The great grape migration: Climate change pushes winemakers north
Rising temperatures are redrawing the maps of Europe’s vineyards — and disrupting centuries-old traditions.
A windswept grassland below sea level in the northern Netherlands is hardly where most people would picture their wine grapes growing, far from the sun-soaked hills of France or Italy.
But that’s just where Rubie van Crevel decided to plant her vines as winemaking migrates above typical latitude lines, pushed by the effects of climate change.
“You never get into winemaking in the Netherlands because of money, you have to be a bit insane,” said van Crevel, 32, who co-runs the Wijntuin Ronja vineyard with her partner Eise van Maanen.
In recent years, global warming has opened the door for people in typically colder places like the Netherlands to make wine where once it was inconceivable. The narrow band between the 35th and 50th parallels is normally the optimum zone for vine-growing, according to Kees van Leeuwen, a professor of viticulture at Bordeaux University. But that’s changing as temperatures increase.
“If you’re above the 50th, [it] is too cold. And if you’re down below the 35th, it’s too warm. So now, with climate change, these latitudes will shift,” said van Leeuwen.
Much like the Astrid Lindgren children’s book character for which the vineyard is named, Wijntuin Ronja is defying the odds, planted above the 52nd parallel just north of Haarlem, producing wine without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, though this adds another layer of complication in this region as the humidity increases the risk of fungi.
But while climate change has created new opportunities for winemakers up north, it’s also wreaked havoc on vintners down south, who now face greater threats of drought and fires. Shifting to vines that can withstand new climate conditions also threatens to disrupt centuries-old traditions and raises questions about how water-hungry grapevines can be grown sustainably going forward.
“We see wine growing developing in England, in Belgium, in the Netherlands, even Sweden. So they are definitely those who can be considered as winners. And of course, those in the warmest areas, those are likely to be the losers,” van Leeuwen said.
Changing vines to save the wine
Climate change is increasing the likelihood of drought in already hot and dry areas, reducing yields and threatening the viability of growing wine in areas like southern Spain, France, Cyprus or Sicily.
Faced with increasingly dry seasons, farmers often resort to watering the vines, but this in turn puts pressure on water sources, proving to be a short-term fix. One study found that agricultural water use in Spain had increased sixfold in the 20 years since 1995, and that 70 percent of this increase was due to the uptake of irrigation in viticulture in La Mancha, an arid but fertile plateau.
“They are using water which is not renewable. It’s like pumping oil,” said van Leeuwen.
Instead, he suggests in his research that farmers should try other adaptation methods first, such as changing the type of vines they grow. But this also means challenging deeply entrenched norms of winemaking.
European viticulture has had to adapt dramatically before: The majority of grape varieties now grown were grafted onto North American rootstock following a 19th-century blight that wiped out vineyards across the Continent, but couldn’t harm tolerant New World vines.
Today European wines are highly regulated and protected in EU foreign trade deals by so-called “appellations,” or labels, defined by their area of origin and what types of grapes are used in what proportions. This means, for instance, that to label a bottle as Barolo wine, a grower must be based within a narrowly defined area on the hills of Monferrato in Piedmont, Italy, and only use Nebbiolo grapes. The same goes for other gourmet “appellations,” like Chianti, Bordeaux or Rioja.
Appellations are often the culmination of centuries of winemaking history where farmers sought out the plants and techniques that best fit their specific climatic conditions. But fickle weather and rising temperatures mean the vines long used may no longer be best suited for their locations compared to varieties more resistant to dryer, warmer weather.
Some growers are preparing to make that change. In 2019, producers of Bordeaux introduced seven new varieties — most of which are more typically grown in drier Spain — to the list of types permitted under the protected appellation. The introduction of these new grapes will be gradual at first, capped at 10 percent of any blend, in an effort to also help consumers accept the new flavors.
“People will have to adapt. If people don’t adapt, then a lot of wine-growing regions are doomed,” said van Leeuwen.
Extreme is the new normal
Back at Wijntuin Ronja, van Crevel empties a measuring cone indicating the rainfall over the last few days. It’s overflowing, a small sign of the wet summer Northern Europe is experiencing, which proved deadly when floods last month killed more than 200 people, mainly in Germany and Belgium.
They picked hybrid varieties crossing well-known grapes with wild cultivars that give the plants higher resistance to diseases such as mildew and black rot — but even so, many of the vine leaves are tinted dark by a type of fungi that dots their surfaces, caused by the abundant rain and little sun they got this year.
“Whereas in 2020 we had a lot of drought, now we have breaking records of rainfall. So it’s really changing a lot. It’s very unpredictable,” she said, her muddied work boots sinking into the wet gray soil.
Dutch winemaking is still a fledgling sector, spanning just 300 hectares — a fraction of the 3.2 million hectares of vines across the EU. And first movers face greater risks.
Wijntuin Ronja hedges its own risks by using a system known as community-supported agriculture, renting out 10 plants to a participating “winegrower” at a price of €245 per harvest season. That person must also work five half-days on the farm and in exchange gets the wine their vines produce, as well as access to workshops on wine-growing and making.
This helps mitigate the blow if a vintage is poor, and also introduces city dwellers to the pleasures of farm work, the chance to spend time in nature and meet people — something many craved during coronavirus-induced lockdowns.
“We will be only capable of setting up a vineyard if we can share the risk with consumers, or with value chain partners, because otherwise, climate change is just providing uncertain weather conditions. And I don’t think it’s realistic to put that burden just on one player in the value chain,” said van Crevel.
That uncertainty — one of the hallmarks of climate change — is a common challenge for winemakers, both north and south.
“Vineyards are a little bit on their own in trying to think about extremes, but it’s really important that they do because one extreme year can wipe up an entire vintage,” said Lee Hannah, senior scientist for climate change at Conservation International, a U.S.-based environmental NGO.
Richard White, 65, a British retiree and hobbyist vigneron, has seen real consequences of that unpredictability. The 3 hectares of Syrah and Carignan vines he tends with friends in the southern Pyrenees region of France suffered a rare late frost this year.
“It killed off all the new growth on most of the plants. They looked absolutely desolate. The guys were nearly crying when they saw it because it was just something that local people hadn’t seen for 30 or 40 years,” he said.
In 2020, extremely dry and hot weather reduced their yields to a quarter of the 2,000 bottles they produced in 2019 — down to just 500.
White says he doesn’t know what to expect this year. “We just have to wait and see, it’s just difficult to predict what’s happening … it’s very, very weather dependent.”
Another concern for experts is how greater demand for European wine, largely driven by China’s growing middle class, combined with expanded possibilities for where to plant vineyards, could exacerbate environmental damage.
Research by Hannah and colleagues found that climate change will increase the net suitability of new potential wine-growing regions, including large peaty areas in Russia and Canada, but if they’re converted into agricultural land, this would add to the problem.
“If they’re developed, they could essentially release as much greenhouse gases as a century of U.S. emissions,” Hannah said. “Subsidizing agriculture in these areas could lead to an explosion of unplanned development that could have very negative climate consequences.”
Others hope the increasingly visible consequences of climate change like floods and fires will push shoppers to buy home-grown bottles with a smaller carbon footprint over imported alternatives.
“It brings opportunities in the sense that consumers become more aware of where their products are coming from. And that is, I think, a very good development,” said van Crevel.