Scientists Warn Winemakers to Rethink Everything They Know About Grapes

The days of your favorite varietals are numbered.

Flickr / Peggy Lohse

Maybe you went too hard on Champagne this New Years’ Eve, and now the smell of it conjures up blurry memories of your glitter-flecked head in a toilet. If that sounds pretty relatable, don’t worry: On Tuesday, Harvard University scientists suggested that we’re all likely to encounter less and less of the popular wine — and others like it — on future year-end celebrations unless winemakers make more of an effort to deal with the effect of climate change on wine grapes now.

Their warning doesn’t just extend to Champagne producers but to any vintner whose wine depends on any of the varieties of grapes currently grown around the world. In the Nature Climate Change paper, the scientists draw attention to the fact that the handful of grape varieties that make up our favorite wines probably won’t be able to cope with our changing climate — and warn vintners that it’s time to start figuring out which of the hardier varieties of grapes can also be made into good wine.

Fortunately, according to paper co-author and Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Elizabeth Wolkovich, Ph.D., there are plenty of grape types to choose from. “The Old World has a huge diversity of winegrapes — there are over planted 1,000 varieties — and some of them are better adapted to hotter climates and have higher drought tolerance than the 12 varieties now making up over 80% of the wine market in many countries,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

“We should be studying and exploring these varieties to prepare for climate change.”

Winemakers need to start rethinking their dependence on certain varieties of grapes.


We’re already seeing dramatic changes to the global wine landscape. In recent years, wildfires exacerbated by climate change have decimated large swaths of California’s wine country, in some cases even changing the flavor of the wine produced there. Not all of it has been bad for wine, at least at the moment: in France, some vintners are finding that the changing climate is leading to earlier harvests and better wine, as Wolkovich and her colleagues pointed out previously. In any case, vineyards around the world are changing, and if wine makers want to keep glasses filled in the coming decades they’ll have to rethink their dependence on certain varieties of grapes.

The issue isn’t that there aren’t any grape types that can withstand the impending changes. Rather, the authors write, it’s the market demand for only certain types of wine that drives winemakers to demand only certain types of grapes. In 2013, a large survey conducted by scientists at the University Of Adelaide School of Economics showed that the majority of wine grapes grown in the world are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo — all grapes that are easily recognizable to wine drinkers but together represent less than 1 percent of the 1,100 planted varieties of wine grape types in existence.

To drive home their point, the researchers note that, in many countries, the same 12 varieties of grapes make up anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the total amount of wine grown per hectare.

The real obstacle, it seems, is that we, as wine-drinkers, are generally unwilling to expand our horizons past our tried and tested Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. In the coming years, saving wine from climate change will take plenty of give and take between us, the wine industry, and grape growers, but in any case, keeping new, future-friendly varieties in mind — new British and German winemakers have some ideas — when stocking up for your next party will probably count as good practice for the future.

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