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Global warming and its affect on winemaking

Even though some still deny the scientific evidence, global warming, or climate change as some people water it down to, is a very real factor in our lives today. The increasingly extreme weather conditions, such as droughts, floods, and out-of-season frosts are having a huge impact on the wine industry in general.

This is an undeniable fact. Nowadays it is becoming the norm to see vineyards in Chablis or Burgundy, dotted with heat lanterns in a bid to reduce the impact of spring frost. At the other extreme, burnt bunches of grapes can be found in Murcia and Andalucía, due to the growing number of severe heat waves. Alcohol levels in many wines are also rising because of the higher temperatures during the summer months. Even in fresher regions of Spain, such as Galicia, the production of quality red wines has seen a jump, thanks to the warmer summers and the amount of sunlight these areas now receive.

To help us understand how these various conditions are making an impact on a winemaker’s everyday life, and to make sure we get the correct information straight from the source, we have asked some of the producers we know to give us their input on how global warming is affecting them and how it influences their winemaking today.

Eva, from Maisulan, with her vines in Rioja Alavesa

Some of the most shocking news came from La Rioja, where Eva and Luis (who own Bodegas Maisulan) have grown up living and working amongst the vines. Eva told us that the thing she misses most in Rioja is the distinct change in seasons. Rioja Alavesa is the Basque Country's section of this wine region and Eva said the area now feels like a constant spring season. When we chatted with her in early November she said it was a very pleasant 21ºC. Eva has also noticed that the rain has been a lot more extreme.

Rioja Alavesa

Some of these heavy downpours destroy walkways, making the use of tractors and other machinery very difficult. Also, the top layer of soil, which normally contains most of the organic material and nutrients, gets washed away downhill, leaving a very compacted layer of soil behind.

Maisulan Txabola Graciano, Rioja Alavesa

Eva uses organic agricultural techniques when growing her vines and she believes this does help. When you adopt organic principles you tend to get a lower yield, so the plant is less stressed and produces grapes that have thicker skin, therefore becoming more resistant. Another factor that seems favourable in her area is the altitude. Vineyards at higher altitudes tend to enjoy fresher temperatures and therefore don’t feel the impact of the heat waves. Eva is also putting her trust in the older grape varieties that are grown in Rioja Alavesa. Graciano and Mazuela have a slower ripening process, making them more resistant to the extreme heat of the summer. Over the years Eva has seen the Tempranillo vines suffer more than any other, which is extremely worrying.

The view from the Son Puig estate

Here in Mallorca, we spoke with Isabel Alabern from Bodegas Son Puig. Although this winery is surrounded by the mountains of Puigpunyent and has a relatively rainy microclimate, there has been a significant reduction in rainfall over the last 6 years.

Isabel Alabern, with her father, Raimundo

During this period Isabel has seen the grapes ripening at an alarming rate because of the hot dry summers. Hot summers also affect the way the grapes mature, a balance between alcoholic ripening (the amount of sugar the plant stores in the grapes) and the phenolic ripening (the skin and seeds must reach a favourable level so they can release the perfect aromas and flavours) must be achieved before harvest, but this level is now becoming increasingly harder to balance. For now, all they can do is watch and suffer the consequences because there is nothing they can do to take action against it. They want to wait a little longer before they start grafting their vines to other varieties that are more resistant to heat and drought, but choosing the right variety is not going to be an easy decision.

Delicious Son Puig cherries

All of the other trees that grow on the Son Puig estate have experienced change as a result of mild winters. Son Puig is renowned for its cherries, but the cherry trees need colder winters, to be precise, they need 800 hours below 7ºC. If this doesn't happen the cherries are smaller and of lesser quality. This is also very worrying.

"The Mediterranean is warming up," said Carlos from Bodega Cerron. This young winemaker is from the area of Jumilla, in southeast Spain, and he wrote a thesis about global warming when he was studying for his WSET qualification.

Carlos at Bodega Cerron

Because of the rise in sea temperatures the yearly precipitations have doubled in his area, from 300l/m2 to 600l/m2.

La Servil from Bodega Cerron

This year was the first time they had to spray products on the vines planted at altitude to make sure fungal diseases didn't spread. While this is considered normal in many wine regions, in Carlos' vineyards this is rare because it is such a dry area. A lack of moisture generally means no fungus issues. At the same time, the more it rains the more the plant yields, and once again it becomes harder to reach a balance between phenolic and alcoholic maturing. The harvests have to be delayed, resulting in wines that are higher in alcohol, reaching 15% or more. Luckily for Carlos, the Monastrell grape variety in Jumilla is very resistant to heat, and as in Rioja, the older vines and the altitude are factors that will be taken into greater consideration in the future. Worried yet?

Xurxo Alba of Bodegas Albamar

While some areas of Spain suffer the consequences of global warming, others are seeing more favourable changes. Xurxo Alba (of Bodegas Albamar) works all over Galicia and feels like a fish in the sea. The northwest of Spain is renowned for being grey and rainy the majority of the time but they have also seen an increase in temperatures. However, according to Xurxo, the rain still seems to be falling at the same rate. He thinks the lack of distinct seasons is a concern, but the Albariño grape is so resistant that a bit of heat doesn't seem to affect it.

Albariño grapes, Albamar

The white wines are gaining structure and becoming more balanced as a result. Galicia also has a lot of small and not very renowned red grape varieties. In the past, they never got to the right level of ripening due to the lack of sunshine. However, the longer and sunnier summers are changing all of this. Galician winemakers are now creating some interesting red wines and the future of the region looks bright. Not so worrying, for now!

In the Canary Islands, the effects of global warming are felt very differently. We talked to Mariam from the Consejo Regulador of the D.O. Valle de la Orotava. This little valley in the north of Tenerife has seen a massive decrease in the amount of rain that has fallen in the last 6 years. 90% of the vines here are 100 years old or more. The more experienced vines cope better with the lack of water, but the extreme heatwaves damage the grapes when they are at their most delicate, which is during July and August. The majority of vines in this region are concentrated in an elevated area between 400m and 700m above sea level, where the temperatures are cooler. The main effect of global warming is clear when it is time to pick the grapes. Harvests are getting shorter and happening earlier and earlier. A normal harvest would begin in September and end in mid-November. This year, the harvest started in July and was finished by the first week of September.

Bodega La Haya vines, in Tenerife

The maturing of the grapes is not a problem in the Canary Islands, but the main problem seems to be the heat. With longer and hotter summers the fruit is now beginning to suffer. Now I am worried!

Worried or not, after talking to all of these producers and various other people in the know I have come to one conclusion. If we want to continue drinking good quality wine we have to try and stop the negative effects of Global Warming.

We all know what needs to be done in our daily lives, but we also have to demand that the ‘powers that be’ take more responsibility, take action, implement changes, and teach others. Our human impact is very clear, let's reduce it so that we can contribute towards saving the vines, the livelihood of the wine producers, and ultimately the good wines on this planet.

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