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Grapes of Wrath: How Warming Will Shift Global Vineyards

A vineyard in Napa Valley, California

Photograph by George Rose/Getty Images

A vineyard in Napa Valley, California

Long balmy summers followed by rainy winters have for centuries made Tuscany and other Mediterranean regions ideal for producing fine wines. But as the global climate changes, so too will conditions under the Tuscan sun.

In a paper published April 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from universities and environmental nonprofits in the U.S., Chile, and China examine how warming may recast conditions for growing wine around the world. Rising temperatures and declining precipitation may threaten to dry out such storied regions as the Bordeaux and Rhône Valleys in France and Tuscany in Italy—unless wine growers find ways to adapt irrigation techniques or shift planting seasons. Meanwhile, hitherto virgin wine regions are becoming more climatically hospitable: New vineyards are already expanding in such places as the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, the island of Tasmania, and China’s lush and mountainous Sichuan province. One might sum up the trend, with apologies to author Elizabeth Gilbert, as Eat, Drink, Pray … Move.

Of course, wine can still be produced even in imperfect conditions. “You can grow wine grapes in a lot of places, but we had to define premium wine,” says Anderson Shepard, a co-author of the paper and professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “For example, you can grow wine in Missouri, but Missouri is not known for its wine.”

One place hoping to become known for its wine is China, where improved growing conditions dovetail with rising demand as the country’s middle class develops a taste for chardonnay. Wine-tasting events are now popping up with increasingly frequency in such major cities as Beijing and Shanghai, and a petition is circulating at China’s Department of Labor to designate “sommelier” a recognized profession.

Unlike in Europe, China’s most favorable regions for vineyards are not in coastal areas—which are already urbanizing quickly—but in such inland and often poor provinces as Ningxia and Sichuan. Vineyards could prove a boon for local economies, but in Sichuan the best growing regions are already occupied by another national priority: the endangered giant panda. “If wine grapes go into an area that is currently used for other crops, there is little impact,” Lee Hannah of Conservation International recently told the South China Morning Post. “However, if forest is cleared to plant wine grapes, there may be direct loss of panda habitat.”

To be sure, fine wine isn’t only a product of good climate and soil, but of growers’ skill and time-honed techniques. It’s little wonder that Chinese entrepreneurs are now seeking partnerships with winemakers from France, Spain, Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Yao Ming, retired basketball star turned conservationist and ubiquitous marketing presence, has lent his name to the establishment of Yao Family Wines in California’s Napa Valley. It produces YAO MING® Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for import into mainland China.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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