Beer & Wine Wine

8 Wine Regions Emerging Due to Climate Change

Climate change brings many terrible effects. But its silver lining is the emergence of new wine-growing regions.

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Liquor.com / Laura Sant

If you look at a map of the classic wine regions of the world, you’ll notice they all have something in common: latitude. In each hemisphere, the vast majority of quality wines are produced between the 30- and 50-degree parallels. This isn’t a coincidence. Vitis vinifera vines, the species responsible for most of the world’s popular grape varieties, need very specific growing conditions in order to thrive, including a lack of extreme climate conditions. If exposed to too much heat or cold, the vines will shut down and stop producing fruit.

The effects of climate change, however, are causing these regions to shift away from the equator. They’re moving further north in the Northern Hemisphere and further south in the Southern Hemisphere, where climates that were previously too cold to grow wine grapes are becoming better suited for viticulture. This doesn’t mean your favorite wine regions will be disappearing, but it does mean that winemakers in those areas will need to consider making some changes in order to adapt to rising global temperatures and other effects of climate change.

The result, while of course disastrous in general, does have a silver lining. New opportunities for winemaking have begun to arise in Northern and Eastern Europe, as well as in parts of North America and Asia, and also in previously unsuitable regions of established wine-producing countries. 

It’s important to note that climate change does not automatically translate to smooth sailing in these marginal regions. Winemaker Brad Greatrix of Nyetimber says, “There's a myth that everywhere is getting hotter and we’re laughing over here in England because it’s getting warmer, when, in fact, the challenge and truth is that temperatures are varying everywhere.” Meanwhile, in traditional winegrowing regions, there are many potential adaptations that allow producers to continue making the classic wines of the world.

As temperatures rise, high-altitude plantings give vines respite from the hotter conditions down at sea level. At greater elevation, grapes benefit from intense sunlight that encourages ripeness and concentration, while chilly nighttime temperatures preserve their acidity, so the wines taste fresh and balanced and their alcohol levels are kept in check. Growers in warming areas can also pick their fruit earlier, before sugar levels rise and acidity drops to an undesirable degree, to achieve a comparable effect.

A more ambitious approach is to embrace and adapt to the changing conditions and work with them rather than against them. Bordeaux, one of the world’s most famous traditional wine regions, approved six new heat-loving grape varieties in early 2021, including touriga nacional, one of Portugal’s most prestigious grapes. In Napa Valley, winemakers are less bound by tradition and are free to experiment as they wish, although consumer expectations are still an important concern, as many who purchase Napa wine are expecting cabernet sauvignon.

Leading the charge there’s Dan Petroski of Larkmead Vineyards, whose experimental plantings will compete over the next two decades to determine the best contender to take cabernet’s place if the day comes when it can no longer perform in hot California summers. Drawing inspiration from the most revered, iconic wines of the world—Australia’s Penfolds Grange, Spain’s Vega Sicilia, Southern Italy’s Mastroberardino Taurasi and Portugal’s Barca Velha—Petroski says, “I think about these wines, and they’re all in a place today that we’re going to. We’re going toward a hotter, drier, more southern-Mediterranean climate in the next 20 to 30 years.” Accordingly, he has planted aglianico, shiraz, tempranillo and touriga nacional alongside locally familiar varieties like charbono, petite syrah and zinfandel in the hopes of capturing the same world-class quality under what will eventually become similar conditions.

Petroski’s project offers hope to wine lovers everywhere. The regions we love aren’t going away. They, and we, will need to adapt to the changing global conditions over time, but we’ve all had some practice with that over the last couple of years. In the meantime, we have a whole new set of emerging wine regions to discover and enjoy. 

These are eight to watch.

Belgium

For a country whose name is practically synonymous with beer, Belgium is showing unexpected promise as a winegrowing nation. Between 2006 and 2018, Belgian wine production quadrupled, and the quality of those wines is rising just as quickly. In those early days, winemakers were generally able to produce only simple and lightweight white wines, but over time, the warming weather has led to a welcome increase in complexity and richness.

Around 90% of the country’s wines are white, and many of the best Belgian wines are made from chardonnay and produced in a Burgundian style, with both unoaked chablis-inspired versions and oaked Côte de Beaune-style offerings.

China

In China, wine consumption is growing faster than anywhere else on the planet. Although grape wine has been produced there since the Han Dynasty, it has not historically played a significant role in Chinese culture. That has changed dramatically in recent years, with increased consumer education and outreach, as well as interest from wealthy potential collectors and connoisseurs who view it as a high-status, luxurious and fashionable beverage. As of 2017, the country was the fifth-largest wine market on the planet.

But the Chinese aren’t just drinking more wine these days, they are producing it as well. The country is now the second-largest grape grower and seventh-largest wine producer worldwide. Rising regional temperatures as well as cutting-edge technology have helped make Chinese viticulture possible, particularly in the northern parts of the country. French grapes cabernet sauvignon, carménère, marselan and merlot are among the top performers, well-suited to the common local preference for bold red wines. The top wine to try, not inexpensive but readily available stateside, is Ao Yun’s 2015 Shangri-La, a critically acclaimed, spicy and perfumed blend of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.

