Why NZ vineyards are resting on climate change laurels

Like many other industries, New Zealand’s $1.6 billion wine industry is starting to see the effects of climate change on its products. However, Victoria University of Wellington research shows that most wineries can’t – or won’t – do anything to mitigate the effects.

Over the past year, Master of Environmental Studies student Alyssa Ryan asked more than 500 wineries about their climate change beliefs, knowledge and information sources, and their plans to adapt to climate change. She then conducted more in-depth interviews with some of them.

“Most wineries reported issues associated with climate change, including extreme weather,” says Ryan.

The wineries she interviewed reported an increase in frost and wind, as well as a lack of water. They also reported an increase in powdery mildew, a disease that has been strongly linked to climate change in international research. Finally, many reported a shorter growing cycle, which could reduce the quality of wine and increase the alcohol content.

However, 63 percent of the wineries Ryan interviewed had no plans to adapt to problems caused by climate change. They cited two major reasons: lack of data and budget constraints.

“Most wineries believed climate change was happening and most reported seeing the effects on their crops. But either they can’t afford to make plans or they want more specific information about what issues they need to adapt to now and in the future.”

Most adaptation techniques involve significant investment in new equipment, locations and vines. A single frost fan to help melt the frost on vines can cost more than $40,000, not including the associated running and maintenance costs. Many wineries are experimenting with new wine varietals that will stand up to warmer temperatures, but new vines take up to 10 years to grow, so this is a slow solution.

“Some wineries are choosing to sell up and leave the industry now rather than invest in adaptation or see their vines destroyed,” says Ryan. “Even bigger wineries, which can afford to adapt, are choosing to stick with current methods. They would rather grow a high seller like sauvignon blanc until they can’t anymore, and make as much money as possible, rather than invest a lot of money in risky adaptation.”

She says wineries have to invest a lot of time and money in change and they don’t want to blindly do so without knowing if those changes will be effective.

“The wineries want specific regional data and climate modelling. They don’t trust in the data they have now for New Zealand as a whole and the specific regional data they need doesn’t exist. They also don’t have access to academic research in any consistent way, so even if data did exist they would have a difficult time finding it.”

Ryan’s goal is to make sure New Zealand wineries have access to this data. She will be making her Master’s research available to the wineries that took part and hopes to continue on to a PhD where she can complete some specific regional climate modelling for the industry.

“I want to bridge the gap between the wineries and science research and make sure they have the data they need to make informed business decisions,” she says. “Many other countries have this data and have vulnerability assessments, so the framework is there – I just need to fill it for New Zealand.”

The other thing that would help would be more national support for this kind of work, she says. Local councils may be willing to invest in it but they want direction from central government before doing so.

Fortunately, says Ryan, some of the adaptation techniques wineries are using are uniquely suited to New Zealand, which can give the country an advantage when managing the effects of climate change on wine.

“Some wineries are testing new varietals and there are many grape varietals that suit warmer weather. If New Zealand’s temperature rose, there would still be other grape varietals wineries could grow. Also, many wineries use modern low-alcohol techniques, so, if climate change causes an increase in alcohol content in the grapes, New Zealand is prepared to deal with it. Many wineries I spoke to seemed particularly unconcerned about this due to their experience with low-alcohol techniques, which is positive.”

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