notably harvest dates have advanced at least 2-3 weeks since the 1980s. Today many regions that were, for example, harvesting in mid-October regularly before warming are now often harvesting in mid to late September. And the trend appears to be continuing, in recent years in France the harvest was 6 weeks earlier than average in some areas. There are many downstream effects of this: changes in wine quality, increasing alcohol content and more.

What will determine how a region fares in the future?

Lots of reports suggest the downfall of some regions and the rise of other regions, but it’s actually much more complicated. We believe three major things will determine the future for a winegrowing region:

    1. Current climate in a region — Where within the global range of winegrowing is the region? Areas at the hotter edges (at the limits, effectively) of winegrowing will have fewer options of how to cope with warming, while areas at the cooler edges will be able to grow a greater diversity of grape varieties than they currently can (as currently their climates are too cool to mature many varieties).
    2. Expected warming and other climate shifts — climate change is highly uneven. Northern areas, higher elevations and continental regions generally warm more (Europe is 50% ahead of the global average, for example). Other factors matter a lot also. For example, changes in storm patterns or frost dates. For a region such as Sonoma a big question is how fog patterns off the bay will change. 
    3. How much a region is willing to change growing practices — growers (and regions) that are willing to be flexible, try different management strategies and plant trial blocks for new-to-them varieties now should fare better. Growers who do nothing we expect will see large negative impacts, growers who respond actively and proactively will cope much better.

Climate change is a big challenge to agriculture. It forces growers to be even more flexible and adaptable. Using more winegrape varieties may offer that needed adaptability, up to a point. With continued warming it may be hard to continue growing grapes in some regions.

What do we need to know?

How much will it warm in the future? The biggest uncertainty for researchers like us and growers  is what emissions scenario we end up on: will the globe warm 2˚ C or 4˚ C? All of us have tremendous control over that answer and it’s critical to what the future of wine looks like. A global decision on where we’re headed for emissions would make planning and mitigating negative impacts on winegrowing much more tractable.  

We also need to know more about how particular regions will warm. Winegrowing regions are chosen for their microclimatic complexity, so knowing how a region will warm and shift climatically requires fine-scale analyses. We’re funded currently to look at this for the Okanagan in British Columbia but can help with analyses for other regions, please contact us. 

How much diversity is out there? We still don’t know how many grapes are planted today globally or how many are housed in research collections such as Domaine de Vassal, USDA Clonal Germplasms, in Georgia, Spain and Italy (to name a few). 

What is different about different winegrapes? For climate change we critically need to know the different phenologies of winegrape varieties, their heat and drought tolerances, how they respond to different trellis and irrigation strategies, how they work with different rootstocks and more. Remarkably we have very little of this information for more than a just couple dozen varieties.

If you are a grower who is interested in sharing your data, please continue to our page, Share your data. We are always interested in growing our database; the more data we have the better the accuracy of our models become! If you are interested in learning more about wine grape phenology or the future of winegrape ecology, check out our publications page. If you are newer to this field of research and looking for a place to start, our page–The Basics— explains common terminology and procedures in the work we do. Finally, if you would like to get to know the wonderful people that work in our lab see, Our Team.

Have more questions? Contact us here

Our research is based out of the Temporal Ecology Lab, based in Vancouver, BC at the University of British Columbia.