bordeaux climate coverAs the impacts of climate change accelerate, and emissions, rather than going down, actually rose by 2.7% in 2018 (an increase from 1.6% in 2017), the conversations emerging from within wine producing regions is both necessary and brave.

Climate change is a multifaceted problem; as much about social dynamics as it is about the biophysical. Wine is a luxury product that falls into a subset of what certain climatic conditions will allow. When the climate changes, the fate of vineyards hangs in the balance.

Why bravery?

It requires bravery to take this conversation into the public domain because the impacts being endured today can easily be confused with the impacts that are expected tomorrow. For example, we can see in Fig.1 that temperatures are rising on a very slight gradient and with no action to curb emissions, they will keep rising. 

Bordeaux temperatures rising due to climate change
Fig.1 Plots taken from newly available reanalysis data sources with coordinates set to Creon. Plotted by climate scientists at

The rise in temperatures means earlier ripening, more sugar, driving higher alcohol, and so on. Winemakers that I have spoken to have been less concerned with the increase in temperature because research into adaptation, such as more resilient grape varieties, is well underway. One big problem is how rising temperatures are increasing evaporation, which in turn increases the moisture in the air that drives the intensity of weather events such as heavy rainfall and hail. 

These links between rising temperatures and extreme weather events are now established and, with such high levels of still rising greenhouse gas concentrations, are set to keep getting more extreme. Despite this, we continue to see really wonderful wines being produced in regions like Bordeaux. Destructive weather events can be fast and hard but for those that survive them, the prize is often delicious wine.

Currently, climate scientists have not seen an increase in the frequency of these extreme events but there is concern that as the climate heats up, frequency and intensity will inflict new woes up on growers.

Engaging conversations

couhins fourcas duphine

The Bordeaux Wine Bureau (CIVB) co-hosted a talk and tasting in London’s Pall Mall in late November 2018, with three chateaux, Ch. Couhins, Ch. De La Dauphine, and Ch. Fourcas Hosten. 

Fiona Juby from the CIVB gave a presentation on what the sustainable goals for the region are, from moving towards organic and biodynamic production and enhancing biodiversity, to reducing carbon emissions, and developing more sustainable practices. 

These are certainly all very laudable and necessary. We tasted the various excellent wines from different vintages, with the characteristics of the whites showing a bright freshness of acidity and lovely expression of fruit. The deliciously balanced dark fruit and savoury qualities of the reds did away with any hint that climate change was a threat in a present context.

fiona juby civb

Bordeaux at the UN, looking forward to 2050

A couple of weeks later I was in Poland at COP24, the UN climate talks, filming a range of interviews when I saw a scheduled talk titled ‘Bordeaux 2050 {The Real Taste Of Global Warming}’. Here a young winemaker, Clarisse Chatonnet and colleagues, presented wines to volunteers from the audience who had to say whether they thought they were from Bordeaux, and whether or not they liked them. 

With one exception, the wines were not well received. It emerged that the wines were intended to indicate what Bordeaux could taste like in 2050 if climate changes continue on the current trajectory. By the expressions of the tasters, I would say: not that great!

The main point of the talk was to call for emissions reductions in order to preserve the character of Bordeaux wines as we like them. Again, this call for action is very laudable, especially when we consider that a UN conference focussed on a trendy subject like climate change is literally crawling with very high greenhouse gas emitting politicians, lobbyists, and a range of hangers-on, which includes me!

40 billion tonnes of annual carbon pollution: who and how do we do it?

In a study produced by the Paris School of Economics, clear links were shown between income and contribution of greenhouse gas (CO2) pollution. The wealthiest 10% of people on Earth emit 50% of all the emissions on Earth. The top 30% emit 70% of all CO2 pollution. Interestingly, the poorest 50% of people emit only 10% of global emissions.

Break that down further and the top 1% of wealthy people in the world have such high levels of emissions (upwards of 2-300 tonnes per person per year) that they dwarf the 2-9% category that most of us who enjoy fine wine fit into. 

equity oxfam emissionsSource: Oxfam. The full Paris School of Economics equity study can be found here

It is hard not to spot the irony when we think of the top wine producers, with prices in the thousands of euros per bottle, for whom we cannot help feeling a pang of sadness at the fate that they are unavoidably heading towards, who are literally fighting for their own survival against climate changes entirely brought on by the high emissions of their own discerning customers.

For those who have read the book Billionaire’s Vinegar, or enjoyed the documentary, Sour Grapes, one family appears in both stories as having been ripped off by wine fraudsters. It is the incredibly wealthy American Koch’s of course. No family has likely invested more money and bile into the denial of anthropogenic climate change than these guys. Their business of profiting from the sale of fossil fuels has played a significant role in the politics of denial and misinformation that is so prevalent in the United States and Europe. 

Billionaires aside, high emitting lifestyles are built into the aspirations of most of us. Flying is one of the most significantly rising causes of greenhouse gas pollution but who does not wish to travel more? Largely unnecessary journeys are taken with relish, an upgrade to business or first class posted on Instagram or Twitter, with pictures of the Earth through the tiny portal of the plane window magnifying the wonder of the experience. 

The truth is that the impacts that face the wine industry, that endless UN conferences and climate treaties are doing very little to solve, are all being caused by people like me. But what is the real significance?

Back to 2050

We are currently just over 1ºC of warming since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The IPCC, a global organisation of thousands of scientists studying climate change, have very conservatively stated that if the Earth warms beyond 1.5ºC then we will lose many small island states, like the Maldives, as well as many low lying regions, like Florida. 

