What do the Great North’s fiercest predators have in common with Champagne?
Both are under threat from changing climates that imperil their way of life.
For polar bears, it means starvation and possible extinction. The threat is so dire that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its plan to preserve the species. The caveat to the Service’s proposal – the Service has no authority to regulate greenhouse emissions. And if greenhouse emissions aren’t reduced, and dramatically so, then the polar bear will become another victim of humanity.
Wine country has been facing its own survival problems as well. Wine, by its nature, requires a very long-term view and what winemakers have noted for decades has been a severe change in annual weather patterns. Southern areas of France and most of the wine producing regions of Italy are seeing hotter summers. While longer, warmer summers can be a boon, too much heat can produce grapes that are too sugary and wines with high alcohol content. Sugary wines also have less acidity, which greatly affects both flavor and aroma. Worst of all, sugary wines are more likely to spoil rather than age.
It’s not just the heat that poses a threat either. Higher global temperatures increase the chance for heavy rainfall and flooding. Hail storms, the great weather bane of every vineyard, will increase as well. All of these pose serious threats to the growing season and the distinct possibility that grape crops will shrink.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to Europe, of course. South Africa and Australia are facing severe drought conditions in the new climate. Australian winemakers have started looking towards cooler climes located closer to the South Pole, such as Tasmania and other Southern Islands (Kangaroo anyone?) to preserve the future of Australian wine. Unfortunately, South Africa has few options, and a severe decline if not outright end to South African grape production is a real possibility.
California is facing some tough times as well. Napa, the heart of California wine production, is also facing severe droughts and extreme heat, as are other fan favorites like the Sonoma and Alexander Valleys. Jackson Family Wines, like many California wineries, is taking steps to counter these changes. Operations are becoming not just organic, but biodynamic. Water usage is carefully regulated and the goal is to reduce dependence on reservoirs to zero. Pesticides, which threaten the water supply and can be harmful to plants that can help protect the vines and the soil, like rye and barley, have been replaced with owls and hawks, even as the warmer weather has led to increased populations of rats and crows. And high-tech has its place as well, with constant monitoring and carefully measured computer-controlled responses to temperature changes and water conditions.
Not that the news is all bad. More northern vineyards may benefit from warming climates, and grapes once grown in hotter southern climes may now become more productive in northern locations. Vineyards in northern France have seen boom seasons these last few years, and California’s coastal area, the recipient of cooling Pacific breezes, has fared well even as the rest of the state has struggled. Oregon and Washington will likely replace California as the premier wine producers, with higher altitudes and cool ocean breezes to protect the grapes. Germany’s Rhine territory is another area with strong potential for growth, as are the chalky regions of England, such as Kent and Sussex. Yes, England. Large Champagne houses have already bought property in these areas and planted grapes. One day, you may be toasting your success with the finest England has to offer.
Despite this potential, however, the threat to the wine industry is very severe. Oregon, Washington and the Rhine are already wine-producing areas and are unlikely to fill the gap left by the losses elsewhere. New areas may emerge, like England, but again, the area is so small compared to what will be lost, that the total amount of wine produced will decrease dramatically. At the end of the day, the fate of the world’s wines and polar bears are linked, and whether either remains into the next century will depend on how committed the rest of the world is to reducing greenhouse emissions.