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PREMIUM

Beating the heat: how Italy’s winemakers are responding to climate change

Extreme weather events are having an impact on wine-growing globally as climate patterns shift, but across Italy producers are responding to the challenge and working hard to find alternative solutions as they adapt to new conditions.

The Italian peninsula has historically benefited from the sea’s mitigating effect on the climate, whether hot or cold. Not by chance, the major anomalies of warming trends in 2020 came from the more continental towns such as Perugia (Umbria) at +2°C, Bologna (Emilia Romagna) +1.8°C and Turin (Piedmont) +1.6°C (source: Istat).

There are inland appellations, however, where water’s mitigating effect remains due to proximity to the lakes: for example, lake Iseo for Franciacorta; lake Garda for Lugana, Valpolicella, Bardolino; lake Maggiore for Alto Piemonte; and lake Trasimeno for Montepulciano. To put it simply, the morphology and geography of Italy make this country naturally resilient to global warming. What’s different today is the threat of extremes.

Incidences of heat extremes are increasing: the average temperature in 2020 was 16.3°C, +0.3°C compared with the average for the decade 2006-2015, while total annual rainfall dropped by 132mm. Average annual temperatures show a rising long-term trend – the 1971-2000 average of +1.2°C (compared with the previous 30 years) being just below the 1.5°C limit required by the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed at COP26, November 2021. The highest levels, however, were registered in the most recent 2011-2020 decade (Istat). ‘We are close to the point of no return, but still at the breaking point,’ says Carlin Petrini, Piedmont-born founder of the Slow Food movement.

Record-setting water temperatures of 27°-28°C at the start of August 2022 (source: Consorzio Lamma, environmental monitoring and modelling laboratory) along the coast of Portofino in the northwest down to the Tuscan archipelago caused concern last summer: ‘We have never had numbers like this in hundreds of years,’ admits climatologist Tommaso Torrigiani.

The fourth threat

On 18 August 2022, a storm with winds reported as exceeding 140kph from St-Florent on the island of Corsica struck the northern portion of the Tuscan coast and Levante in Liguria – a frightening experience for anybody caught in its path.

‘Traditionally speaking, in viticulture we have always faced three threats – drought, frost and hail – to which today we have to add a fourth: the storms,’ confirms Alberto Antonini, owner of Tuscan estate Poggiotondo and one of Italy’s most authoritative consultant oenologists.

Piedmont

The new Gaja winery under construction in June 2021 in Alta Langa, where the producer has invested in new higher-altitude vineyards predominantly for white varieties

Most Italian producers agree that the turning point of climate change for viticulture was the 1997 vintage. Elio Altare, after 56 vintages at his estate in Barolo, explains: ‘We struggled between 1992 and 1994, fluctuated from 1996 but the change of the last 25 years started here. Higher temperatures are the most influential factor for each phenological stage of a vine. Today, each of these stages is anticipated. The main disadvantage of the heat is increased potential water stress for the vine, while the advantage is a reduced need for treatments for the likes of mildew in the vineyards.’

Angelo Gaja recorded noticeably warmer vintages beginning in 2008 but maintains ‘not enough time has passed yet to make predictions’. He admits, however, that: ‘The wines of this century will be different because, in the past, nine out of 10 vintages were not properly ripe, but nevertheless they were ageworthy. Once we had higher acidity, while today we have sweeter tannins, although no fewer of them.’

Gaja, who in 2021 completed his 60th harvest, still remembers the 1961 vintage: ‘It was very hot, with grapes harvested on 27-28 September, and wines at 14.5% alcohol which are still drinking great today.’ Gaja has his own view, but in the long term most producers agree that ‘to see first-hand what the Langhe was like 50 years ago, you just need to drive 15 minutes farther towards Alta Langa.’ There is excitement over this hilly area’s sparkling wines and, since 2017, Gaja has invested in more than 30ha at 650m-700m in Trezzo Tinella, mostly planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, with the aim of exploiting the favourable conditions to produce top-quality still white wines with plenty of freshness. ‘Last year we also planted one hectare of Nebbiolo, but not everyone in the family agreed,’ Gaia Gaja admitted to me – her father Angelo evidently thinks the higher altitude is not ideal for the variety.

Lombardy

The warmer climate has been beneficial for grape ripening in some regions, including Oltrepò Pavese. Credit: Roberto Lo Savio / Alamy Stock Photo

Another comparison with the Langhe lies in Valtellina DOCG, in the north of the Lombardy region. Danilo Drocco – managing director and winemaker at Nino Negri and president of the Consorzio Valtellina body – worked with the legendary Beppe Colla in the Langhe in the 1960s.

‘The wines we are producing now in Valtellina thanks to climate change remind me of Prunotto [Barolo] in 1961, 1964 and 1967,’ Drocco told me during my last visit. But Valtellina – a narrow, east-west valley in the pre-Alpine foothills – is today facing a severe drought problem. ‘We have rock in the subsoil so we absolutely must work with the pivotal Vitis rupestris rootstock and work vineyards planted according to the girapoggio method [vines planted in rows that follow the contours of the ground] in order to preserve water. Today, we are harvesting the grapes for Sfursat di Valtellina [made using the drying process] earlier to keep the alcohol lower.’

