How Winegrowers from Rheinhessen and Cognac Cope with Climate Change

Over the last two millennia wine growers in Europe faced considerable climate changes. But wine is still produced, will the culture of wine continue in the face of climate change? Will the cultivated areas be the same?

“Will we drink Champagne for the New Year in 2050?” asked the French magazine Les Echos in 20131.  Les Echos asked the question after an article written by nine scientists from the U.S., Chile and China who predicted that: “The area suitable for viticulture decreases between 19 percent and 73 percent in major wine producing regions.”2 This would be obviously a concern of winegrowers and all the millions involved in the business, as well as consumers.

During my trip to Rheinhessen, Germany, a powerful answer to the question came from winegrower Ernst Ahl3, whose father said: “Every 30 years winegrowing has to reinvent itself.”  Can wine really reinvent itself in the face of climate change? If it can, where will the Champagne come from?” From the region Champagne in France or from the polders in the Netherlands where 60 years ago salty waves covered the soil now used for agriculture? “Bubbles from the Zuiderzee“ could well be the name of our new wine, says Silvia Antonj4, who, along with her partner, has planted a few varieties on an experimental plot near Lelystad, 50 km east of Amsterdam.

Figure 1.“Not bad, this Dutch Champagne!” Image Credit: Kim Overweg

Figure 1.“Not bad, this Dutch Champagne!” Image Credit: Kim Overweg

This article will not attempt to answer these questions.  The subject of winegrowing and climate change is vast and there is a sea of publications. Winegrowing has existed in Europe for more than 2,000 years and considerable changes in climate occurred during this period.  How did winegrowers handle climate changes, how are they coping now and what would be their future? How conscious are the wine growers of these processes now? Each of these questions would justify a number of studies.

Grape growers and winemakers have proven their adaptability to climate change and changing economics. To hear some opinions from the ground, visits were made to winegrowers and their service centers in Rheinhessen: Oppenheim and Osthofen (Germany), Cognac-Séconzac (France), and Lelystad (Netherlands).

Indigenous Europeans

Indigenous populations in Europe are relatively few; they include the Basques, the Sami in northern Scandinavia as well as the Circassians from the North Caucasus. Europe was formed by foreign occupations, enormous population movements and wars. The vast majority of its citizens can hardly be defined as uniquely descending from one ethic identity. Yet there are many areas where people have lived and worked for centuries as farmers, closely connected to their profession and their soils.

For example, the winegrowers of Osthofen village, in Rheinhessen were where the same families have been involved in growing wine for 200 years, and one family 11 generations since 17375.

In the Cognac region, the Dutch trader Bonaventure Godet established his first cognac producing vineyard in 1550 in Roquefort, Charente6. The same family is still in the business.

The social winegrowers’ stratification in the Cognac region is considerable, many are in wine for three generations7, although they never made it to the Hall of Fame, and their family history is not registered.

Extension of wine in Europe

The Roman Empire introduced winegrowing in Central-West Europe. In medieval Europe wine was a common drink of all social classes in the South and it was exported to the North.

Near the end of the 16th Century just before the “small ice age,” the expansion of vineyards was much larger than in present-day Europe; it extended to the South of England, the Netherlands and toward Poland in the East8. In this period the total surface cultivated in Germany was about 300,000 hectares9 compared with about 100,000 now. This decrease was not only caused by the small ice age. A study from the Netherlands10 shows there were, apart from climate change, other reasons for the decline: the introduction of beer by the end of the Middle Ages became a competitor for wine, and the war against Spain, which lasted 80 years. The surviving vines were destroyed later when Napoleon prohibited the production of wine outside France.

The overproduction of wine, facilitated by higher temperatures in some areas of Germany, contributed to the peasants’ war in the 16th Century. These wars were mainly due to feudal property relations, abuse by the church and economic and social misery. Revenues of wine production also decreased due to competition with French wines as well as the increased price of cereals and demand for bread and beer. Between 2.5 and 3 percent of people’s lives were lost in the war-ridden areas11. As a result there may be some relation to decreasing temperatures but the contribution of the small ice age and climate change to people’s lives is difficult to estimate.

Vineyard, grapes, wine and climate

Temperature is one important factor in climate change. The Frenchman Huglin12 developed an indicator for different temperature regimes related to varieties of vines. He looked at the maximum day temperature and average day temperature during six months taking into account a correction factor for the latitude. Figure 2 indicates that regions in the future can become suitable for a different variety of grape, except those regions that are in the top of the scale13. There are vines that produce grapes twice a year in tropical climates but production does not seem to be profitable, but this may change14.

