In Arabidopsis thaliana, winter is registered during vernalization through the temperature-dependent repression and epigenetic silencing of floral repressor FLOWERING LOCUS C (FLC). Natural Arabidopsis accessions show considerable variation in vernalization. However, which aspect of the FLC repression mechanism is most important for adaptation to different environments is unclear. By analysing FLC dynamics in natural variants and mutants throughout winter in three field sites, we find that autumnal FLC expression, rather than epigenetic silencing, is the major variable conferred by the distinct Arabidopsis FLChaplotypes. This variation influences flowering responses of Arabidopsis accessions resulting in an interplay between promotion and delay of flowering in different climates to balance survival and, through a post-vernalization effect, reproductive output. These data reveal how expression variation through non-coding cis variation at FLC has enabled Arabidopsis accessions to adapt to different climatic conditions and year-on-year fluctuations.