Winemaking and Climate Change: Lessons from the Little Ice Age

In the winter of 1683, visitors of London witnessed what would seem otherworldly by today’s standards.What they saw was the effects of the Little Ice Age. By this time, England’s capital was emerging as a city of over half a million people at the heart of a growing empire. Ships from all over the world brought goods up the River Thames. But in the winter of 1683, the river froze. It froze so thick that people were walking freely on it. A “Frost Fair” was held there during the Christmas season. Incredibly, the famous Chipperfield’s circus also performed on the ice.

This was the result of the Little Ice Age that took place between the 1300’s to the mid 1800’s. It dramatically impacted Europe, leading to a severe cooling of the earth’s temperature. Consequently, rivers such as the Thames, which would never freeze today, often froze in the winter.

Another consequence of the Little Ice Age was a dramatic change in Europe’s wine industry. This included shifts in the geographical landscape of Europe’s viticulture.

The Little Ice Age

First, what was the Little Ice Age? The Little Ice Age, or Mini Ice Age, was an event historians have been studying over the past thirty to forty years. During this era, the average temperature dropped by 1.1 degree F (0.6 degree C) in the Northern Hemisphere. This temperature decline was most intense during the seventeenth century.

The reasons for the Little Ice Age are not entirely understood. There are different theories as to what caused it including a string of volcano eruptions, a change in the ocean’s circulation, an orbital cycle, or an increase in human population.

As the Little Ice Age reached its most intense period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was exposed to rapidly declining environmental conditions. Today, we know how immense the fallout can be from just over 1 degree of warming. Hence, a fall of 1.1 degrees for those reliant on farming proved tragic. As it developed, famines occurred in parts of Europe as crops failed. Grape cultivation and the winemaking industry were heavily impacted.

The Little Ice Age and Wine Production

Wine production across Europe prior to the Little Ice Age was much different than today. Evidence shows that during the warmer centuries before the Little Ice Age, grapes were cultivated, and wine was produced in northern parts of Europe.

For instance, we have known for centuries that the Vikings who terrorized much of Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries were fond of alcohol, wine included. It now seems clear that they didn’t just rob it from their victims in France. They also produced it themselves.

In recent years, studies have revealed evidence of grape cultivation in Denmark, Norway, and Scandinavia.

In England in the eleventh century, there was considerable cultivation of grapes. The famous “Domesday Book,” a record of English land use in 1085, recorded 42 vineyards. There were more than 100 vineyards across England at the time of the accession of King Henry VIII in 1509. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth, had 16,000 vines of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other grapes planted in Windsor Park.

With the worst of the Little Ice Age in the second half of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries, declining temperatures wiped out England’s wine industry.

The Little Age Shaped the Modern Wine Industry

The Little Ice Age shaped the modern wine industry in Europe. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the wine regions of modern times began to dominate the world’s wine industry. The main region stretched from Paris south to Valencia, Spain. It included Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, the Rhine and Rhone Valleys, Tuscany, Northern Portugal, and Hungary.

Consequently, the areas most famed for wine production in Europe today became the best areas for viticulture due to changes caused by the Little Ice Age. Unsurprisingly, some of Europe’s first protected wine regions emerged at the end of the Little Ice Age. In Tuscany, Italy, Chianti was the first region named in 1716. The Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary followed in 1730 and the Duoro region in Portugal shortly afterward.

Wine Production and the Age of Exploration

These regions were inspiring wine production outside of Europe during the Age of Exploration. When vine cuttings were first planted in the Americas, the varietals came from Spain. When the Dutch introduced viticulture to South Africa in the mid-seventeenth century, they used French and German grape varietals.

Similarly, these regions were producing the kinds of fortified wines that became characteristic of the period. These traveled well when wine was still mostly stored in wooden barrels rather than bottles. Fortified wine also had a much longer shelf life.

It is no surprise to find that Port wine was developed in Portugal. This first European colonial power discovered the sea route around Africa to India at the turn of the fifteenth century. The overlapping of the Age of Explorations and the Little Ice Age led to the regions identifying with Old World fortified wines.

At the end of the Age of Exploration, Europe’s famous sparkling wine emerged. In 1729, Nicolas Ruinart established Europe’s oldest Champagne-producing winery in Champagne near Reims in France. Thus, much of the modern wine industry had fully emerged in Europe by 1750 with great influence from the Little Ice Age.

Lessons from the Little Ice Age

The modern wine industry formed because of the weather changes. Essentially, the wine-producing regions in Europe were pushed further south towards the Mediterranean. This wiped out viticulture in places such as England and Denmark.

Also read: Age of Exploration and Wine

Today, we see a change to this process as climate change makes it more feasible to cultivate vineyards in more northern regions. For instance, while the Little Ice Age saw the destruction of the Scandinavian wine industry, the current climate has brought it back to life. Recent warming in Europe has resulted in new Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish vineyards. Scandinavian wines have slowly started to return after a 700 or so year absence. The same is true in Britain, many vines are now being planted in England and Wales.

While this is good news for Norse and Anglo-Norman wine cultivators and even Canadian wine makers, there are also signs that the wine industry will face trouble in years to come. This time, in places that were key areas for grape cultivation towards the end of the Little Ice Age. California’s Napa Valley is at risk as the state faces frequent droughts and forest fires. Regions can survive bad years here and there. However, future climate change will certainly push many areas to the point where the ripening of grapes will begin to prove more difficult.

On this Day

September 9, 1087 – On this day, William the Conqueror, the first Anglo-Norman king of England, died. Two years earlier, he ordered the compilation of the “Domesday Book,” a record of land usage in England indicating that there were 42 vineyards in the country. Similarly, there were vineyards in parts of Europe, such as Denmark, which we typically view as too northern for grape growing. The Little Ice Age wiped out the wine industries of these northern countries from the fourteenth century onwards. Only in modern times, as man-made climate change has intensified, can we now see wine industries reemerging in countries such as England and Denmark.

November 1, 1565 – On this day, Europe entered a deadly winter. Cold temperatures struck most of Europe, and a blanket of snow and ice covered much of the continent for weeks. As it intensified and temperatures dropped, wine production disappeared in regions such as England, where it was substantial in medieval times. In contrast, more southern areas such as Spain, France, Italy, western Germany, and the Balkans established themselves as prime locations for grape growing.

December 27, 1703 – On this day, the Methuen Treaty was signed between Portugal and Britain. It was a wide-ranging military, diplomatic, and commercial treaty. One of its goals was to undercut the wine industries of Spain and France by making England an importer of Portuguese Port wine. The treaty indicates the changes were because of lower temperatures. However, Portugal’s industry had been growing since the fourteenth century, with Port becoming a national staple that was widely exported.

September 1, 1729 – On this day in 1729, just as the Little Ice Age ended, Nicolas Ruinart started his first ledger dedicated to “wine with bubbles.” Ruinart Champagne became the first Champagne House established in Europe in the Champagne region. Previously, King Louis XV passed a decree authorizing the transportation of wine in France in glass bottles. Before this, it was transported in barrels. Around 1729, the foundations of the modern French wine and Champagne industry emerged.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Viticulture and Winemaking under Climate Change Wine and Climate Change- Winemaking in a New World


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Categories: Oldest Wine RegionsTags: , , , , , , , By Published On: July 29, 2022Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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