What will be the effects of climate change on the world's wine regions?
Wine is a major global commodity. Many regional economies are heavily dependent upon its production – and globalisation means that rewards for the best producers are now very high.
Yet the climatic conditions needed for different varieties of grape to prosper are highly specific. As a result of climate change, some of the world’s major producing regions are now threatened - although new opportunities are opening up in places not previously viewed as major players, such as southern England.
In this article we firstly take a look at the response of the French government to the rising economic benefits that globalisation has brought to the Champagne region. Then we move on to examine the climate change challenges facing Spanish wine-growers. Finally, we take a look at the new best-selling comic book that is teaching 500,000 Japanese citizens to ‘go global’ in a hunt for better wine!
Champagne: the little region that just got bigger
No future for Spanish wine?
What has a Japanese comic book got to do with the global pattern of wine trade?
Practice A-level and IB questions
The small Champagne region in north-eastern France is struggling to produce enough grapes to meet massive global demand for its famous fizzy alcoholic drink. Each year, nearly 400 million bottles are produced – that’s €2bn of champagne! – and all from a region measuring just 35,000 hectares.
Under international laws regulating food and drink, wines carrying instantly recognisable names such as ‘Champagne’ or ‘Bordeaux’ can only be produced in the French regions carrying that name. This is the same rule that applies to the production of famous British cheeses such as Stilton – they can only be made locally. The makers of these products have all successfully claimed ‘protected geographical status.’
The designation of the different French wine-producing regions depends heavily on physical geographical factors, such as their varied climate, soils and geology. The Champagne region - with its cool temperatures and chalk subsoils - traditionally encompassed 319 villages, the residents of which have been working hard to produce ever -increasing quantities of Champagne, as world demand has grown.
However, there are limits to just how intensively the land can be used and world demand has now begun to out-strip supply. Since the 1990s, more and more people in Europe and America have been buying Champagne, thanks to rising levels of wealth (with the Millennium bringing record sales).
Globalisation is part of the picture too. Wealth has spread to the new middle classes of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). This means that after Britain, the biggest export demand (rising by a third in 2006-07) now comes from Russia and China.
Ghislain de Montgolfier, head of Bollinger and President of the Champagne Union, recently claimed that France hopes to soon sell over one million bottles a year to India’s new rich. ‘Can you imagine a love story without champagne?’ he asked, adding: ‘We're selling a dream’ (The Guardian, 25 August 2007).
The president of Moët et Chandon, the world's top champagne brand, has said: ‘We're at maximum yield and we will soon hit a wall.’
So why can’t producers in other parts of France or the rest of the world produce Champagne? As The Guardian newspaper neatly explains, ‘the term Champagne can only legitimately apply to wine from these carefully mapped-out chalky hills and valleys. All other fizz, from Alsace to Australia, must avoid the word.’
The only lawful solution is to make the Champagne region bigger!
Geography in action
The decision to enlarge the Champagne region was finally taken in 2008 by INAO (Institut National des Appelations d'Origine), the organization charged with regulating controlled place names, part of France’s Ministry of Agriculture.
Prior to the decision, five people - a geographer, a historian, a geologist, a vineyard expert and a biologist – had worked together for two years to try and decide whether the region’s boundaries could be withdrawn – and to consider which neighbouring villages would become eligible for inclusion. Who would be allowed to join the world’s most famous wine-producing area? Who would be the winners and losers?
The final decision has inevitably been controversial. 40 new villages from neighbouring Marne and Aube have been brought into the enlarged Champagne region under the new ruling. However, some villages who thought they would belong to the revised map have been excluded – and they are far from happy. ‘If your vines fall on the wrong side of the divide, they will be worth €5,000 [£3,800] a hectare,’ said an official. ‘On the other side they will be worth €1m’ (The Guardian, 14 March 2008).
The review process is expected to be finished by early 2009. Vineyard plantings are expected around 2015, with their first product being marketed from around 2021.
As previously reported by the RGS-IBG Your Climate Your Life website, the world map of agriculture is set to be re-drawn on account of climate change. Distribution patterns for cultivated crops – including the grapes need for wine manufacturing – are already showing signs of modification.
