Come pests, frost or fire: How the Swiss are arming their wines against climate change

Climate change has a global impact, and wine is no exception. Global warming in vineyards is associated with an increase in frost, hail, and fire, droughts, fires, and diseases.

It is a problem when we realize that consistent weather conditions are required to produce high-quality grapes. Each stage of the vine’s growth cycle is dependent on weather conditions. For example, warm and sunny weather is needed for flowering and fruit setting, but moderate rain with marked differences in temperature between day and night temperatures is best during maturation.

Climate risks to the wine industry

Climate hazards can cause unpredictable changes in the quantity and quality of each vintage compared to historical norms. Winemakers are now aware of the business risks that come with climate change, such as:

  • Changes in conditions for grape-growing: Disruptions to the seasonal cycle may affect the quantity and quality of grapes harvested. It can also affect the reputation of a producer and a region.
  • Pests and diseases are more prevalent: Higher temperatures create ideal conditions for the breeding of diseases and problems. Winegrowers typically respond by spraying pesticides on cultures, compromising sustainability.
  • Water scarcity Repeated dry spells may limit irrigation and require producers to invest in costly water management methods.
  • Vineyard relocation: Certain wine regions can become unsuitable to grow grapes and ultimately lead producers to move elsewhere. Increased competition for newly hospitable areas to cultivate grapes puts further pressure on revenue.

Climate change has many indirect effects. It can increase the price of energy, water, and labor. This will reduce profitability for producers.

The economic effects of climate change on wine producers are complex. Could producers mitigate the impact of climate change by using more innovative practices?

Avoid up to 40% of your losses.

We turn to the Canton of Valais in southern Switzerland, the most prolific wine-producing region of the country. This region is known for its international grapes, including Syrah, pinot noir, and Cornalin, but also its local varieties, such as petite arvine, Amigne, and Cornalin. In total, the region is home to more than 50 varieties.

Valais is a promising study case for at least two factors. The region is home to a wide variety of grapes, both red and white. This sets it apart in French vineyards, where AOC regulations limit the types that can be used. The Valais grapes react differently to climate hazards. Syrah allows a dryer climate, whereas Pinot Noir requires cooler temperatures. Gamaret is pest-resistant. We ask whether a diverse portfolio of grapes could reduce climate risks.

This graph illustrates how the diversity of grape varieties can help offset climate risks for the wine industry. The horizontal axis represents the number of grape varietals. In contrast, the vertical axis indicates the amount that the harvest has varied from year to year in comparison to the historical norm. The solid line shows the average variation between 1 and 10 grape varieties. Author provided

As shown in Figure 1, winemakers who grow one type of grape have a 1 in 3 chance that their harvest will differ by more than 44 percent. The risk decreases as winemakers increase the number of varieties. The first blue dot to the left indicates that Pinot Noir is a grape variety that has a higher consistency over time. This lowers climate risk. Combining grape varieties can further reduce climate risks.

The variability of production can be reduced by 40% with four varieties. When the number of grape varieties is increased from 1 to 4, the continuous line decreases gradually from 0.44 to 0.27%. Eight randomly chosen grape varieties reduce the risk by half. The dashed line shows how the risk can be further reduced by carefully selecting the grape varieties. Combining four red and white, early and late types will minimize climate risk by almost two-thirds.

Figure 2 shows the variations in Oechsle degree. This is used to estimate the ripeness and predict the alcohol content of the wine. Oesle is a quality indicator. Other dimensions do define a great bottle of wine. To make good wine, one must pick grapes that are mature and have enough sugar. Figure 1 shows that using multiple grape varieties can reduce the risk of experiencing a lack or excess of maturity. The results are the same as those of Figure 1 but with lower values on the vertical axis. The results show that the quality variations are less than those of quantity. This can be explained by the fact it is possible to modulate harvest dates in order to obtain grapes that are mature enough.

What is an example that you can follow?

Our research shows that regions that allow different grape varieties to be grown are better able to deal with climate risks. They could also serve as an inspiration for other areas. The benefits include:

  • Resilience: By planting grape varieties with different tolerances to environmental stressors, producers can increase their strength to climate change. If one grape variety is affected by a heatwave, but another still produces a quality crop, this will increase the strength of vineyards to changing climate conditions.
  • Better crop quality: Grape varieties differ in their flavor profiles, acidity, and sugar content, which results in better wines.
  • Protection against disease. Producers can protect their vineyards from disease outbreaks and reduce their dependence on one variety.
  • Adaptability to changing circumstances: By utilizing different grape varieties, producers are able to prepare their vineyards for unpredictable weather patterns. This will ensure the viability of their vineyards on a long-term basis.
  • By tapping into more markets, producers can reduce their economic dependency on one variety. This lowers the risk of market fluctuations and provides a steady income.

Diversification is not without obstacles.

The soil requirements for different grape varieties vary. They may not grow well if these conditions are not met. Some grape varieties take longer to reach maturity, which can impact productivity. Transitioning producers may have to spend a lot of money on equipment, labor, and other resources in order to meet these challenges.

Even if you have overcome all of these obstacles, consumers might not generate enough demand. Winemakers should carefully consider these factors when embarking on a diversification plan and perhaps start with a feasibility study.

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