Climate Change May Turn the UK Into a Global Wine-Producing Powerhouse

A new study examines how warmer temperatures are transforming vineyard production.

a vineyard in Shropshire

Julian Elliott Photography / Getty Images

As the United Kingdom bakes in record-breaking heat, greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists and climate activists worldwide declare that the country is quickly shedding the cool, temperate conditions that have been one of its defining characteristics. 

“It is time for the U.K. to stop thinking of itself only as a cold country, where any bout of summer sunshine is celebrated as an opportunity for beach visits and ice creams,” Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at The London School of Economics and Political Science’’s Grantham Institute, wrote. “Heatwaves are deadly extreme weather events that will grow worse for at least the next 30 years. We must adapt and do a better job of protecting ourselves, particularly those who are most vulnerable to hot weather.”

This new reality isn’t just one faced by those living in urban environments. Farmers across the region are also reckoning with adaptation to soaring temperatures. What crops in the decades ahead will fare poorly under climate change? Which ones will benefit?

For those invested in viticulture, an industry that has seen explosive 400% growth in the U.K. from 2014 (under 2,000 acres planted) to 2021 (nearly 10,000 acres planted), a warmer climate is increasingly viewed as an opportunity for expansion. 

According to a new study published in the journal OENO One, average warming of over 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) since the 1980s during the growing season has supported the growth of 800 wineries. Additional warming in the coming decades is expected to elevate the U.K. countryside on par with the famed grape-growing conditions in the Champagne and Burgundy regions of France, and in Baden, Germany.

"We found that significant areas within England and Wales are projected to become warmer by 2040 by up to a further 1.4 degrees C during the growing season,” the study's lead author, Dr. Alistair Nesbitt, wrote in a release. “This expands the area of suitability for Pinot Noir for sparkling wine production, but also new areas will open up within the growing season temperature suitability range for still Pinot Noir production and for growing varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon and more disease-resistant varieties, which are hardly grown in the U.K. at present.”

To make their predictions, the team used "U.K. Climate Projections 2018" scenarios to assess future variety and wine style suitability from 2021 to 2040. 2018 was a bumper year for the domestic wine industry, with dry, warm conditions—the fourth warmest year, according to Central England temperature, since 1659—leading to a record-breaking production of 15.6 million bottles. The research team estimates that, over the next 20 years or so, 60-75% of growing seasons will have conditions similar to 2018. 

"We have shown that in some areas of the U.K. the bumper vintage of 2018 will become the norm, and that Champagne region grape growing temperatures from 1999-2018 are projected to occur across an expanding area of England during 2021–2040,” Dr. Nesbitt added. “In certain years, a few areas of the U.K. may see growing season climates similar to those that contributed to the very best recent vintages of Champagne, as well as support increased potential for Burgundy and Baden-style still red wines."

A Future Through Rosé-Colored Glasses

While the research team lauds the potential benefits of a warming climate for the wine industry, it does so with some requisite caution. While average temperatures will climb, so too will the risks of pests, extreme storms (such as early killer frosts, flooding, and hail), and even wildfires. According to the U.K. Environment Agency, the region’s risk for drought is expected to climb dramatically in the coming decades, along with population demands for clean drinking water.

“With 2 [degrees] C of global warming—below the level of warming for which the world is currently on track—England's winter rainfall will increase by almost 6% but summer rainfall will be down by 15% by the 2050s,” the Agency reported via Sky News. In addition, peak river flows in the summer could decrease by as much as 82%. 

That’s not great news for an industry where the production of one glass of wine (125 mL/4.25 fl oz) requires 110 liters (29 gallons) of fresh water. As the study team concludes, sustainable approaches to expanding the U.K.’s wine sector will need to be taken, as well as varietal adaptation in the face of changing conditions, for success to take root.

"There are exciting times ahead for the U.K. wine sector,” study co-author Prof. Steve Dorling, of the University of East Anglia School of Environmental Sciences, said, “but our results have emphasized the challenge of establishing wine identities and brands, in particular those tightly associated with varieties and wine styles, in a rapidly changing climate."

View Article Sources
  1. Nesbitt, Alistair, et al. "Climate Change Projections For UK Viticulture To 2040: A Focus On Improving Suitability for Pinot Noir." OENO One, vol. 56, no. 3, 2022, pp. 69-87., doi:10.20870/oeno-one.2022.56.3.5398

  2. "Water Use In Europe — Quantity and Quality Face Big Challenges." European Environment Agency.