Wine is Getting Tipsier as Climate Reaches Tipping Point

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Wine Wednesdays are about to get a bit wilder. But while rising alcohol content in your favorite wines might sound like a good time, it could be a symptom of a growing problem in wine country. Rising temperatures mean higher sugar content in grapes, which translates to wines well over 14.5% alcohol by volume. Experts also predict that flavor could suffer, not only from high alcohol content but also from wildfire smoke tainting vineyards in places like California and the Pacific Northwest. 


Why This Matters: The world’s favorite beverages are in danger. Teacoffee, and now wine are threatened by climate change. Some industries have adapted quickly to rising temperatures, investing in more resilient and sometimes more flavorful crops. But wineries, especially those in the U.S., have only recently begun investing in climate adaptation measures. Thousands of jobs could be at risk in regions with high warming rates, including over 64,000 jobs in the U.S. alone. But even with innovation, farmers say the problems like temperature and wildfires are here to stay and that customers can look forward to lower crop yields and less palatable wines. 

A Lot to Wine About: Regions like California, Australia, and Argentina are some of the world’s largest producers of wine. Still, all are facing warming at higher rates than wine regions further north like Italy and France. The most apparent result of this warming is higher alcohol contents and less tasty wines. 

  • Wines with alcohol contents above 14% may taste flatter and less robust, and tannins may begin to stick out upon a second or third glass. 
  • This imbalance in tannins, sweetness, and flavor happens when grapes, in warming weather, produce more sugar
  • Fermentation turns those sugars into alcohol, which then overwhelms other flavors. 
  • Some growers have tried to avoid this by harvesting grapes earlier in the season, but they lose the well-developed flavor of fully ripened grapes in the process.

In some regions, it’s not just the warmth impacting flavor and yield. California, Oregon, and Washington produce 95% of the country’s wine grapes, and in 2020, wildfires caused a $3.7 billion loss for the wine industry. Wildfires in California and Australia are also causing “smoke taint,” which, according to the Australian Wine Research Institute, can cause “smoky, burnt, ashy, or medicinal” flavors. Wineries have taken preventative action, like creating protective architecture and partnering with local fire departments. West Coast universities like UC Davis are working to develop carbon-activated hoods to enclose and protect grape clusters. But “for now, the deck is stacked against us with climate change and the drought,” said Anita Oberholster, a Cooperative Extension specialist in enology. “We hope for the best, but it’s not a matter of if we will have wildfires. It’s a matter of when we will have them.”

One country, however, is celebrating the warmer weather. English wines may be on the rise alongside temperatures. Southeast England has a very similar geology to France’s Champagne region, making it the perfect place for new bubbly brands. Now, there are 700 vineyards in England and Wales, and the wine industry is proving to be one of the fastest-growing in the U.K. But even as the north celebrates its victory, the looming threat of climate change remains. To preserve your favorite drink, and your Wednesday nights, climate action must be a priority for wineries and wine drinkers everywhere.

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