Figure 2. Huglin index for different areas in Europe, Alghero (Sardinia), Eisenstadt (Austria), Geisenheim (Germany, Hessen), Pisa and Potsdam. See Figure 3 for the formula. Image Credit: Dieter Kasang

Figure 2. Huglin index for different areas in Europe, Alghero (Sardinia), Eisenstadt (Austria), Geisenheim (Germany, Hessen), Pisa and Potsdam. See Figure 3 for the formula. Image Credit: Dieter Kasang

Economics of wine and wine production will change considerably for future yields, markets, and large businesses. The effects will be quite different per region. The Northern regions in Germany may very well benefit. Orley Ashenfelter and Karl Storchmann15, predict that vines along the river Mosel may triple in value and that yields and revenues in those regions rise between 100 and 180 percent depending on the model used. On the other hand, owners in the south of France, Spain and Greece face difficulties because varieties that support higher temperatures in those areas are, not yet, available. In Languedoc Roussillon the output has declined from 29 to 14 million hectolitres in the last 20 years16.


Rheinhessen, which is part of the German province Rheinlandpfalz, has about 25 percent of the vineyard surface in Germany. The total area is 26,339 hectares (2007). With 613,000 inhabitants, there are 3,219 registered winegrowers (2007). The average surface of a vineyard is 7.7 hectares (2009), up from 5.5 in 1999, while the average in Germany is 2.13. Red wine varieties occupy 31 percent of the cultivated area (2009). Three quarters of the bottled wines are distributed to wine traders, with one fifth going directly from the producers to the consumers17.

Over the years, the sector has undergone significant changes: the average area has increased, the number of winegrowers has diminished, and red wine varieties have been introduced18. The relative economic importance of winegrowing has lessened with the ascent of industry and services in the region. Yet Rheinhessen cannot be imagined without wine, it is part of the culture for 2000 years, and an increasing important sector of tourism is connected to the wine19.

Jürgen Wagenitz of the Oppenheimer service center for agriculture (DLR) is positive about the perspectives for wine with climate change in Rheinhessen. “We have enough space above,” he says, showing a graph of the Huglin index and several wine varieties (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Huglin index for Oppenheim, Rheinhessen, 1966-2013. The year 2003 has an index value of over 2200. Image Credit: Jürgen Wagenitz

Figure 3: Huglin index for Oppenheim, Rheinhessen, 1966-2013. The year 2003 has an index value of over 2200. Image Credit: Jürgen Wagenitz

The center in Oppenheim is a service center for agriculture, especially wine, funded by the government; they have a school, plots where they develop new wine varieties, along with a marketing department that coordinates the cooperatives in this field.

Winegrower Ernst Ahl is content with the services the center provides. For example, there is information about the Drosophila Suzuki, a new climate related pest that has caused considerable damage. The center has an online service about pests where winegrowers can receive interactive instructions from the day the pest is detected. Promoting varieties for new climate situations is a key role for the center. But the center warns20 that the choice of the varieties depends on factors that cannot all be quantified: What is the technical capacity of the winegrower, and what will be demand and supply of a certain vine variety? Given the long period of a variety to develop, it is usually impossible to respond to changes in a timely manner.

Ahl knew that something had to be done and introduced a merlot some years ago and is now proud to have produced a good wine. The winegrowers in his village of 8,700 inhabitants have regular contact, more than during his father’s generation who saw colleagues as competitors. Now they visit the fields together and consult mutually on important decisions, although climate change is not a frequent topic. Ahl does the whole process, from developing a new vine to marketing its product. However, he worries that small winegrowers like him have an unknown future.


The Cognac region has about 75,000 hectares of vines. In this area, populated by 944,000 people, 50,000 depend directly or indirectly on the Cognac economy. With about 5,000 official winegrowers, the average surface is 15 hectares, much larger than in Rheinhessen21.

The total export volume of the Cognac in 2014 was slightly more than €2 billion22. The export represents 95 percent of the production. Although the region is comparable to Rheinhessen in terms of inhabitants and winegrowers, the relative importance of the Cognac production in the regional economy is larger.

Winegrowers in Cognac sell their distilled wine to traders who have well-known names like Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier. These four receive 70 percent of the Cognac from the producers; they all belong to larger commercial groups23. The remainder goes to six other traders. There are about 10 ecological wine producers in a total of 5000 (compared to 5 percent in Rheinlandpfalz).

The Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac (BNIC) is the service center for the region and gives technical advice, controls the trade of Cognac, the delivery of certificates, facilitates access to markets and promotes relations between commerce and winegrowers. Its predecessor was founded in 1888, after the disaster with the Phylloxera insect that destroyed more than 85 percent of the vines.

Figure 4: First harvest days (Vendanges) and years in Cognac. Numbers of the day of the year on the horizontal axis. Note the exceptional year 2003. Total period 1979-2008.  Image Credit: BNIC

Figure 4: First harvest days (Vendanges) and years in Cognac. Numbers of the day of the year on the horizontal axis. Day 250 corresponds to Sept. 7. Note the exceptional year 200324. Total period 1979-2008. Image Credit: BNIC

Figure 5: First harvest days (Erntezeitpunkt) and years.  Remarkable earlier harvests over the last 30-40 years. Lines are 10-year moving averages. Red, Rheingau; Blue, Burgundy; Green, Bordeaux. Image Credit: H.R. Schulz

Figure 5: First harvest days (Erntezeitpunkt) and years. Remarkable earlier harvests over the last 30-40 years25. Lines are 10-year moving averages. Red, Rheingau; Blue, Burgundy; Green, Bordeaux. Image Credit: H.R. Schulz

Because wine comes from almost one variety, the Ugni Blanc, climate change would affect the entire production in the same way. Harvesting is now about two weeks earlier than thirty years ago (Figure 4) as is the case elsewhere in Europe (Figure 5). But the Ugni Blanc has some margin. The grapes are usually harvested quite late so there is space for the reduction of the ripening period. The sugar tolerance is larger than with wine because Cognac wines can have between 8 and 12% alcohol.  Nevertheless, the BNIC realizes the climate challenge can affect the product and is working hard to find new varieties. There are currently 800 varieties of the Ugni Blanc, with some now tested on capacities for increased temperatures. The same is being done with traditional varieties from the region. All are tested for resistance against pests26. The complete cycle for the creation and selection of a new variety takes about 25 years, with the support of genomics the selection process can be reduced to 15 years27.

The BNIC is owned and managed jointly by the commercial houses and the cognac producers. They have both an equal stake in the Institute. The government is represented. Until two years ago, climate change was hardly on the winegrowers agenda, but now it is an important item in the discussions. Yet participation in meetings is not very large.

One of the winegrowers in the region expresses concern that, given the influence of large multinational companies in Cognac producing, the interests in finding local solutions for climate change may be less than in other regions. Another fear is that new climate related pests may require more chemicals28. Yet the large Cognac houses in the last few years hired technical specialists to face the challenge of climate change29.

Final remarks

We now know that in some areas winegrowers may benefit from climate change, while in others they may be obliged to reduce their business. But even if climate change has a positive effect, results are not for granted and will depend on the capacity of the winegrowers, market, and local climate situations, such as hail. The cycle of a vine is long and cannot respond to immediate market demands. Climate change is slower than the market, and its timespan is comparable to the vine cycle. Good collaboration between winegrowers and service centers is essential as they can respond to local situations. Yet some wine growers are not aware of the changes coming30.

The asset for winegrowers is culture.  What would France be without Cognac, Champagne, Bordeaux, Beaujolais and Germany without Riesling and Moselle? Despite the reduced relative economic value of wine, cultural and touristic value is ever increasing. In this sense, the winegrowers have something in common with indigenous people.

The concerns voiced by winegrowers about the increase of scale and role of multinationals have a base. The Council of Foreign Trade Advisors in France writes: “the wine sector will enter in a process of concentration and there will be big international brands, similar to the international beer market.”31 The issue here is not so much a plea for “small is beautiful;” the question is, and it remains open in the context of this article, will large international firms be able to respond to the demands posed by climate change to winegrowers who work in very subtle, localized geographical and soil conditions?

Ashenfelter and Storchman write: “Many analyses disregard possible farmer adaptation and assume instead a dumb farmer scenario.”32 This may prove a valuable observation; there are little publications with both “helicopter view” and a “boots on the ground” perspective. But then, how do we include in the general picture of winegrowers and climate change, the experiences of all these local farmers and their service institutions? This is quite a challenge. Do indigenous people not face similar challenges on how to promote their interests in an ever-globalizing and at the same time influence-concentrated world?

Author Bio

Leen Revallier is a physicist who became involved in disaster risk reduction and climate change in Africa and Latin America. He now concentrates his efforts in Europe at local and municipal level.


