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Europe’s Wine Makers Battle to Adapt to Climate Disruption

Stefan Nicola, Charles Penty and Megan Durisin
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Europe’s Wine Makers Battle to Adapt to Climate Disruption

(Bloomberg) -- Rising temperatures and extreme weather events are having an increasing impact on European wine production, forcing growers to adapt methods that have been in place for many generations.

Almudena Alberca, technical director at Spain’s Grupo Bodegas Palacios 1894, neatly captures the challenge: “You have to reinvent yourself every year.”

This can include anything from bringing forward the grape harvest, replanting to boost drought resistance, cutting herbicide use to improve soil quality and leaving leaves on the vines to protect the fruit, according to Alberca, who was elected Spain’s first female Master of Wine last year.

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Europe makes about 60% of the world’s wine -- with Italy,  Spain and France accounting for most of the output -- and coping with environmental upheaval is a delicate balancing act. Some 15,000 diplomats and environmentalists will discuss the threats posed by climate change at a United Nations conference next week in Madrid, where representatives from about 200 nations will be working on a pathway to rein in fossil fuel pollution.

“If summer stretches on longer than normal, that affects consumption habits that can easily cost us a month of sales of our main product,” said Carlos Caraballo, head of Vinedos y Bodegas Sierra Cantabria, a vineyard founded in 1870 in Spain’s Rioja region that specializes in producing reds. “It’s getting more unpredictable.”

Here’s a look at how shifting weather conditions are affecting viticulture across the continent:

Spain

Some 200 miles north of Madrid in the Rioja region, producers have battled with average temperatures that climbed as much as 1.3 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2014. That has pushed up alcohol content, forced earlier harvests and fostered new crop diseases.

Production costs are rising because of “the need to irrigate more and a surge in crop insurance,” said Sergio Andres Cabello, a researcher at La Rioja University. “Harvest timing is now less predictable, and that may also lead to an increase in manpower costs.”

Wineries are working to create clones of their varietals that can better cope with the new environment without altering their characteristics, said Inigo Torres, general manager of Grupo Rioja, an association representing the region’s producers.

They’re also storing away up to a fifth of their harvests over a three-year period to hedge against potential droughts or frost, Torres said. So far, winemakers have managed to keep overall volumes steady.

France

The picture is grimmer in France, where spring frost and hail storms followed by a summer heatwave and drought hobbled production. In the Bordeaux region, where Chinese investors have bought dozens of chateaux, the sweltering heat reduced volumes by an estimated 6% this year compared with the five-year average, according to estimates from the French agriculture ministry.

Samuel Masse, whose family has been farming in Saint Bauzille de Montmel in southern France since the 1400s, says the sun burned about a quarter of the grapes growing on his 20-hectare vineyard this summer after temperatures reached 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit).

Masse worked to install drip irrigation on about 80% of the land after taking over the farm in 2013, and he and his brother are thinking of new ways to manage the vines. They’re planting trees to provide shading and allow sheep to graze to fertilize soils.

In the future, Masse may turn to grapes historically grown in Greece and Spain. He also plans to produce more olives to diversify his income. “What we can see is that it’s not going to get better, and we’ll have to adapt,” he said.

While growers in southern France grapple with excessive heat, further north wine makers in the Loire valley are seeing some benefits. From Sancerre in the east through Touraine to the Muscadet-producing region around Nantes, they used to struggle to ripen grapes in cooler, wetter years, but over the past decade have produced a string of vintages with improved yields and fruit.

Italy

Sunny Tuscany is every wine lover’s dream. Rolling hills, charming castelli and vineyards that produce some of the world’s most sought-after (and expensive) red wines.

But climate change is disrupting the idyll. Piero Lanza, the 52-year-old owner of a vineyard in the Chianti region, says extreme weather events have multiplied in the past 15 years, with shorter winters and hotter summers. Winemakers need to be increasingly flexible when it comes to pruning vines and harvesting grapes, Lanza said.

“You have to know the potential and limits of your land and be quick to respond to the changing climate,” he said.

Overall, Italy still produces the most wine in Europe, partly because it covers many different climate zones, from the mountainous Tyrol region to relatively arid Sicily.

Germany

Traditionally cooler Germany has reaped some benefits from a changing climate. Rising temperatures have helped wine makers grow grapes usually reserved for warmer climates — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Shiraz — extending their product line beyond Riesling and Pinot. Last year’s hot and dry summer, which led to the earliest harvest on record, packed a lot of sun into the grapes for one of the best vintages in years. Output topped the ten-year average by 23%.

It’s not all good news. Exposure to more sunlight drives up alcohol content, and that could threaten wine exports to the U.S., Germany’s (and Europe’s) biggest customer. Americans tend to favor lighter wines like the Rieslings from the Mosel region, which combine full flavor at often less than 10% alcohol. And while the vines coped with last year’s dry spell by tapping deeper groundwater reservoirs, those basins were empty this summer when the drought returned.

