The “Bon Problème:” Is Climate Change Altering the Wines We Drink – and Getting Us Drunk Faster?

Wine Problems

French producers are calling it the “bon problème“– warmer temperatures that are increasing output in many traditional wine producing regions. But these warmer temperatures are also affecting grapes in ways that may have already fundamentally altered the nature of some wines. And not necessarily in positive ways. That’s the message of a well-written piece published yesterday by Gwynn Guilford on Qz.com.

It seems that French wine producers have generally benefitted from warmer temperatures, as yields appear to be improving. For them, climate change has been mostly a “good problem” – at least so far. However, in Australia, some wineries have begun moving to invest outside of traditional viniculture regions to places like Tasmania, where Guilford reports production is now growing 10% per year, while only growing 1% on average across Australia as a whole.  Regions like Tuscany and South Africa potentially have it even worse – both areas are staring at bleak scenarios where their local climates be too hot for large scale viniculture in the relatively near future.

In California, warmer temperatures have resulted in higher sugar production in grapes. Sugars, as wine-lovers know, are what convert into alcohol in winemaking’s fermentation stage. As a result, greater amounts of sugars in grapes has led to marked increases in the alcohol content of many California wines. Guilford’s article points out that Zinfandels today, for instance, evidence nearly 30% more alcohol than Zinfandels did in 1990.

Wine Casks

While on the surface additional alcohol content may not seem a serious problem, the implications are in fact quite concerning for many producers. In Europe, where diners are used to slowly drinking wine over the course of an evening, having wines with 20-30% more alcohol content may affect both consumer drinking habits – and ultimately – consumer buying patterns. Higher alcohol content also has a number of negative impacts in terms of the flavor profiles of fine wines, as more alcoholic wines become stronger, less balanced and less nuanced.

Unfortunately, tactics for avoiding high alcohol levels may lead to even more inferior wines. For instance, some California wineries have started picking grapes early, when their acidity is higher to balance out the rising sugar content– but these less mature grapes have historically been seen as producing blander-tasting, if less alcoholic wines.

Guilford’s article does a very good job of detailing the developing crisis – and of pointing out one other unsurprising repercussion of the changing temperatures. All of the additional work by wine producers to adjust to new climate realities is costing them a lot of money. Over time, these costs will ultimately be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for the boozier reds and whites that they will be forced to buy in the future.

Read more: Gwynn Guilford, Climate Change Will Leave Wine-Lovers Drunker and Poorer, Qz.com

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons.

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