Despite this, the politics of forcing the top 10% of polluters to reduce carbon emissions is so turgid that politicians raised the bar to 2ºC. So now, although we will have over 10 metres of sea-level rise and will likely lose hundreds of millions of lives in poorer countries, we do actually have more carbon that we can burn before we have to change our lifestyles.

emissions reduction
Chart shows how unlikely we are to stay below 1.5ºC and if we tried the fast & rapid commitment to emissions reductions required. Source: Cicero, Robbie Andrew

Unfortunately, this will not be very good for protecting wine styles in climate vulnerable areas. The AOC system exists to protect the integrity and style of regional wine production. However, if the climate warms up significantly, or if impacts increase in frequency (not yet seen but a potential effect of increased warming) and intensity (already being witnessed), then such controls are rendered void. 

Inability to budget, and the real sufferers

The same IPCC scientists have created what are called carbon budgets that give scenarios of how much carbon can be released and what global average temperatures will result. These carbon budgets equate to how much fossil fuels can be burned before we cross the threshold and enter a climate change casino of out-of-control weather.

It has been argued that the remaining carbon budgets should be allocated to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, as well as preserved for future generations, as we (and they) transition to renewable sources of powering our societies. 

So far, we have collectively ignored the pathway of reducing our personal profligacy in favour of one that guarantees, not only hardship for others in far off places, but also for our own children and grandchildren. 

Welcome to the Anthropocene; man controlled climate

If the industrial revolution had not occurred as it had, we would be now entering another ice-age. The glaciers would be starting to increase their reach down towards the mid-latitudes. For that reason, perhaps, a little global warming has been a good thing. 

A Potsdam study showed that we have put off the next glacial period (ice age) for at least 50,000 years. The study uses this data to illustrate how humanity has become itself a force of nature, hence why this geological age is called the Anthropocene.

This notion of humanity as a force of nature creates existential positives and negatives. In some ways, it creates an obvious hubris, for example, if we can warm it up, then surely we can tamper some more and cool it down? 

In many respects, the choices we leave ourselves, begin with reducing our emissions and we cannot even come together to do this. However, adaptation to climate change has started in earnest, especially in places like Bangladesh, where today climate change is a daily reality for the population.

The World Economic Forum places ‘Failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change’ as no.2 on its 2019 Global Risk Report under ‘Likelihood’ and ‘Impact’ (no.1 is 'extreme weather events' in terms of likelihood). Research and innovation to tackle these challenges are going on all over the world. They include protecting crops, moving agriculture indoors, protecting pollinating bees, finding ways of tapping the moisture-saturated atmosphere as a source of water, and so on. 

In the wine industry, we will start to see many of these technologies be implemented to preserve the viability of vineyards, especially in cases where wine production has to compete with other crops for finite resources such as water (as has happened in the United States with vineyards purchased by the Harvard Endowment Fund. Very poor due diligence on their part!).

We may like the idea of our wines being as natural and organically produced as possible, but preserving the ability to produce those wines will require a lot of technological interventions. 

The protection of the identity of a given vintage will likely evolve to be much more about what a winemaker is seeking to produce. The wines will have a far greater anthropogenic imprint than they do today, as the vines are managed to cope with an increasingly hostile climate.

Consumer trends

It has been hard not to notice the widespread hype around going vegan since the beginning of 2019. I myself did a one month trial back in October and have decided to remain. From a climate change perspective, a vegan diet reduces an individual’s carbon footprint significantly, depending on your own lifestyle emissions. As a huge lover of quality meat and fish I really never thought that I would be able to make the switch, nor did I honestly intend to.

What changed? Having co-founded a climate lecture series at Cambridge University, I have interfaced a lot more with students who have a lot more skin in the climate future impact game than I have. The experience has been as instructive as it has been humbling. 

All the students I have met are either vegetarian or vegan, seldom fly (if at all), and have a very strong understanding of the climate emissions problem. Especially who is doing the emitting! All of this is shaping their world view as they take the helm of driving societal norms. I have been trying to look through that lens and, as far as I can see, it illuminates a very different consumer landscape than the one my generation evolved from.

So moving forward, wine regions and consumers make up the narrative

It is great to see that in 2019 there will be the Porto Protocol instigated by the Fladgate Partnership, where climate change solutions will be presented. At the VinExpo Bordeaux 2019, the largest trade wine event in the world, a climate change symposium will take place, ensuring that Bordeaux is keeping the subject at the forefront of conversation.

Talking about climate change is a necessary part of the change process. We each have to make changes and adjust to a newly emerging world. Changing now means adaptation later will not be so existentially threatening. More delays mean that the quality of the wine in your glass will be the least of your concerns. 

In the vineyards where climate change will manifest itself, threatening centuries of cultural norms, humanity will have to rise to the challenge and do what it can to deliver harvests that produce quality wines. Wine is just one facet of a far wider climate issue, it is a luxury that has accompanied humanity for much of its “civilised” journey. 

Perhaps, in the investments and efforts to save the wine industry, knowledge and technology can be shared more widely for the wider benefit of other forms of agriculture, feeding those who will most desperately need it. Now, more than ever, the fate of the wealthiest people is intrinsically connected to the fate of their favourite beverage.

Nick Breeze is on Twitter and also contributes regularly to The Ecologist

Climate change related content:

AOC Ventoux is breaking through

Interview: (Re)Defining the Entre-Deux-Mers, climate change & tasting with Stephane Dupuch

Fladgate Partnership CEO, Adrian Bridge, responds to climate change impacts in the vineyard

Interview: Didier Gimonnet talks climate change impacts

Interview: Meet Jean-Luc Colombo


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