How Climate Change Is Threatening New Zealand's Wine Industry

Posted: May 24, 2019

The pinot noir grape is to the world-renowned Martinborough winery Ata Rangi what rock'n'roll is to the Rolling Stones – not just its chosen creative vehicle, but the thing around which its whole identity has been moulded. So when its founder Clive Paton invokes a future where pinot might not play a part, it does more than give pause for thought. You start to wonder if the world isn't going to hell in a handcart.

Which it is. And that's the problem.

Paton began reimagining Ata Rangi's future in 2006, after watching An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore's grim climate change documentary left him in no doubt. Growing grapes was a game that would soon be played with a new set of rules.

The grapevine (aka Vitis vinifera) is a particularly climate-sensitive plant, which is why it is described as an "indicator species". It sits at the figurative bow of the good ship New Zealand horticulture as it journeys into the unknown that climate change represents.

The species' various grape varieties and clones (sub-species) occupy different positions on the sensitivity spectrum. Pinot noir needs a cool climate if its magical qualities are to be realised. The red grape originated in the relatively fresh weather conditions of northern France and Germany, which explains why it took so happily to New Zealand, and why Paton is so concerned.

Should climate change start overheating the vineyards he's been nurturing for nearly 40 years, growing great pinot will become impossible.

"I made a conscious decision then to make sure we had syrah and warmer climate varieties in the ground," says Paton. "Tempranillo is another one we're experimenting with. There will be a shift in what we're growing… whether that's in 50 years or 100 years, I don't know. I want to be prepared for it. Having older vines has helped us markedly, so that's another reason for doing this now. I don't want to be in a position where I'm starting again at the same time as all the others."

In Spanish winegrowing regions like Utiel-Requena, high temperatures and drought are fairly common and tempranillo is the most-planted grape.

That the heat is on is incontrovertible. While New Zealand's annual average temperature has climbed just 1C since 1909, that graph's curve has steepened over recent times. The five warmest years on record have occurred over the past 20 years, with 2018 topping the lot. Another 1C rise is forecast to happen by the end of the century, should greenhouse gas emissions remain at current levels. Were that to eventuate, it would have a major impact.

For an illustration of what hot growing conditions can do to wine, you need only glance across the Tasman. Those jammy, porty characters so prevalent in Aussie shiraz are the result of a surfeit of warmth and sunshine. The more subtle, pretty flavour profile of New Zealand syrah (the same grape as shiraz) offers a stark contrast. The delicacy of a variety such as pinot wouldn't stand a chance in Barossa-like temperatures.

These physiological changes to grapes occur because heat increases sugar concentration (which results in higher alcohol levels) and also quickens the ripening process (thus shortening the overall growing season). A slow build towards ripeness ensures those elegant flavours are retained, along with fresh acidity. A long growing season has often been trumpeted as one of New Zealand wine's great strengths.

That may have to be rethought. There wouldn't be a winegrower in the country who hasn't noticed grape growing seasons compress over recent years. Paton says at Ata Rangi they're picking pinot noir on average 10 days earlier than they did 20 years ago.

That's not the only climate change reality wineries are having to contend with. Extreme and/or unseasonable weather events and patterns have been every bit as unkind to winegrowers as they have to others who work the land.

In Marlborough, rising sea levels could swallow up the Wairau Valley's valuable sauvignon blanc vines.

"Look at the type of weather we had during November," says Ivan Sutherland, co-proprietor and viticulturist at Marlborough's Dog Point Vineyard. "Record levels of rain. It's brought humidity to Marlborough, where we're more accustomed to dry heat. That has brought the threat of diseases such as downy mildew, which is usually a North Island problem. And that's just the latest 'unusual' thing."

Add in cyclones (such as Debbie in 2017, which arrived at vintage time), more frosts in some regions (often occurring in what was previously thought of as safe times), more wind (Central Otago has become increasingly wind-prone), the rising threat of drought (a particular concern for Marlborough), a greater risk of wildfires and higher incidences of pests and disease.

And that bleak catalogue of symptoms doesn't even include sea levels rising, which has yet to directly threaten New Zealand vines but will do so before the century is out.

Research predictions have global sea levels rising anywhere between one and two metres over the next 80 years. The sauvignon blanc vines that blanket Marlborough's Wairau Valley and are the central pump of our $1.8 billion wine export flow sit close to sea level. That invokes the chilling scenario of Cloudy Bay (the geographical feature, not the wine brand) marching steadily inland, swallowing vines as it goes.

