Far from being a distant phenomenon primarily affecting people and animals in exotic lands, climate change is now something you can taste at your dinner table. This is the conclusion of my article in the latest issue of Scientific American, drawn from my own research begun a decade ago in the vineyards around my hometown of Sonoma in Northern California, as well as the work of colleagues from around the world. I explain how a changing climate is affecting taste and aroma compounds in grapes- the chemistry that ultimately shapes the flavor you experience when you sip a glass of wine.
Winegrowers and winemakers are beginning to respond to these changes. Whether they can adapt enough to retain the unique flavors of your favorite reds and whites will depend on the rate of climate change, and the rate of innovation.
Winegrapes are especially sensitive to climate. Thousands of different varieties have been selected over the centuries to match local growing conditions, ideally producing the optimal balance of sugar and acid, and color and flavor compounds to express the best of that site and that grape in the wine.
Ultimately, though, there are economic and biophysical limits to this adaptation. There are also cultural limitations: the know-how and sense of place that growers cultivate along with the land over generations of family farming is not easily moved, and consumers have come to expect a distinct flavor profile from wines from their preferred regions. Great wine is grown, not made; it reflects its place of origin. If the climate changes even a little bit, local knowledge and skills that have taken generations to hone can become less relevant, even in familiar territory.
But the changes we’re facing in climate are not small ones. Under our current trajectory of fossil fuel use, scientists project that the global average temperature will increase 4.7 to 8.6°F (2.6 to 4.8°C) over the next few generations. Even the low end of this range would be the difference in annual average temperatures between the winegrowing regions of Napa and Fresno today. Currently, Cabernet grapes from cooler Napa are worth more than 10 times as much as those from Fresno- a difference of over $3,000 a ton.