Climate Change Is Coming for Your Wine, Study Says

French winemakers were devastated by a spring frost. A new study blames human-induced climate change.

France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comte, Burgundy, Cote-d'Or, Cote de Beaune vineyards.

Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images

If you live in a wintry city, you’ve probably experienced what climate scientists call “false spring.” When it arrives in February or March, it brings with it a welcome wave of sunshine that feels like a warm hug after months of cold and snow. Unfortunately, it’s a mirage. When the cold inevitably returns for an encore, you have to admit: What felt like an early end to winter was actually just Jack Frost taking a coffee break.

False spring fools not only people but also plants and crops—including wine grapes, which this year had a particularly calamitous encounter with false spring in France. After seeing record high temperatures in March, a brutal cold snap befell French vineyards in April, devastating hundreds of thousands of hectares of gullible grapevines that had already begun to grow. French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie called it “probably the biggest agricultural disaster in the beginning of the 21st century.”

Along with grapes, viticulturists and vintners lost precious income. It wasn’t just bad luck that caused their misfortunes, however. It was human-induced climate change, suggests a new analysis published this month by World Weather Attribution (WWA), an international research consortium that’s dedicated to studying the influence of climate change on extreme weather.

Although false spring and the subsequent April frost affected much of central Europe, WWA scientists focused their analysis on central France. Based on observations and more than 132 climate model simulations, they make several observations.

On the one hand, they note that the April frost would have been even colder if not for climate change, which has made spring frosts warmer and less frequent than they otherwise would be. That’s the good news. On the other hand, they point out that global warming from human activities also has made winter temperatures higher, which fools Mother Nature into starting the growing season earlier. That means grapevines bud sooner and are exposed to more albeit weaker frost days over the course of a growing season, which means they’re more mature—and, therefore, more vulnerable—if and when late frosts strike. That’s the bad news.

Unfortunately, the negative effect from an early growing season is stronger than the positive effect of a weaker frost, according to researchers, who concluded that human-induced climate change makes destructive frost events approximately 60% more likely.

“Our findings highlight that growing season frost damage is a potentially extremely costly impact of climate change already damaging the agricultural industry,” the study’s authors write in a summary of their findings, in which they call for species-specific “adaptation strategies.”

Long-term, that might include things like genetic modification—e.g., breeding grape varieties that bud later or are more resilient to cold—or installing solar panels in vineyards to attract and retain heat. For now, though, vignerons must improvise. According to The Washington Post, for example, French winemakers in April resorted to lighting candles and fires in their vineyards to keep them warm, and to renting helicopters to fly over them with hopes that they would push warmer air toward the ground.

Such measures did little to help: The Guardian reports that at least a third of French wine production, worth over $2 billion, will be lost this year as a result of the April frost.

“We live close to nature, we’re used to dealing with changing weather, but we were damaged by cold snaps in 2017 and 2019,” French winemaker Michel-Henri Ratte told The Guardian. “For it to be happening every two years, and for weather to be going swiftly from very hot to very cold, raises questions about climate change. It wasn’t normal cold.”

View Article Sources
  1. Vautard, R., et al. "Human Influence on Growing Period Frosts Like the early April 2021 in Central France." World Weather Attribution, 2021.