Will Vineyards Really Push Pandas Out of Their Home?

Research finds changing climates may force growers to move to new areas—bumping right into wildlife
Apr 9, 2013

If you love wines from the world's most famous regions, or grow them there, you might be worried right now. By 2050, areas suitable for wine grapes could shrink as much as 25 percent in Chile, 51 percent in South Africa's Cape region, 60 percent in California, 68 percent in Mediterranean Europe and 73 percent in parts of Australia, according to a new global analysis published April 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

But hey, we wine lovers are adaptable. New parts of the world will become more promising for grapegrowing, particularly at higher elevations and in regions in northern Europe, New Zealand and western North America. The problem? Anyone planting vineyards there will likely be pushing into undeveloped wilderness and habitat for at-risk species, from grizzly bears and gray wolves that live in the Rockies to the giant panda in Central China. Uh-oh.

Let's get a few things out of the way before delving into the details of this wine-wildlife-and-water study, conducted by an international team, including researchers from the advocacy groups Conservation International and Environmental Defense Fund, as well as universities and research institutes in the United States, Chile and China.

First, even though the study's unveiling highlighted global stars of animal cuteness, no one meant to imply that grapegrowers are heartless bastards who would willingly starve fuzzy baby pandas or rip up the mountainsides of Yellowstone National Park. But wine makes an attention-getting poster child when someone wants to sound the alarm about climate change's impacts on agriculture. When I noted that some wine regions feel a bit picked upon (see: Napa) in climate studies, lead author Lee Hannah acknowledged, "This is what comes when an industry is in a leadership position with the environment … the more difficult decisions arrive on your desk as well."

In fact, the study cites excellent examples of the wine industry working together to preserve biodiversity. "It would be great if farmers of other crops looked to the wine industry's sensitivity to environmental and climate concerns," said Hannah, senior scientist for climate change biology at Conservation International. 

Second, this isn't just about wine. Grapes serve as a bellwether for all sorts of crops, from coffee and cacao to corn, rice and wheat. Why? Wine grapes—think about all the focus on terroirs—are sensitive to shifts in temperature and moisture. Many vineyards are located in areas with Mediterranean climates, which also happen to have high levels of biodiversity but have already lost a lot of habitat. Hillsides are prime sites for vines, and as temperatures get warmer, the inclination may be to move further upslope—to wildlife areas—to find cooler conditions. Plus, many vineyards aren't irrigated, so could be more susceptible to heat and drought.

"We really think this kind of study should be done crop after crop" to understand farmers' need to adapt, said co-author Rebecca Shaw, climate scientist and associate vice president at Environmental Defense Fund.

Third, if you feel you've heard enough about climate change and vineyards already, you probably haven't heard it quite this way. This study wasn't based on one model, such as average growing season temperatures, growing degree days needed for ripeness, or precipitation. Rather, it determined the consensus among 51 combinations of models—three categories of wine-suitability models and 17 different global climate models—in conjunction with two greenhouse-gas scenarios (the trajectory we're on now and a more active effort to reduce emissions). "Does it predict what's going to happen?" asked Shaw. "No. But is it a more conservative estimate of what's going to happen? Yes."

Among the different models, there was substantial agreement: All projected increased vineyard suitability in northern Europe, New Zealand and western North America, while all but two models projected shrinkage in Mediterranean-climate regions.

Map of Projected Changes in Vineyard Areas (Click to Enlarge)

Map courtesy of Conservation International

The researchers then looked at how much land within suitable areas intersects with natural habitats—the "ecological footprint"—and how much that's going to change by 2050. In Mediterranean Europe, where there's little wild habitat left, a 342 percent change is projected if vineyards move upslope into the likes of the Alps and Pyrenees. South Africa and California would see increased ecological footprints, of 14 and 10 percent, as vineyards are planted higher up. (Calculations weren't done for China, but prime viticulture areas are in the same mountains that are home to pandas.) Chile and Australia wouldn't see much change, as most new potential vineyard area would be in populated coastal areas and valleys.

When you turn to areas where suitable vineyard land increases, you really start to see potential collisions between vineyards and wildlife. For Northern Europe, the ecological footprint is projected to increase 191 percent. It's 126 percent for New Zealand. Western North America doesn't sound so bad—only 16 percent—but that's the biggest total increase as it's starting from a large area of 12.1 million acres. The overlap between vineyards and potential habitat is already 44 percent. The increase would be in unprotected, private lands from around Yellowstone into Montana and up into Canada—a key wildlife corridor for large mammals, Hannah noted.

"In conservation, we have relied on static protected areas-parks and wilderness areas. As the climate changes, plants and animals will need to be on the move," Shaw said. But since we humans can anticipate changing conditions, agriculture might get in their path first.

What if growers decided to stay put and deal with higher temperatures by misting grapes to cool them or increasing irrigation? There's another problem. Precipitation is projected to decline in every wine region the study analyzed. So there might not be enough fresh water to go around. Chile was cited as a country of particular concern, with a projected decrease in precipitation of 15.5 percent, when nearly 95 percent of the area is already under water stress.

Grapegrowers have other alternatives to moving into wild lands, such as planting new or different grape varieties better suited to expected climate conditions, though selling Grenache from Burgundy or Napa Mourvedré presents marketing challenges. Vineyard management techniques can limit sun exposure and keep clusters cooler. New winery practices are dramatically reducing water use.

Still, given the potential for conflict between wildlife and wine, Hannah and Shaw wanted to call attention to the importance of conservationists and growers collaborating to plan for vineyard movement. Shaw concluded, "We need to be thinking ahead how we are going to feed the planet and protect wildlife biodiversity, as opposed to reacting in a crisis mode."


Environment Climate Change

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