England

England has had success, particularly with sparkling wine, for quite some time now. Since the late 1990s, southern English producers like Nyetimber and Chapel Down have been producing high-quality bubbles inspired by the wines of Champagne, drawing on the benefits of the country’s chilly climate, which naturally results in the high acidity that’s necessary for sparkling wine. Many more producers have followed in the footsteps of those early pioneers, and the United States now has a robust import market for English sparkling wine.

Nyetimber’s blanc de blancs is an outstanding example of the category. A fine and elegant blend of classic Champagne grapes chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, this complex beauty undergoes extended aging on its lees before release to develop irresistible brioche, graham cracker and pastry cream aromas alongside notes of grilled pineapple, lemon custard, golden delicious apple, yellow plum and jasmine perfume. Other great bottles to try include Nyetimber’s widely available nonvintage classic cuvée, Chapel Down’s crowd-pleasing and approachably priced classic brut, Hattingley Valley’s classic reserve brut and Gusbourne’s blanc de blancs traditional method.

Ireland

Don’t expect to see Irish wine in international bottle shops anytime soon, but some daring winemakers have begun to explore Ireland’s viticultural potential, to varying degrees of success, primarily in the country’s southeast. Whether large-scale, commercial viticulture will happen there remains to be seen, but current climate models predict that the cold, damp country could likely be producing quality wine by 2050.

One bold producer, David Llewellyn, has been growing wine grapes just north of Dublin since 2002, and the wines under his Lusca label show impressive promise. Using creative cultivation methods, Llewellyn is able to combine cabernet sauvignon and merlot to produce a high-caliber Bordeaux-style blend, which, while more delicate than the average claret, could certainly confuse wine professionals in a blind tasting.

Japan

Japan’s modern wine industry began around 150 years ago, but the sake-loving country was slow to prioritize fermented grapes. The first Japanese Geographical Indication for wine, Yamanashi, was established in 2013, and the Hokkaido GI followed five years later. Both areas are now recognized for producing quality wine, and connoisseurs worldwide are taking notice as Japanese producers begin to pick up the pace of planting and production.

Without a doubt, Japan’s signature variety is Koshu—a French-Asian hybrid pink-skinned grape that produces tart, light and refreshing white wines, primarily in the Yamanashi region. As temperatures rise and winemaking knowledge evolves, some Koshu wines are becoming richer and more complex. Hokkaido, meanwhile, has begun to receive international attention for its success with pinot noir. The noble, finicky grape could not have succeeded in the local climate until recently, but now holds great promise for the future of Hokkaido wine.

Netherlands

The history of viticulture in the Netherlands dates back to ancient Roman times, but modern winemaking there is a rather recent, rapidly growing development. Due to the Netherlands’ strong ties to South Africa and its thriving wine industry, the Dutch were never strangers to wine, but because of both climate change and EU land subsidies, they now have the opportunity to take a much more hands-on approach. In 1997, the country had just seven wineries; less than a decade later, that number had jumped to 40. Today, there’s at least one vineyard in every Dutch province, and the quality of the wines just keeps improving.

When cultivating their vineyards, Dutch growers have been taking cues from classic wine regions with historically chilly climates like Alsace, Austria, Champagne and Germany. Plantings consist of cold-hardy vinifera grapes such as chardonnay, gewürztraminer, kerner, pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling and sylvaner for white wine, and cabernet franc, gamay, pinot meunier, pinot noir and St. Laurent for reds, as well as trustworthy hybrids regent (which makes full-bodied, structured red wines), rondo (a deeply colored red variety) and solaris (an aromatic white variety). 

Poland

One thousand years ago, Poland had a rich wine culture, particularly among the country’s wealthy elite. During medieval times, the country’s climate was ideal for viticulture. The climate was sufficiently warm and sunny, so grapes could ripen easily, but temperatures were cool enough to produce naturally dry, crisp wines.

Over time, viticulture fell out of favor for a number of reasons—worsening winter weather, political challenges and the influx of cheaper imported wines—and only recently has the country seen a renewed interest in drinking wine. And now, as the climate is changing once again, vineyards are being replanted. Rondo and solaris are among the most promising hybrid varieties, as well as regent, but international grapes like pinot noir and riesling show potential as well.

Scandinavia

Known for winter sports and perfecting the art of coziness, this Northern European region may be a surprising inclusion, but in recent years, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have become some of the most important export markets for fine wine. As Scandinavian winters warm and growing seasons lengthen, ambitious wine enthusiasts have begun to experiment with quality viticulture.

While most plantings consist of humidity-resistant cold-hardy hybrid grapes like rondo and solaris, riesling also shows great promise. Klaus Peter Keller, who makes some of Germany’s most sought-after grand cru rieslings, planted his signature variety in Norway more than a decade ago. He had his first successful harvest in 2018—a few decades ahead of the expected schedule.