Wine makers are already adapting, for example by selecting cooler, higher-altitude plots, by not cutting leaves from vines to provide grapes with shading, and by investing in irrigation systems.

“Germany’s wine industry has profited from rising temperatures so far, but that can quickly change,” said Frank Schulz, a spokesman for the DWI, a local wine industry lobby group. “Every winemaker hates unpredictable, extreme weather.”

U.K.

The U.K., until recently regarded as too far north to produce quality wine, has seen a rapid expansion in vineyard plantings over the past two decades as growers have responded to hotter summers. Wine production in England and Wales rose to 13.2 million bottles last year from 5.1 million in 2015, according to data from Wines of Great Britain. The area planted to vineyards has quadrupled since 2000.

Geological similarities between southern England and France’s Champagne region have encouraged a proliferation of sparkling wine ventures, with leading vineyards now including Chapel Down in Kent, Nyetimber and Ridgeview in Sussex and Denbies in Surrey. French Champagne house Taittinger has invested in a vineyard project in Kent.

“2019 has been another bumper year, not quite at the levels of the extraordinary yields of 2018 but not far off,” Mark Harvey, Chapel Down’s managing director for wine, wrote in a post on its website last month. “The quality is high too, with the sugars and acids at the targeted levels across the sites.”

Portugal

Dwindling rainfall, severe droughts and high temperatures are the main concerns for winemakers in Portugal, said Joao Santos, a climatologist and professor at the University of Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro.

“The issue of a lack of water is very serious,” he said. “I think for now it’s not had an effect on quality because the sector is responding well, namely through irrigation and other measures.”

Some varietals are able to cope with heat better than others, Santos said, and the larger wine companies especially are taking that into account when planting new vineyards.

Greece

Winemakers in Greece have to deal with an increase in rainfall, hail storms and droughts but their vines are relatively used to prolonged exposure to sunshine, according to George Skouras, head of the country’s wine lobby and owner of a vineyard in Argos in the Peloponnese region.

The country’s varietals — like the red Agiorgitiko grape or the white Moschofilero — are faring better than some of the better known grapes from western Europe, Skouras said.

Austria

It’s a mixed bag in Austria, where rising temperatures have benefited red varietals like Blaufraenkisch and Merlot by packing more sun into the grapes for a fuller body. But some white grapes, like Chardonnay and Gruener Veltliner, now need to be harvested earlier to avoid over-ripeness and maintain freshness and acidity, said Martin Nittnaus, who runs a winery in Gols in the Burgenland region.

“Climate change can be seen as a boon and a bane,” Nittnaus said. “Whereas in former years, winter frost was a permanent potential danger, now the worry shifts more towards spring frost.’’

With summers getting warmer, Nittnaus and many of his colleagues are reverting to more traditional methods of winemaking — for example fermenting  white grapes in their skins to give them a complex structure. “If you open your mind to new — actually traditional — ways, you can still produce amazing wines,” he said.

Romania

Romania’s 2019 output, mostly for export, is estimated to be slightly lower than the 2018 harvest of around 5 million hectoliters because crops have been affected by hail, said Victor Ciuperca, deputy head of the nation’s wine lobby.

“We have years with severe drought, which is good for the wine industry, especially if it’s in the ripening season, and years with excessive rains,” Ciuperca said. “The worst news is that we’ve seen an uptick in violent weather events such as storms and hail, which can destroy an entire crop.”

Bulgaria

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest nation, has witnessed “extreme, untypical conditions” over the past three to four years, according to Blagoy Roussev at Orbelus Organic Winery. These have included long periods of drought, which has had a seriously negative impact on quality, Roussev said.

Bulgarian wine production last year dropped by 3.6% from a year earlier because of poor weather conditions, according to the OIV's most recent data.

Croatia

“What we have noticed is that higher temperatures and more extreme weather in terms of drought and heavy rains have shortened the life cycle of grapevines,” said Ivica Matosevic, one of Croatia’s leading vintners. “It used to be normal to pick the grapes in September and October, and now we are picking them in August and September.”

--With assistance from Thomas Gualtieri, Rudy Ruitenberg, Karl Maier, Joao Lima, Andra Timu, Irina Vilcu, Slav Okov, Jasmina Kuzmanovic, Guy Collins, Gina Turner and Matthias Wabl.

To contact the authors of this story: Stefan Nicola in Berlin at snicola2@bloomberg.netCharles Penty in Madrid at cpenty@bloomberg.netMegan Durisin in London at mdurisin1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Iain Rogers at irogers11@bloomberg.net, Chris Reiter

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