Climate change: how does it change viticulture?

climate change wine

How is climate change changing the way viticulture is done? In this article we will explore how rising temperatures are affecting production in the vineyard, what the consequences are, and how we can counter it in the coming years.

How climate change is affecting production in the vineyardclimate chnage vineyards

In 2000, researchers Gregory Jones and Robert Davis of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture noted that vines in the Bordeaux region of France were undergoing rapid changes in growth and in the variation of crop quality.

Many growers, however, ignored and accepted the rapidly changing climate. In fact, in the short term, in many regions the increase in temperatures led to immediate benefits in grape ripening, plus the reduction in rainfall reduced the incidence of fungal diseases, especially those related to grape bunch rot.

However, in the long run, climate change has brought with it increasingly extreme weather events resulting in extensive damage to the wine sector. Recall, for example, the 2021 frosts in Italy that caused extensive damage in Oltrepò Pavese, recording a reduction in wine production compared to the previous year.

The damage caused was determined by the strong fluctuations in temperature. Indeed, high temperatures cause an advance in the vegetative recovery of vines, making new shoots vulnerable in case the thermometer drops below zero.

Has something similar happened before?

One of the most significant changes in the history of viticulture occurred during the second half of the 19th century. Vineyards were attacked by phylloxera, an insect from overseas that severely damaged the plants. How was the problem solved? Through the grafting technique. The resistance of the root system of some American vine varieties was exploited, onto which they grafted European ones, thus circumventing the pest.

Today we have a new change to deal with and it is related to climate, a problem that involves our planet entirely and that could also have consequences for wine production. Let us now look at two of the main consequences related to this issue: the change in production areas and early harvesting.

Change of production areasvineyards global warming

Because of climate change, with the consequent increase in temperature, we are encountering a migration of vineyards at higher altitudes to the north.

Regarding the change of production areas in Europe for example, many sparkling wine producers have begun to invest in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and southern England, areas that for obvious reasons had never been considered for viticulture. At present, particularly cold-hardy grape varieties, such as Riesling, Pinot noir, and Vidal, are grown in these areas, but it is not unlikely to imagine a total shift of the wine industry to these geographic areas.

In European territories, the greatest damage would be found in the Mediterranean area, particularly in Italy and Spain. Some time ago, in fact, climatologist Georg Kaser sounded the alarm about the world’s most important wine-growing areas, including those in Italy: they will see a decrease in their cultivable areas from 25 percent to 73 percent by 2050, and wine growers will have to go in search of new land, often at higher altitudes.

This is precisely why vine cultivation in Italy is climbing higher and higher in the mountains and hills in search of more moderate temperatures. Exemplary is the case of Piemonte: in just a few years, vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, used for Alta Langa sparkling wine, have gradually moved from 250 meters up to 800 to 1000 in order to preserve their organoleptic characteristics.

For the Pacific area, on the other hand, the United States, Australia and New Zealand could be affected by a gradual expansion in the climatically suitable area for late-ripening wine varieties.

What does early harvesting involve?

Research indicates that in the future we will have a shorter growing cycle, an earlier start and a shorter duration of the various developmental stages, leading in 80 years to an early harvest of four weeks.

But that is not all. Exposed to high temperatures and increasingly intense direct solar radiation, the clusters undergo alteration of their composition and sunburn phenomena. In this regard, in the production area of Prosecco, which today represents one of the world’s best-selling wines, green barriers have been built to protect the vineyards from wind and sunlight, thus preserving its characteristic freshness and acidity.

Will the wines change?  The answer is yes, the increasing sugar concentration will lead to wines with higher alcohol contents, while acidity will decrease at the expense of freshness.

This is a key parameter, especially in white, rosé, and sparkling wines, for which the aromatic picture is also changing and moving away from what has hitherto been recognized and appreciated.

What is certain is that climate change will lead wine producers to experiment with new production techniques and develop new technologies.

How to counter climate change in the vineyard? What are the solutions?

The wine production of the future is in jeopardy, so efforts are needed to respond to impending transformations.

Many growers are installing cover crops to stabilize their soils and revolutionizing the way they irrigate their fields to mitigate the impact of water deficits. The key will be much more sophisticated monitoring of our environment.

Another possible solution could be to increase the biodiversity of vines so as to minimize losses brought about by rising temperatures.

The impact of climate change also changes depending on the area in which we are located. In the Conegliano area, for example, many producers have returned to the pergola vine training system, given its better resistance to climatic stresses.

Some consortia, on the other hand, have intervened with new regulations, changing the specifications for wine production. A famous case is that of the Consorzio di Tutela Vini Valpolicella, which amended the specifications for the production of Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto. The new regulation gives winemakers the power to raise the percentage of Corvinone grapes in the production of appellation wines, allowing its use even as a total replacement for Corvina. This is because Corvinone has better thermal potential in light of the new climatic course found in the region.

Wines at high altitudes high altitude vineyards

Have a look at what vineyards you can find at high altitudes.

Differences in altitude contribute to the quality of the grapes and the resulting wine, since they affect the grapes’ aromatics, acidity, pH and other components. As a result, therefore, wines from areas at different altitudes can take on more or less freshness, lightness and intensity.

There is also to consider that every hundred meters of altitude the thermometer marks one degree less, but continuing at altitude also increases the temperature range between day and night, between summer and winter, a factor that cannot be underestimated.

All along the boot there are wine-growing areas located at high altitudes, such as Sicily (particularly the area surrounding Etna), Trentino – Alto Adige, but also Valle d’Aosta, Piemonte, Liguria, Abruzzo, Lombardia and Calabria.

South Tyrol, for example, is an area where it is cultivated from 200 meters to over 1000 meters above sea level. For this reason, therefore, much of its production falls into the category of heroic viticulture. Here the most representative grape varieties are Müller Thurgau and Sauvignon.

Valle d’Aosta has a multimillennial winemaking tradition. While it does not boast large numbers or wines produced in large quantities, it offers small gems and great excellence. For those who love the simplicity of Chardonnay, the Chardonnay produced in this high-altitude land is a white that comes from grapes that ripen in an environment characterized by large temperature swings between day and night.

Arriving in the far south of Italy we encounter Sicily, a land kissed by the sea and the sun, which has no shortage of unspoiled territories where fascinating mountain wines can be produced. The presence of vines and wine production on the slopes of the volcano Etna dates back to ancient times. The main white grape varieties are Carricante and Catarratto.

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