What Climate Change Means for the Viticulturist

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The Earth has warmed about 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century and small changes in Earth’s temperature lead to big impacts!

The increased temperatures, water deficits, high radiation levels are major results and have a direct effect on agriculture. The wine world is also discussing how climate change is shaping the wine style and quality. Let’s have a look at the issue from the viticulturist’s perspective and see how grape growers deal with climate change:

One of the biggest problems is the rising temperature. The rock stars of the vineyards have to find a way to delay the ripeness process. The plant material selection, such as the rootstocks, is an important tool to achieve this in long term.  99 and 110 Richter for instance tend to delay the maturity and they are popular in many wine regions in the world. The choice of grape variety is another solution to heat. Nowadays, Australian winemakers focus on Portuguese and Spanish varieties that are better suited to warm climate. Some producers in Germany are struggling with Riesling and experimenting with PIWI varieties that can adapt to new climate conditions. But let’s be honest, planting new varieties take time and money. Plus, the appellation systems that limit the grape varieties might have to adjust the regulations. (Wow, that sounds almost impossible, right? :))

Canopy management and training systems can also be modified to delay ripening. More shade might reduce sugar and increase acidity. Larger canopies are also useful to fight heat waves. Furthermore, pruning a bit later than normal can delay the bud break and the following phenological stages.

Buuuuut!

We might come to a point where adjusting canopy management or training systems are not enough anymore. At this point, wine-growing regions might have to move to higher altitudes. Torres has planted high altitude vineyards in the north of Catalonia for instance. There are many other visionary wineries planting or purchasing vineyards at higher altitudes.

Water deficit is another major problem. One of the rootstocks Yalumba Winery uses is 140 Ruggeri that is more resistant to drought. Old vines can also manage drought better than others thanks to their deeper roots. Training systems can also have an impact on water consumption. I have met Michel Gassier couple of years ago and remember him telling me that “Many winemakers switch to Guyot training to increase the yield and to use machine harvesting.” But he believes that Gobelet training ideally suits their dry climate in Southern Rhone, especially for Grenache and Mouvedre.

Another solution is to simply not be lazy and to reuse, treat and recycle water to minimize the water waste. Kilikanoon Winery in Clare Valley has been treating their water and reuses it in the cellar to prevent any water waste for many years now. Torres also has two rainwater ponds that can hold up to 38 million liters of water and biological water waste treatment plant that recycles water for gardening and cleaning. (Well, Torres is like a disneyland for those who want to see an environmentally sustainable winery in Penedes)

Irrigation is always a tricky topic. For example, in Southern France, where drought is a serious issue, the government only allows irrigation in extreme weather conditions but the regulations are slowly becoming more flexible. Karim Mussi on the other hand produces wine in Mendoza (owner of Altocedro producing great Malbec!) and uses pressurized drip and traditional floor irrigation sourced from Tunuyan River. And during his last trip to Switzerland, he explained that when one buys a vineyard in Mendoza, he/she also buys the rights of a certain amount of water. Due to limited water supply, the government regulates the amount grape growers use.

Some say, climate change is actually positive for cooler wine regions. I have asked this questions to the prominent viticulturist Glen Creasy couple of years ago while I was writing my Master thesis on this topic. He said that new geographic areas will open up to winegrowing as a result of the overall warmer temperatures (such as UK or Southern Island of New Zealand). However, he thinks that the real challenge is extreme weather events such as early season or late season frosts or hail. In 2017, England lost around half of its harvest due to frost and Bordeaux’s production for instance falls by 50% due to spring frosts. Viticulturists have various methods to manage increasing pressure of hail and frost. Ricky Taylor, who has recently planted vineyards in Texas Davis Mountains, preferred to use Cabernet Sauvignon, a late budding grape variety, to avoid any loss during spring frosts in the region. Or in 2017 April, seven helicopters flew over Montlouis in Loire valley, created an air circulation and managed to raise the temperature 3 Celsius degrees and protected two third of the appellation vines. It simply becomes a non-stop war for some winemakers to ensure they can make wine every year.

The rising temperatures, water scarcity, frost and hail pressures challenge the grape growers to find solutions to manage their crop and quality. Many wine lovers think that winemaking only takes few weeks after the harvest. But it takes 12 months, plus tears and blood. Especially in these challenging conditions. It seems like our expectations from Burgundy or Champagne might change in time, but let’s hope that we keep our planet safe enough for new experiments and manage to sip new styles of delicious wines. 

Seyma BasComment