Global CO2 levels are currently rising by 2 or 3 ppm (parts per million) per year. They have already reached 387 ppm, meaning that we are now beginning to live with the first effects of what the IPCC and Stern Report call a ‘low-emissions scenario’ for climate change.
Wine experts say that the changes made so far to grapes by higher temperatures - like fruitier flavours and higher concentrations of alcohol - have generally had a positive impact on the taste of wines all over the world (BBC News, 06 September 2008). So far it seems most people are winners in the wine world.
For instance, there are now 400 new commercial wine-producers in the UK. One of these, Yearlstone Vineyard in Devon, reported record yields thanks to record high temperatures during 2006.
However, with no signs of world CO2 production slowing, an even warmer higher-emissions world becomes a real possibility. And a higher-emissions world would definitely bring shocking losses to the wine industry.
BBC News (06 September 2008) has stated that if temperatures in Spain keep rising - and they report that temperatures there have gone up by 2C on average in the past 50 years - Spanish wines could taste very different and some famous vintages will be ruined.
Torres is one of Spain's biggest wine producers. The firm is so concerned about climate change that it is attempting to help world mitigation efforts by trying to capture the CO2 produced at the grape fermentation stage of wine production. As an adaptation measure, Torres is also experimenting with different grape varieties that are more resistant to high temperatures.
‘It may be that in 30 or 40 years this place here, this vineyard, becomes too hot, too warm for the merlot,’ Mr Torres told BBC News (06 September 2008). ‘So then what we have to do, and we may do this in the next years, is to move merlot [the grapes] slowly to the mountain area. Because with the altitude you have cooler climates.’
How is the geography of grapes changing?
Analysts say extreme droughts are already leaving Australia too hot and arid to remain a high-volume wine-maker
Countries such as Russia, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine and Slovenia could become international players
Southern Canada is likely to rival the United States
English sparkling wines have a bright future, unless we experience runaway global warming
In the future, genetically modified, disease-resistant grapes will be grown hydroponically in floating offshore vineyards
China is already the world's sixth largest wine producer, with good soils, low labour costs and soaring domestic demand – soon, it may take the wine world by storm
Quite clearly, the planet may be approaching a “tippling point”
Sources: The Guardian (04 March 2008 & 09 May 2008)
One very interesting 2008 news story about wine reaches into the schools Geography curriculum areas of consumerism and globalisation. It seems that the Japanese wine industry has been turned on its head by the runaway success of a new comic book.
Selling 500,000 copies a week, Kami no Shizuku (‘The Drops of the Gods’) has emerged as ‘an extraordinarily potent mover of Asian wine markets’ (The Times, 11 September 2008). The book’s hero, Shizuku Kanzaki, is on a quest for the world’s 12 greatest wines. When he has discovered them all, Shizuku will receive the key to his father’s wine cellar.
In each week’s instalment, he tastes classic ‘real-world’ wines as part of his quest – and the book’s readers are responding by placing orders with their local wine suppliers!
The Times reports: ‘He has sent the prices of some vintages soaring and, in some cases, tripled sales of particular wines. Some wine importers in Japan say they have never encountered such a powerful single influence on their business.’
And Japanese comic book readers are experiencing cultural globalisation as they accompany Shizuku on his journey around the world in search of its greatest wines
A-level students studying climate change
Examine the illustration taken from the Stern Report showing possible impacts of climate change as we move from a low-emissions scenario towards a high-emissions scenario. Write a short essay (1 – 2 sides) using the title ‘Suggest ways in which the geography of wine production could be modified by climate change.’
[tip: the water and ecosystems impacts are especially important.]
IB students studying the ‘Contemporary issues in Geographical Regions’ topic
Use information contained in the Champagne section of this case study to help you answer either of the following two titles:
Discuss the concept that regions have fixed boundaries.
Discuss how the contemporary geographic issues within a region may lead to a change in its boundaries
[tip: you can also discuss how climate change will modify the physical characteristics of regions – and think about how this will effect regions and perhaps ways in which they are defined.]
(Thanks to Tony Burton, Chief Examiner for IB Geography, for suggesting these titles)
This article is written by Dr Simon Oakes, a Principal Examiner in A-level geography.
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