Climate Change Is Threatening Vineyards in Australia

Winemakers are looking for ways to adapt and grow fruit that’s more resistant to heat and drought

A vineyard in the Mudgee wine region of Australia. Martin Berry / Loop Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In Australia, climate change is clearing the way for more disasters—from floods that leave communities in disarray to wildfires that damage property and harm animals. But now, warming conditions are changing yet another aspect of life: the country’s $40 billion dollar wine industry.

Australia is the world’s fifth-highest exporter of wine, but its vintners are being forced to switch up their tactics to keep pace with the changing environment. While grapevines are hardy and able to grow in a variety of conditions, the fruit itself is among the most sensitive crops, susceptible to damage from environmental shifts. Australia’s rising temperatures are already making the grapes ripen more quickly, which changes their sugar and acidity levels, reports BBC News’ Tiffanie Turnbull.

“Things aren’t getting as cool as what they were. The weather patterns have changed a bit,” Stephen Chambers, owner of Chambers Rosewood Winery, told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Laura Chung and Jessica Yun last year. “The grape might be sugar ripe but not what we call phenologically ripe, which means it’s not flavor ripe.” 

Wildfires have also damaged some vineyards as they ripped through Australia. In 2019 and 2020, the country’s record-breaking bushfires destroyed homes and scorched the land—and caused a loss of about $20 million in grape production in the nation’s Adelaide Hills region.

Instead of fighting with nature, some growers are now switching to grape varieties that can handle drier conditions and warmer temperatures, such as tempranillo, fiano or soave, which are often grown in Europe. These grapes can be more environmentally friendly, requiring less water to thrive.

One grower, Ashley Ratcliff, who owns vineyards in South Australia’s Riverland region, tells BBC News he changed to more “alternative” varieties in 2003 after deciding that the risk of climate change was greater than that of selling lesser-known wines.

“There are all those fervent doomsday people. [But] I think there is an opportunity to rebrand and make the industry really exciting—to use climate change as a positive rather than a negative,” Ratcliff tells the publication. 

As temperatures continue to rise, popular varieties that require cooler temperatures, including shiraz, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, may become harder to grow, per the Herald. In 2019, scientists created 487-page guide to help Australian growers understand more about these changes so they can better adapt.

With temperatures rising globally, Australia isn’t the only country contemplating the best ways to make wine in an increasingly unpredictable world. Winemakers worldwide are planting other crops between the grapevines, putting in shade structures to shield their fruit or planting at higher altitudes. Still, Reuters’ Mike Scott reports that if temperatures rise just 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, regions capable of producing viable wine could be cut in half. 

Caroline Brown, a winemaker in Australia, calls climate change the “biggest threat” to her family’s business, per BBC News. “If we don’t look after where we’re growing grapes, then we’re not going to have any way to plant them in the future,” she tells the publication. “So, it is scary.” 

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