Time to buy more Canadian wine? Climate change driving up prices from other wine regions

A series of climatic events is expected to lead to a five per cent drop in global wine production in 2016. That could mean many favourite Old World wines become much more expensive, while making vastly improved Canadian wines a much better value.

Five per cent drop in global wine production hitting traditional wine-making regions hard

Some of Thomas Bachelder's Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays come at a price less than half that of comparable wines from Burgundy, due he says to drought conditions in France. (Rob Krbavac/CBC News)

The weather in the summer of 2015 was unlike anything Chile's Aurelio Montes Jr. had experienced in nearly 30 years of winemaking.

"We never get rain during summer, but last year we had some rains during summer...very extreme rains, tropical rains, that's not very common in Chile." said Montes, who has vineyards in Curico and Colchagua, Chile, producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Experts are predicting a drop in global production of wine because of climate change, which is forcing up prices, particularly of Old World wines. That has Canadian winemakers seeing an opportunity.

The rain in Chile was a result of El Nino, a cyclical climate event where surface waters in parts of the Pacific become warmer than average resulting in unusual weather systems in different parts of the world. 

The El Nino of 2015-16 was among the worst in the last 30 years.  In South America, it produced monsoon-like rains causing widespread flooding and extensive damage.

Meanwhile, in France, extreme spring storms and a late frost damaged plants in traditional winemaking regions in 2016 and a drought has cut production in recent years.
Second generation Chilean wine maker Aurelio Montes Jr. says he's seeing weather he's never before experienced in nearly 30 years in the business. (Trialto Wine Agency)

For Montes, it was the continuation of a clear change in weather patterns.  In the past, he says, periods of wetter weather would come on gradually, last a while, and then peter out slowly. 

"Now, in one year, you could have an extremely rainy winter, then extremely hot summer. So what I'm trying to say is the weather is now more extreme," says Montes.

Climatic events, such as El Nino and this year's La Nina, are behind an expected five per cent drop in global wine production in 2016, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV).

The OIV says the biggest drops in production will be in South America, with Chile (down 21 per cent) and Argentina (down 35 per cent) hit the hardest, although South Africa is expected to see a cut in production of 19 per cent.

Global warming and the good juice

The report is drawing attention to the profound effect global warming is having on wine, how it's produced and where it may be produced in the future.
Grapes hanging from a vine in a vineyard in Ontario's Niagara Region. The grape crop is expected to be profoundly affected by climate change (Aaron Saltzman/CBC)

Those effects include drought, a decrease in arable land and an increase in insect infestations.

It's an issue that is top of mind for many in the Canadian wine industry, as warming temperatures can be seen as having both positive and negative effects for wine made in this country.

"Climate change is going to be a big deal for the next 50 years." says Thomas Bachelder.

Climate change is going to be a big deal for the next 50 years.- Thomas Bachelder, Ontario wine maker

"If you have a continued rise in temperature that's going to change the terroir of a region."

Bachelder is in a particularly good position to speak on the subject.  The Quebec-born winemaker has operations in Ontario's Niagara region as well as in Oregon, and Burgundy, France, which gives him first-hand knowledge of three similar but separate winemaking climates.
Canadian Thomas Bachelder makes award winning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Niagara, Oregon, and Burgundy, France. (Aaron Saltzman/CBC)

"Look at Burgundy." Bachelder says.

"They're in their sixth year of low crops due to weather-related problems.  And that means prices in Burgundy have skyrocketed.  And this is another reason why these pristine Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from Ontario are gaining attention."

Bachelder's Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, St. David's Bench, Niagara Peninsula won a gold medal in the 2016 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.

Wine critics praised its "Old World" flavour and, at $45, while expensive, it is less than half the cost of many comparable Burgundian Pinot Noirs. 

How Canada may benefit

Canada's wine regions, according to some, could actually benefit in other ways from warming temperatures. 

A report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the overall area suitable for viticulture will decrease 25 per cent to 73 per cent in major wine-producing regions around the world by 2050. 

The report adds there will also be a geographic shift in areas suitable for viticulture. 

"Suitability is projected to decline in many traditional wine-producing regions (e.g., the Bordeaux and Rhône valley regions in France and Tuscany in Italy) and increase in more northern regions in North America," the report says, meaning the areas where wine can be produced in North America will expand. 

But Canadian wine regions also face their own challenges from global warming.

"What we're finding with global climate change is not just the warming impact, it's the [erratic nature] of the weather events and needing to be prepared to mitigate that," says Debra Inglis, director of the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

Debra Inglis, director of Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, says when it comes to climate change, Canadian wine producers are well prepared to weather the storm. (Aaron Saltzman/CBC)

That means dealing with heat spikes and drought in the summer and, while winter may be warmer than normal, it's peppered with severe cold spikes, sudden changes which can be disastrous for a temperamental, delicate crop like grapes.

Canadians familiar with crazy swings in weather

Inglis says Canadian winemakers are used to variability in weather and already employ techniques to mitigate its effects.  Many use wind machines, for example, to draw warmer air to the ground to prevent frost. 

Even so, Canadian winemaker Thomas Bachelder says even cold climate regions like Niagara may need to focus on fewer, hardier types of grapes in the future.

"We need to reduce the offer of grape varieties that we do well every year, that know how to respond to hot years, cool years, wet years, drought years," he says.

Chilean winemaker Aurelio Montes is dealing with climate change in his own fashion.  He has spent years making his operation more environmentally sustainable, focusing on organic and bio-dynamic techniques.  He's cut down on water use, use natural solutions to ward off pests, reduced electricity use.

"So at the end we instead of fight against nature, we try to be part of nature. That's why being sustainable, in our point of view, is one of the best ways to compete or to try and fight against this climate change."

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Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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