Farm Progress

Two experts are urging wine lovers not to panic over the effect of climate change on wine grapes.

April 17, 2013

5 Min Read

A new study of climate change and wine grapes published earlier this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paints a dire picture for wine grapes and wildlife. Two Cornell University experts – both with field and lab backgrounds that, in part, focus on sustainable grape production – urge lovers of both not to panic. With some thoughtful adaptation, there’s still a plenty of room and resources for everyone.

Justine E. Vanden Heuvel is an associate professor of horticulture who is actively involved in viticulture teaching and research, the latter focusing on optimizing flavors and aromas in wine grapes, and improving both the environmental and economic sustainability of wine grape production.

Vanden Heuvel says:

“On the whole, viticulture in the Northeast will not be critically endangered in the near future as a result of climate change. Variability in climate will be a bigger issue than just warmer temperatures – for example, our crazily early bud-break last year and then subsequent frost damage at some sites. We grow cool-climate cultivars here and can move towards warmer climate cultivars when necessary, or cultivars that push bud later, or cultivars that ripen earlier.

“You could argue that many of our cultivar choices in the Northeast are already more sustainable than in many other growing regions. Vinifera are susceptible to a large number of fungal diseases, but Concord is actually quite disease resistant and is the vast majority of acreage in New York State. Most hybrid cultivars have some disease resistance, and Cornell’s new cultivar Arandell doesn’t require any fungicides at all when grown in the Finger Lakes region. Also, consumers of local wines in the Northeast tend to be more accepting of seeing cultivars on labels that are not seen on the West Coast, so it will probably be easier for New York growers to change cultivars to respond to climate change.


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“One of the weaknesses of the current conversation is the sustainability discussion is focused almost wholly on water use, which is really only part of the picture. Water use is an area where New York does really well, since in many years we have ample precipitation. But if I had to make a generalization, it would be that California is currently more sustainable with respect to use of sustainable viticultural practices. Due to precipitation and humidity, grape growers here have to spray vinifera grapes much more frequently to prevent fungal infections. West Coast growers also have large sustainability certification programs. We are not there yet, with the exception of the new Long Island Sustainable Wines program that has just been initiated.”

Migrating wine production

Timothy E. Martinson is a senior extension associate
in Cornell’s Department of Horticulture whose Geneva N.Y.-based program shares leading scientific research in enology and viticulture to support the New York wine and grape industry. His research focus includes addressing sustainable production and the impact of cultural practices and climate on grapes.

Martinson says:

“Ditto to what Justine just said.

“The assumption of this study seems to be that viticulture will move en mass to new, previously unexploited land. In production areas with a Mediterranean climate, the assumption seems to be that production would move into arid production regions, which will include higher-elevation areas and habitat currently in native vegetation. In other words, grape growers may be plowing up alpine meadows as global temperatures rise. And the water demands of the crop would increase.

“It seems more reasonable to me that viticulture would displace other agricultural uses – because, they already have the infrastructure in place for agriculture. So you may have vineyards in Montana, but they are likely to be in places like the Flathead valley, and not in or around Glacier National Park. So, if the climate modeling is accurate, there will be a shift, but it will probably be a displacement of other crops.

“Growers and practices are not static, they are dynamic. Wine grape production in the U.S. could migrate to other agricultural areas, for example land currently in row crops in the Midwest or Northeast. Our main limiting factor has been severe winter low temperatures that cause injury to vines. But there are ample, unexploited water resources in the Northeast, and much land that could be converted to grape production. Wine grape acreage in California is 580,000 acres. There are 8.6 million acres of agricultural land in New York alone. New York and other Northeastern and Midwestern states could absorb a good share of that acreage.

“I think, however, it’s more likely that grape production in the West will displace other crops on land currently in agriculture. For example, there are 15 million acres of agricultural land in Washington State. I don’t see farmers gobbling up highland meadows or high elevation rangeland, it’s more likely that they will go to places that already have the agricultural infrastructure in place, but are dedicated to other crops.

“The final question may be: ‘Are grapes less sustainable than a monoculture of potatoes, wheat, corn or sugar beets? Will wine grape production supplant apples in Washington or New York?’ To me, it seems there is plenty of existing agricultural room, available water and smart growers, so it’s too early to predict doom for wine or wildlife just yet.”

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