It’s a hot-button topic, and has been for decades. Even today, may politicians deny the evidence of climate change, turning what should be a scientific issue into a political one. Denying climate change seems to appeal to many, perhaps because it gives them a reason to not worry about how what they do may have negative effects in the future.
But climate change is very real, and you only need look at the Italian wine industry to see it.
The prospect of changing climates will have a devastating effect on wine industries throughout the world. Producers rely on climate regularity to bring their grapes to full maturity. Changes in the climate affect the grapes directly, as well as changing harvesting periods and potentially lowering the quality of the wines that come from the grapes.
2017 saw the Italian wine industry struggle with climate issues. Late frosts and other unseasonal weather wreaked havoc on grape production.
The end result?
Italy produced 26% less wine than it did in 2016. That means there’s less supply despite the fact that demand for Italian wine has never been higher.
Many lay the blame for this lower production at the feet of climate change. Furthermore, they saw that doing nothing about it will only lead to the problem getting worse.
That’s the general overview of how climate change can, and already is, affecting the Italian wine industry. But it runs much deeper than that.
The field of vine phenology examines everything about how vines grow and flower. It forms the basis of our understanding of how to grow and harvest grapes, making it an extremely important field in the Italian wine industry.
Vine phenologists will all tell you one thing – the temperature influences the way the vine grows.
Even small changes in temperature can change the speed of growth, when the vine flowers, and when the grapes that it produces are likely to ripen.
In fact, the relationship between temperature and the vine is so important that phenologists can predict how a vine will grow in different temperatures.
Climate change obviously means a change in the temperatures that producers expect. This means that they have to change how they grow and harvest their vines if they want to get the most out of them.
That’s not all, because temperature also affects how a grape ripens, as well as when. For example, sugar builds up to a greater degree in grapes that ripen in higher temperatures. However, high temperatures also affect the metabolites within the grape, which can have negative effects.
For an example of this, consider grape acidity. In high temperatures, acidity falls off as sugar increases, which drastically affects the composition of the grape. This change in composition also causes a problem when the grapes are crushed, as the liquid they produce simply won’t create the same wine as before.
Climate change affects producers because it prevents them from achieving consistent quality in their wines.
Beyond temperature, the amount of water that a vine takes in also affects how it grows. That’s the same for all plants, as anybody who understands how roots work can tell you.
Several issues affect the amount of water that a vine takes in. How much stone is present in the soil plays a part, as does the length of the vine’s roots. Even the soil texture plays a role, as some soils don’t absorb water as well as others. The size of a vine’s leaves also affect how much water it takes on.
All of these are things that aren’t directly related to climate change. However, the amount of rain that falls does.
Climate change leads to higher temperatures, which generally results in less consistent rainfall patterns. Continued high temperatures may even lead to drought periods, during which vines cannot get the water that they need to grow healthily.
Too much time without the water they need results in the vine’s leaves cracking. This makes it even less capable of absorbing water than the conditions already do. Less water also affects the grape ripening process, as a deficit means the grape never reaches its full potential.
Currently, producers can rely on natural rainfall and their irrigation systems to ensure their vines get the water that they need. However, that may change as time goes on. Less rainfall would mean more of a reliance on other water sources.
This alone may change the composition of the resulting grapes. It also adds costs to the production method that some producers may not be able to afford. Furthermore, it places more pressure on the Earth’s fresh water supplies during periods when drought is already an issue.
Changing temperatures also mean that producers have to adjust their schedules to get the most out of their grapes.
A combination of the right – or perhaps wrong – conditions can lead to a grape ripening weeks before it normally would.
Australian producer Brett McClen points out the scale of the problem, and it’s one that affects Italian producers too.
“We are working with shorter time frames,” he says. “Once upon a time a vintage would have taken 100 days but we do the bulk of it within 60 days.”
Shorter time frames present all sorts of practical problems. Producers have less time to keep track of the quality of their vines, and less time to harvest the fruit. Faster ripening messes up shipping schedules and changes the way the producer works. It also leads to unpredictability, which has a massive effect on the quality of the vintage.
The Final Word
Climate change is very real and it’s something that the Italian wine industry has to deal with. Changing temperatures are already affecting vintages in a variety of ways.
There isn’t a catch-all solution either. An issue in one part of the country may not affect another part, and vice-versa. It’s a major problem, and one that seems to have few potential solutions. Perhaps we should all start being more energy efficient in an effort to prevent the potentially disastrous effects that climate change may have on the Italian wine industry.