Even a brief look at EU policy documents should swiftly scotch doubts about climate change, if any linger after US President Donald Trump’s June 2017 withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Support for carbon reduction and other environment-friendly initiatives abound in EU policy, some dating back to 1990s, along with a range of subsidies and other supports for the bloc’s 16 wine producing countries. Making sense of wine and climate change policy, however, can take time.
Overview of available support
The impact of climate change on Europe’s winemaking varies significantly from region to region and even from vineyard to vineyard. With so much depending on soil, slope orientation and grape type, the effects on vines, grapes and wines are highly individual. And, where one area might profit, others lose. Universal themes are beginning to emerge however: drought, water shortages and lower volume harvests. And while none of the measures described in this article will in themselves halt, let alone reverse, climate change, most will probably become part of a toolbox of mid- to long-term solutions that will allow existing wine regions to stay put.
In France, for example, a spokesperson for the French Agriculture Ministry said drought is a key issue. This is partly based on indications that areas suitable for growing vines could shift between 280km and 500km northward by the end of the century. That possibility does not take account of vine evolution, different vine types, nor individual changes to plants and soil and vineyard management, the spokesperson stressed. But the prospect of moving a vineyard 500km to the north certainly focusses the mind. Unsurprisingly, French researchers say wine growers would prefer to stay where they are. This means, for now at least, that adaptation trumps relocation for existing regions.
There are an equally different number of approaches to dealing with climate change at vineyard level. But here again, the principal themes can be boiled down to reducing CO2 emissions, using less water and finding plants and methods that thrive, not wilt, in the new paradigm. Solutions include planting different rootstocks, different grape types and even growing vines under solar panels, as one radical pilot project is doing.
To simplify much of the EU-level complexity, the policies and subsidies governing wine growers’ choices can be roughly divided into two areas. One: policy and funding for climate friendly viticulture. And two (although not necessarily in that order): policy and funding to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
Both types of support are delivered via a web of programmes that fall into four main frameworks: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and, within that, Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) and National Support Programmes (NSPs). Outside the CAP area (although due to be merged into it as of 2021 to reduce complexity and increase efficiency) is the current Common Market Organisation (CMO), which has up to now been the main repository of wine policy and funding.
Ignoring, for simplicity’s sake, the different programme types, one of the EU’s main climate friendly vineyard policies is aid for winegrowers that avoid vineyard ploughing and maintain grass strips between rows, both of which help to keep CO2 in the soil. Help is also at hand for those that reduce their impact on the environment by, for example, by using planet friendly fertilisers made from grape lees and marc, or using pruning residues to produce electricity or heat. On another tack, using wine marc to produce ethanol for industrial or energy use is also encouraged. In Bordeaux, for example, grape marc is collected by distilleries and used to produce ethanol-based biofuel for local buses.
Meanwhile, actions to mitigate the effects of climate change include payments for switching to grape types that need less water, or help with harvest insurance. Environmentally friendly winemaking is another area the EU supports. This means winemakers wary of animal-based clarification products – such as egg whites or pork gelatin which tend to come from intensive farms that reduce biodiversity, exacerbate water and air pollution and increase greenhouse gas emissions – can instead choose from a range of EU-approved plant, mineral and microbiological clarification products. Pea powder is one example of a plant-based agent, or a mix of pea and potato. Mineral-based options include clay (or bentonite.)
The EU is funding individual projects to develop climate solutions for wine growers. One of these is ADVICLIM, which stands for Adaptation of Viticulture to Climate Change. Its aim? To produce a range of tools that will help growers make better choices. It offers software models that show the impact of climate change at vineyard level, a programme to reduce CO2 emissions and best-practice manuals.
The project is 50% funded by the EU’s LIFE mechanism. LIFE is an acronym for the funding programme’s French title: L’Instrument Financier pour l’Environnement. Or, in English, the Financing Instrument for the Environment. Under the current programme, which runs to 2020, LIFE has a total budget of €3.4bn ($3.87bn) and it is covering half ADVICLIM’s €3m running costs.
