Climate Change Could Pit Wine Against Pandas

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 8 2013 6:47 PM

Climate Change Could Make Montana the Hot New Wine Region

A new study predicts that climate change will shift wine-growing from today's Mediterranean climates to cooler climes, bringing grapes into conflict with wildlife.
As climate change pushes vineyards into cooler climates, a wildlife could suffer.

Photo by Steve Hillebrand / Courtesy of Conservation International

In 50 years, wines from Bordeaux and Tuscany will be insipid. Instead, we'll all be drinking Montana merlots and Chinese clarets.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

That, at any rate, is the implication of a paper published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which estimates that anywhere from 19 to 73 percent of the land suitable for wine-growing in today's major wine regions will be lost to climate change by 2050. (The wide variance reflects the great uncertainty in climate prediction models.) As vineyards Spain, Italy, and Southern France wither, colder regions that are inhospitable today will be poised to take their place as the new grands crus.

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C'est la vie, right? Climate change giveth, and climate change taketh away.

There's just one catch, according to the study. Many of those new wine regions coincide with important habitat for species like the gray wolf, the pronghorn, the grizzly bear, and in China's case, the panda.

Climate change and wine-growing regions
In this map, the red areas are present-day wine-growing regions that could dry up by 2050. Blue areas represent potential new wine-growing regions.

Conservation International

The most promising new region of all, according to lead author Lee Hannah of the nonprofit Conservation International, may be the area north of Yellowstone National Park. That would put it directly in the path of a conservation initiative designed to connect Yellowstone to the Yukon. It's that very type of wildlife corridor that scientists say may be needed to allow animals like grizzly bears to respond to climate change themselves. "Vineyards would be a major impediment to this connectivity," Hannah writes in a blog post about the study. "They provide poor habitat for wildlife, and would probably have to be fenced to avoid bears snacking on the grapes."

We've long known that wine grapes are particularly sensitive to climatic shifts. But the idea of vintners and pandas duking it out in a death match in the highlands of China is obviously not an appealing one for any of the parties concerned. Can it be avoided?

One encouraging sign is that vintners are already finding ways to adapt to climate change on the land they own today. As climate change intensifies, they can continue to adapt by uprooting old vines and replacing them with varietals more suited to warm weather, among other adaptations. At the same time, though, some are already buying new land on higher ground as "climate insurance." And China is now the world's fastest-growing wine region.

The real key to sustainable evolution of the wine industry, writes Hannah, will be shifting winemakers' environmental focus. Today a growing number are raising their grapes organically and biodynamically, which is well and good. Outlets like Whole Foods duly tout these wines' green credentials to well-intentioned consumers. But this approach leaves out the larger environmental problems of land use and impact on wildlife. If you're destroying habitat to build your "sustainable" vineyard and enclosing it with fences, that isn't really sustainable at all.

To remedy this, Hannah suggests that "consumers make it known that wildlife-friendly wine production is important to them." Wine producers could respond by following the lead of partnerships like the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative in the Cape region of South Africa, which plans new vineyards in concert with conservation groups to protect the most sensitive habitats.

Who's up for a panda-friendly pinot?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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