  1. F. Niedercorn, “Les vignes seront-elles les prochaines victimes du changement climatique”?   Les  Available:

  2. Lee Hannah, “Climate change, wine, and conservation”, February 19, 2013. p.1. Available at:

  3. E. Ahl, private communication, Osthofen, March 25 2015. More available at:

  4. S. Antonj, private communication, Lelystad, March 2015

  5. Axel May, “Von der Adelsmühle zum Qualitätsweingut“, 2015, Available at:

  6. Cognac Godet, “History”, 2012. Available at: Codde was his surname before emigrating to France.

  7. Céline Bessière, “Des producteurs indépendants face au multinationals”, Actes de la recherché en sciences sociales, 2011/5,

  8. H. R. Schultz,, “Weinbau im Klimawandel: Regionen im Umbruch“, p. 13. Deutsche Wetterdienst, 2009

  9. Magnus Manske, “Weinbau in Deutschland”, p. 5. Available at: in Deutschland?oldid=140197224. Note: The 300.000 ha includes the Alsace that now belongs to France and has about 15.000 hectares of vineyards.

  10. Dagmar Kreft, „Weinbau in die Niederlanden“,  January 2015, Hochschule Heilbron, p. 1.

  11. Wikipedia: Bauernkriege, Geschichte der Wein

  12. Pierre Huglin. ”Biologie et écologie de la vigne“. Lavoisier (Ed. Tec & Doc), Paris 1986, ISBN 2-60103-019-4. p. 292.

  13. Dieter Kasang: After Stock, M., u.a. (2007): Perspektiven der Klimaänderung bis 2050 für den Weinbau in Deutschland, PIK-Report 106; und Stock, M.; Gerstengarbe, F.-W.; Kartschall, T.; Werner, P.C. (2005): Reliability of Climate Change Impact Assessments for Viticulture. Acta Horticulturae 689, 29-39; persönliche Mitteilung M.Stock: E-Mail vom 10.5.2012  Available at:

  14. Demir Kok,  “A review of grape growing in tropical regions”,  Faculty of agriculture, Tekridag, Turkey, 2014

  15. Orley Ashenfelter and Karl Storchmann, “Wine and climate change”, American Association of wine economics, March 2014.

  16. Ulrich Fichtner, ”The grapes of Wrath: France’s great wines are feeling the heat”, Der Spiegel, online, October 30, 2014, p2.

  17. Karin Rheinschmidt, „Der Weinbau in Rheinhessen“. Dienstleitungszentrum Oppenheim Ländlicher Raum (DLR). Available at: Anbaugebiete.  Note: The average surface is 10.8 ha in main occupation and 2.2 ha in secondary occupation.

  18. Weinbau-Bestockte Rebfläche. Rheinlandpfalz, Statistisches Landesamt, p1. Available at: Note: The increase from 5% into 31% occurred between 1979 and 2004, and then it stabilized. It is not clear what to role of climate change is in this.

  19. Planungsgemeinschaft Rheinhessen-Nahe. „Wirtschaftsstrctuur und Weinbau in die Region“,  2001, Available at:

  20. Dr. Bernd Prior, “Rotweinsorte und Klone“,  DLR Oppenheim, 2002


  22. Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac, BNIC, “Bilan Anné Civile 2014”, Available at:

  23. Hennessey for instance belongs to Luis Vuitton Moët Hennesy (LVMH) with a revenue of 29 billion (USD) and 6 billion profit, of which 2 from wines and spirits.

  24. L. Lurton, “Constat et  incidence du changement climatique dans la region du Cognac”, BNCI. 33th conges of Vine and Wine, June 2010, Tiblisi, Georgia.

  25. H. R. Schultz, Ibid. P 14.

  26. L. Lurton, Director BNIC, private communication,  30 March 2015

  27. S. Julliard, Conservatoire du Vignoble Charentais, Institut de Formation de Richemont.  E-mail communication, April 16th 2015.

  28. Patric Dauge and François Mery, winegrowers, personnel communication.

  29. Laetitia Four, BNIC, personnel communication

  30. Ulrich Fichtner, Ibid, p1.

  31. Les Conseillers du Commerce Extérieur de la France (CCE),”Les vins dans le monde, les enjeux a l’horizon 2050”. September 2009. P2. The “conseillers” (advisors) are nominated by the Minister responsible for External trade).

  32. O. Ashenfelter, Ibid, p26