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Wildfires haunt southern European winemakers ahead of harvest

A protracted heatwave has set the southern European countryside ablaze. Winemakers in Greece, Italy, France and Portugal are on standby, fearing a troubled harvest ahead.

It has been a scorching and dramatic summer around the Mediterranean, with wildfires causing unprecedented destruction in France, Turkey, Greece and Southern Italy. Producers in many of the countries’ wine regions have been forced to start planning for a strenuous harvest, upset by infrastructural damage, labour shortage and smoke taint.

Greece

Scenes in Greece have been described as ‘apocalyptic’ by Eleni Myrivili, who was appointed Athens’ first chief heat officer in July. Athens was engulfed in a cloud of smoke and ash, as fires burned northeast of the Greek capital.  The most serious incident, in northern Evia, had the island blazing for ten continuous days.

Manolis Giamniadakis from Wines of Peloponnese reported on the ongoing tension in the region, where fires consumed large forest areas in Olympia and Arcadia. Mount Mainalon, the epicentre of an important Arcadian natural reserve, was severely affected and it is expected this will have serious consequences for the equilibrium of the region’s fauna and flora. While vineyard areas have not been, so far, consumed by flames, producers are under high alert. Temperatures remain high and the strong winds change direction often and violently.

Due to the flames’ proximity to vineyards, as shown in the pictures below, there is a real possibility that smoke taint will affect this year’s yield.

Fires in the village of Lantzoi, Ancient Olympia (western Peloponnese) consuming the forest adjacent to Ktima Brintziki’s vineyards

The fires have been the almost inevitable consequence of a protracted heatwave. With thermometers reaching more than 40ºC for over two weeks and an even longer period without rain, the thirsty soils, hot air and dry forests became dangerously inflammable.

Sicily

Sicily logged the highest temperature observed in Europe since records began: 48.8ºC, near the town of Siracusa. Vineyard areas have so far been spared. Laurent de la Gatinais, president of Assovini Sicilia, described how ‘fuelled by record temperatures, fires erupted across Sicily in the last month, with huge damage to the landscape in different parts of the island.’

The Madonie and Nebrodi mountain ranges in northeastern Sicily were the most affected areas. While there were no vineyards in the immediate vicinity, multiple livestock farms faced danger. The full extent of the damage is yet to be fully assessed.

Both Gatinais and Antonio Rallo, owner and winemaker at Donnafuggata, say there isn’t, so far, any risk of smoke taint. The outlook for this year’s harvest, which the heatwave brought forward and is already under way, remains extremely positive.

Portugal

So far blessed with a mild summer, Portugal is now also going through a heatwave, with active fire fronts in Beja (Alentejo), Baião (near Porto) and Castro Marim (eastern Algarve, bordering Spain). The casualties and devastation caused by the 2017 fires is all too fresh in the collective memory, with many winemakers yet to overcome the loss of vineyards, wineries and loved ones.

This month’s events are yet another dramatic episode in a tumultuous year, during which the impact of climate change has become all too palpable. The frosts in France, the floods in western Germany, torrential rains and landslides in Northern Italy and now the wildfires ravaging Southern Europe, Oregon and California, have fuelled a call for urgent long-term action as well as for proper catastrophe planning and disaster mitigation strategies.


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