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.

But Touzard went on to argue that Hannah's paper ignores the human element. "Growers and winemakers have lots of options. For instance: Within the same terroir [wine-growing region], there are highly diverse microclimates. In some places, there is more sunlight; in others, more shade. It is possible to mobilize the diversity," he said, suggesting that the growers have options to replant their vineyards nearby.

The temperature gradients in a hilly area, he said, offer one possibility. "Within 500 meters, you have a climate difference greater than that predicted by global warming."

The situation has not been helped by the French media, which, according to Touzard, misconstrued the PNAS paper's conclusions. One French television news program reported that a U.S. scientist predicted that by 2050, 70 percent of all European vineyards would be wiped out.

The more things change, the more Bordeaux wines improve?
Denis Dubourdieu, director of the Institute of Vineyard and Wine Science, professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux, and himself a winemaker from a long line of Bordeaux-region vignerons, consults with vintners worldwide on the art of making classic wines. In Bordeaux, he said, a warming climate is making conditions better.

"Winemakers are using a lot less sugar now than they were even 10 years ago. Not one is complaining." In fact, he said, during his lifetime, especially in the past 20 years, vintages have done nothing but improve. "Vintages when I was a young man, like 1972 and 1973, were awful."

Since then, he added, there have been annual ups and downs, but since 2001, he said, "they've all been good. In 2003, when we had the highest temperature on record in France, the vintage was very good. Since 2005, they've all been exceptional."

Dubourdieu is quick to add that climate change is not trivial. "It's something we need to fight against, to be sure," he said, but he finds the tendency to make it seem like a catastrophe across the board troublesome.

Classic wines, he believes, don't lend themselves easily to moving. Merlot is a good example. "Merlot does fine in Bordeaux today, but in a warmer climate, it would not. It's not a Mediterranean variety." The grapevine, he points out, "started out in Mesopotamia. It has a genetic predisposition to warmer climates." Later varieties were adapted after much experimentation to local conditions, such as Bordeaux, which averages 31.5 inches of rain per year.

Classic vintages from China and Yellowstone?
In China, where wine growing is just getting a foothold, the scenario is entirely different. The areas most suited to viticulture include mountain forests that are home to the giant panda. Recently, the Chinese government yielded more control to local authorities in areas where interested investors have hosted European vintners and are keen to produce wine grapes.

Wildlife conservation organizations are attempting to counteract the impact on wildlife by paying local authorities "ecocompensation" fees. "They're paid to leave the habitat alone," explained Hannah, the author of the PNAS study. "The pandas can stay in the forest, and they can still profit."

In the western United States, there is growing pressure to convert land above Yellowstone National Park to vineyards. Supporters assert that the two activities -- vineyards and wildlife -- can coexist. They envision creating a complete tourist experience, a tourism-wildlife-and-wine package, similar to those in parts of South Africa.

But vineyards are "barriers to wildlife movement," Hannah countered. "Black bears and grizzlies need to move through their habitat in order to forage."

While bears need to move, wine doesn't, Touzard asserts, describing what the French call terroir, or the unique taste that the soil, the climate end even the cuisine of a specific growing site imparts to wine. "You can't just take vines and move them to another place. Terroir gives wine its unique profile and value, as do its gastronomic connections."

Despite the media furor in France, for the time being at least, French winemakers probably do not need to fret: In 2011, a 6-liter bottle of 1961 Chateau Latour sold at auction in Hong Kong to a Chinese bidder for $210,000. As of this writing, the highest priced 750-milliliter bottle of Chilean red can be had for around $250.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500