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Drought and heat drive early wine harvests in Europe

There have been reports of record early starts and optimism around quality for the 2022 vintage, but conditions also bring climate-related challenges into sharper focus.

Severe drought and heatwaves have provided challenges for wine producers across Europe in 2022, from maintaining vine health to concerns about – and the impact of – wildfires.

Early harvests have been a feature of the vintage and reports emerged this week of records being broken at some white wine-producing estates in Bordeaux.

Spain’s Caserío de Dueñas estate in DO Rueda said it began a record early harvest on 16 August this year.

While drought and heat have put pressure on yields in some regions, there has been optimism about 2022 vintage quality.

‘In Rueda, our 21-year-old vines have coped well with the heat and we were able to help the plants retain freshness through irrigation,’ said Almudena Alberca MW, winemaking director at Entrecanales Domecq e Hijos, owner of Caserío de Dueñas, in August.

‘The areas of the vineyards that were exposed to more sunshine have obviously ripened earlier than the shaded areas, leading to uneven berry sizes, but the health of the grapes is excellent.’

Similar reports of healthy grapes have come from producers in Champagne. In Italy, farming association Coldiretti said on 1 August that drought and heat could cut the country’s 2022 wine production by 10%, but ‘a good [to] excellent quality year is expected’ – even if much can change in the crucial ripening period.

Germany’s wine institute said last week that harvest was ‘exceptionally early’ but vintage quality is promising. The sunny weather ‘gives hope for full-bodied and colour-intensive red wines’, it said, even though ripening slowed on some younger vines due to drought stress.

France’s agriculture ministry recently forecast national wine production to rise significantly on the frost-hit 2021 vintage, but warned about drought’s uncertain impact. 

Samuel Guibert, co-owner and winemaker at Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc, southern France, told Decanter in mid-August, ‘2022 is a very interesting, unusual vintage’.

He saw perfect vineyard conditions up to June, then almost three months without rain. He said he expected ‘more concentration’ in fruit and a lower yield than originally anticipated, but some recent ‘wonderful rain’ had helped.

In Bordeaux, Château Malartic-Lagravière started harvest last week and said on Instagram its vines held up well to the hot, dry conditions. Fabien Teitgen, MD and winemaker at nearby Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte also expressed optimism for the estate’s 2022 vintage when contacted by Decanter in August.

Irrigation in Bordeaux and drought’s impact on vineyards

Exceptional measures this year allowed some Bordeaux appellations to irrigate vines, under strict conditions.

It looks like 2022 has been the ‘biggest water demand year’ for Bordeaux vines in the past 22 years, said Gregory Gambetta, professor of viticulture at Bordeaux Sciences Agro and the Bordeaux Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV), citing a colleague’s data.

‘It’s important to remember that the amount of rain falling from the sky is only half the equation. The other half is how hot was it,’ said Gambetta, who has a research focus on drought tolerance and climate change adaptation.

‘If you’re getting a lot more heat spikes, and we are in Bordeaux…it increases the water use of the plants no matter what,’ he said to Decanter in August, from California. ‘So the heat plays a huge role in it.’

For premium wine producers content to crop at relatively low yields, drought conditions have the potential to improve wine quality. ‘If you have a cropping system where the fruit is really protected and the temperatures aren’t that high, then it’s just going to make things better,’ said Gambetta.

Again, though, it’s the coupling of temperature and drought that can complicate things. Sunburn damage can be an issue, for example.

Vintages are generally becoming riper, too, said Gambetta. This can be beneficial but it’s important for producers to maintain balance in the fruit.

In a place like Bordeaux, greater flexibility in appellation rules could be important for growers in future. Adapting to new conditions may also require changes in mindset.

Planting density is a key topic in Bordeaux, said Gambetta. ‘One thing that’s really clear is that if you decrease the [planting] density of a vineyard it becomes more drought resilient,’ he said. ‘Each vine has access to more water, theoretically, because it has less competition.’

For vines, early-season water deficits are a particular concern because most growth happens earlier in the season.

For now, this is less of an issue in Bordeaux. ‘Most of the time in Bordeaux you start off with a full tank. It was only three seasons in the past 50 years in Bordeaux the soil wasn’t fully recharged,’ Gambetta said.

Research is ongoing globally around drought’s impact on wine and vineyards. In Europe, as in other parts of the world, growers are working to adapt.

At Spanish wine group Entrecanales Domecq e Hijos, Almudena Alberca MW said recently that sustainability efforts have included ‘replanting vineyards with drought-resistant rootstocks, reducing density with fewer vines/hectare and burying irrigation pipes to reduce water use by 30-40%’.

She also highlighted climate instability, echoing scientific evidence that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.

‘Over the past 10 years, we’ve experienced very varied conditions in our vineyards – from heavy snowfall and a cool spring in 2021 to this year’s drought and heat,’ said Alberca.

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