Asked for more detail on the modelling tools, ADVICLIM’s New Zealand-based project director, Hervé Quenol, said data on how climate variations affect vines is being combined with regional climate change scenarios. The resulting software models will enable vintners make better choices about what to plant and how to manage their vineyards, under future weather conditions.
Data for the project, said Quenol (who is also research director at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, the CNRS), is being collected from six vineyard sites. Two are in France (at Saint-Émilion and the mid-Loire Valley, with a white grape site in Coteaux du Layon and a red grape site in Saumur-Champigny). The four other sites are in Germany (Rheingau), the United Kingdom (Sussex), Romania (Cotnari) and in Spain (Navarra).
For wine growers in more urgent need of climate change advice, ADVICLIM’s first manual, titled ‘Adapting Viticulture to Climate Change – a guidance manual to support decision-making’, is already available for download.
Country level actions
There are numerous country level initiatives under way in France, most of which are directly funded by the government, although EU funds can also play a role. Overseeing and coordinating several of France’s wine and climate change projects is Dr Nathalie Ollat. Based in Bordeaux, Dr Ollat works for the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, or INRA, France’s national agricultural research body. The projects she describes focus mainly on three areas: root stock transplants, new grape varieties, and the broader impacts of climate change throughout French viticulture.
Happily, for many French growers the principal effect of climate change has been positive so far, mainly thanks to higher temperatures. However, downsides are appearing, even in more northerly areas. These include “some negative impacts on acidity and aromas. Mainly in Alsace, Champagne and Cognac, and Burgundy,” Dr Ollat said. Further south, challenges increasingly include “very high sugar levels, which means very high alcohol levels and a delay between sugar and polyphenol accumulation,” which can create uneven colour, texture and taste. Red wines, for example, are particularly at risk of losing their normal colour.
Asked about the recent floods in France’s southwest Aude region, which killed more than 10 people and flooded vineyards, Dr Ollat said the projects described don’t look at extreme climate events. “We are looking instead at the gradual effects on the vines and grapes,” she said, mainly because extreme climate events are difficult to simulate.
While there are no silver bullets, Dr Ollat said national adaptation to climate change will, as a first step, likely involve, “keeping the same grape variety but changing the rootstock”, the focus of the GreffAdapt project. Longer term, varieties could gradually be changed. This is the aim of the VitAdapt project, which is studying 52 different grape varieties, from France and other countries, in a bid to identify the best ones for planting in 10 to 20 years’ time.
New vineyard processes are also being explored. “Irrigation is one. But we already know water shortages are going to be an issue so irrigation is not a sustainable solution,” said Dr Ollat. “We also know that if water usages are prioritised, food will take priority over wine.”
Discussing other options, she pointed to a project called SunAgri, in which vines are grown under solar panels. The panels, which rotate, can be placed vertically when sun is needed, and horizontally for shade. “This is the only pilot project like this in the world,” said Antoine Nogier, the CEO of Sun’R Smart Energy, the company that owns the SunAgri project at Domaine de Nidolères in France’s southwest Pyrénées-Orientales region. “There have been tests that have combined agriculture and solar panels, yes. But this is the first time the plant is the priority. The vine comes first.”
Previous tests, he said, prioritised energy production, programming panels to track the sun throughout the day. “Instead the priority here is to optimise the best mix of sun and shade for the plant,” while also producing electricity, not vice versa.
The project, Nogier said, is part of the new wave of what is known as digital agriculture. Digital agriculture’s primary aim is to produce more food, using less water and energy, on less land. The result will be better “agricultural and viticultural resilience” in the face of changing weather conditions, he said.
And if not? Well then there’s always a post-Brexit glass of UK sparkling wine to be had. Or perhaps a bottle of shade-grown Norwegian chardonnay would be more realistic.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business international. For more great insights into the world of wine, why not subscribe?