MONTPELLIER, France -- South Africa, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand export their wines all over the world, a feat that was unthinkable here a few decades ago. Fatalists claim it won't be long until there will be more produced in China than in Europe. To some observers, these prognostications illustrate the wide-ranging adaptive capacity of the wine grape, Vitis vinifera.
To others, particularly those whose reputations and businesses are at stake, changes to worldwide wine production patterns are unthinkable. Add incursions of grape growing into wilderness habitats of endangered species, and green groups get upset.
A study published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) started this debate by projecting that a warming climate would render many of the traditional European wine-growing areas unsuitable for wine production by 2050. These hallowed and fiercely protected topographical regions are famous for imparting inimitable characteristics to their vintages.
If the paper's mathematical models are correct, vintners in much of France and Italy could lose a huge share of the market. To make matters worse, previously uncultivated areas -- the habitats of pandas, antelopes and wolves -- especially in China and western North America will come under increasing pressure from wine growers.
Lee Hannah, senior research fellow at Conservation International and the study's lead author, pointed out that the hallmark of wine cultivation is suitability. "Wine grapes have been grown wherever it has been expedient to do so," Hannah said. "Until 60 years ago, most French wine wasn't even French."
After Phylloxera vitifoliae, a tiny aphidlike pest, wiped out most of France's vines in the 19th century, thousands of ruined French winemakers migrated to the then-French colony of Algeria to exploit favorable growing and trade conditions. Then came independence in 1962, and the Algerian wine industry collapsed.
French viticulture recovered, thanks to the ingenious technique of grafting French varietal vines onto phylloxera-resistant North American root stock, and the equally ingenious new regulatory regime: the controlled location of origin, the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) in French, which protected French vintages from dilution with grapes from non-French harvests.
For a time, it seemed, French winemakers had nothing to fear from abroad.
Do they move uphill or abroad?
The four major European wine-producing countries -- Spain, France, Italy and Portugal -- cultivate about 6.9 million acres. The worldwide total is about 18.5 million acres of vineyard, including the European countries as well as the Americas, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
But these numbers are rapidly changing. In 2000, China had about 692,000 acres of wine grapes. By 2011, the Chinese figure had doubled.
Jean-Marc Touzard, director of research on innovation at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Montpellier and co-coordinator of a national program to assess the impact of climate change on the wine industry, found the PNAS paper too alarmist. Some of the data are flawed, he said, and the suitability indexes are wrong.
"Some of the areas where [the paper indicates] wine is projected to grow in 40 years, it simply couldn't. Even if the climate were warmer, the conditions are all wrong," Touzard said.
Hannah acknowledged that some areas, even if they became climatically suited, will be at a competitive disadvantage because of their distance to major markets. Furthermore, other factors will come into play, such as the local availability of water, competition with other crops such as wheat or corn, and the sheer cost of planting and maintaining new vineyards and production facilities.