What is equally concerning is that Clive Paton's plans to adapt to the menace of climate change are far from typical. Most wine industry players are doing nothing.

Alyssa Ryan, an Environmental Studies student at Victoria University, spent 2018 gauging the preparedness of New Zealand's wine industry to climate change for her master's thesis. She sought the views of 500 wineries on the issue in order to discover what, if any, coping strategies they were adopting. "There is widespread belief among them that climate change is real," she says. "But at the same time, 63 per cent of the wineries I spoke to had no adaptation plans. I was surprised."

The reasons for this inertia are varied. One is a lack of specific information on what climate change might make the future look like in each region.

Money also figures prominently. Ryan had thought that smaller, boutique wineries, where owners are hands-on and the decision-making process takes up a minute or two at the kitchen table, would lead the charge in climate change adaptation plans.

But she says it's the larger wineries that are making more changes. "They have the money to implement adaptation or experiment with a new variety. Most smaller wineries and growers felt that was a risk they couldn't really afford."

The various regions also offered interesting contrasts. In Hawke's Bay, for example, Ryan discovered a remarkably untroubled wine populace. "They view themselves as fine, it's all OK. Most of the winegrowers there felt that if they're going to be affected, so will the rest of New Zealand and they feel they're not as at risk as other regions. One of the areas I surveyed in Hawke's Bay would be directly affected by sea level rise and they hadn't considered it."

There's also a prevailing sense throughout the New Zealand industry that we're better off than most other winegrowing countries. That is correct, in the short to medium term.

"Because of our maritime climate New Zealand will remain relatively cool compared to a number of other wine countries," says Ryan. "So we're well situated, especially in regard to red varieties… syrah, merlot and others will gain in quality, essentially. In Australia, where grapes are burning and there are droughts and wildfires, they're experiencing catastrophic effects now. They've begun moving to cooler regions such as Tasmania."

That New Zealand is relatively new to the wine world, and as such is unencumbered by centuries of culture and regulation, is also in our favour, especially in regard to our ability to adapt. No estate in Burgundy, for example, could even contemplate following Paton's example and experiment with other varieties. Under Burgundy's Appellation laws only pinot noir, chardonnay and a couple of other varieties are allowed to be planted in the ancient French region.

The lack of urgency among New Zealand winemakers around climate change has not been helped by a similar lack of urgency from the organisation that represents the industry. New Zealand Winegrowers is not known for getting out in front of tough issues. Only recently has it started to move seriously on climate change.

Ata Rangi winery owner Clive Paton has been preparing for the effects of global warming for almost 25 years.

Last year, it appointed Tracy Benge to manage its Research Centre in Marlborough, a facility created with a grant provided by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment. Talking to her, you get the sense of a woman in a hurry. Tackling the issues climate change has put before the wine industry is both a priority and a passion.

"I think there was this complacency that climate change will be a problem in 50 years. But the 2018 vintage broke every record… it was the hottest or second hottest growing season in every region in New Zealand. That made a lot of people take notice. At last year's Bragato Conference [the annual industry get-together], the most attended workshop was the one dedicated to climate change."

Benge's immediate focus is on rounding up relevant, useful information. "Lack of climate data has certainly been a gap. This month, we'll have Niwa modelling reports which we'll present to each region. That data will be the basis for the development of adaptation strategies.

"At the same time, we're also doing a stocktake of research that has been done in New Zealand and abroad. A lot has been done in Australia, and just because they have a different climate doesn't mean we can't learn from them. There is also research in France that we can leverage. We may even participate in some of their programmes. By June, we will have an idea of where the research is that will be useful for us."

She has already been forming her own thoughts on strategic approaches for this country. "Over the short term, my gut feeling is that we need to focus on soil health. When vines are stressed, healthy soil is a mitigating factor. Changes to canopy management and trellising are other tools I'm sure we'll be using. Longer-term strategies may involve replanting using different clones or varieties, and expanding to completely different sites.

"It's true that we're better off than a number of other countries… the Australians are quite envious of our position. There are opportunities ahead for us, should grape growing become too difficult in other countries."

How long those opportunities might last is anybody's guess. And they'll only materialise if the wine industry here meets its own climate change challenges. That will entail widespread change – to which grapes we grow, where we grow them and how we grow them.

"There will be a shift in the way we do things," says Alyssa Ryan. "If you like change, that's good for you. If you don't, it will be a struggle."

There can be no doubt to which camp Clive Paton belongs: "Some people find it too hard. But I love this kind of issue."

By John Saker
February 2, 2019

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