The Oltrepò Pavese DOC sub-region, with its predominant red varieties Barbera and Croatina, seems to be experiencing an improvement in maturation due to the warmer climate. The niche and austere-style wines of the Buttafuoco Storico producers’ group in Buttafuoco DOC (separated from the Oltrepò Pavese DOC in 2010) are becoming more and more refined, as well as an exquisite example of the quality improvements that can be achieved by refocusing on traditional detailed practices in the vineyard.

For the region’s famous sparkling wine, Franciacorta’s 2021 harvest began in the first week of August, despite the cool breezes from lake Iseo and Val Camonica valley. Here, the ancient indigenous white grape Erbamat – cultivated since the 16th century – is now permitted at a maximum proportion of 10% for all styles except for Satèn (meaning ‘silky’, the Chardonnay-based, softly sparkling brut bottled at a lower pressure). Erbamat is a late-ripening grape which matures almost one month later than Chardonnay, and its zesty character can be extremely useful for balancing some of these great sparkling wines.

Northeast

From left: Mario Pojer and Fiorentino Sandri

The lake influence is equally crucial when talking about Garda, which laps the shores of significant regions in Veneto and Lugana DOC and points to the north into Trentino. ‘The lake works like air conditioning for our vineyards,’ remarks Mario Pojer of Pojer e Sandri, based northeast of Trento city. ‘We are 6°-7°C cooler compared with other regions. In 2003 [Europe’s heatwave vintage], we registered 33°C rather than 40°C.’ Nevertheless, he adds, for the first time in 47 years: ‘We had to bring forward harvest by 20 days. We are going up in altitude, from 450m to 650m with Pinot Noir; Cabernet Sauvignon, which in the past struggled to ripen, now does so without any trouble.’

In Tramin, a little north just into Alto Adige, I recently visited Martin Foradori Hofstätter. In 2019, he planted Pinot Noir vines at about 850m ‘surrounded by the Dolomites’ at a density of almost 10,000 vines per hectare, in order to preserve a tense and classic style. He showed me his logbook with the dates of bud break, flowering, veraison and harvest from 1990 to 2022. While the harvest dates have been getting progressively earlier since 1990, bud break did not occur any earlier until 2007/2008, which suggests that the winters here have now started to become warmer: an often-overlooked aspect of climate change in viticulture.

Tuscany

In Tuscany, as with many of the coastal zones, there is far less opportunity to go higher in altitude, and thus early-ripening varieties often struggle more. It therefore comes as no surprise that the legendary Masseto, despite its cool blue-clay soils, is no longer made from 100% Merlot as of the 2019 vintage; it is now supplemented with a drop of Cabernet Franc (10% in 2019) which, in my opinion, broadens the shoulders of this marvellous Bolgheri wine.

Sangiovese also seems to be sensitive to the warmer climate, and several instances of quercetin precipitation (a polyphenolic compound, caused mainly by UV stress, which can form insoluble precipitates in a wine) have been reported when the grape is vinified by itself.

Elsewhere in the region, while heavy rainfalls helped Vino Nobile in Montepulciano during the mostly dry 2022 vintage, and the altitude of the highest spots saved places such as Montalcino, the area gaining most benefit from global warming appears to be Chianti Classico. It has shed its more acidic, austere character, which traditionally was particularly evident in its wines in their youth.

Nevertheless, Martino Manetti of Montevertine at Radda in Chianti told me during my last visit that he purchased a north-facing vineyard in Radda to keep the alcohol level of his stunning Le Pergole Torte at its historic low levels. Additionally, Paolo De Marchi at Isole e Olena, west of Radda, acknowledged a resurgence in the use of terraces, to counteract the risks of topsoils being washed away in rittochino vineyards [rows arranged facing down the steepest part of the slope] during storms that deposit a lot of water in just a few minutes.

Sicily

‘The first concern in Sicily is not for the drought,’ states Alessio Planeta, ‘but for the violence of the extremes. We registered 48°C in August 2021, then in October, Catania was flooded.’ Such phenomena are actually customary on Mount Etna. In Milo, on the eastern edge of a muntagna, as the locals here call the volcano, the rainfall in one day can amount to the same amount as an entire year in Noto in the island’s far southeast, according to Salvo Foti of I Vigneri, one of Etna’s most talented winemakers and a freelance lecturer in oenology.

After 37 years of surveying, Foti believes that the underlying issue for the red Nerello Mascalese variety in terms of global warming is humidity. ‘Everything changed with the 2003 vintage [on Etna, 2003 was incredibly wet at the end of the summer]. After that vintage, with several days of warmth and Sirocco winds, we registered a lot
of humidity. The soil here drains well but the ability of the grape to dry out after the rain has decreased a lot. It’s like hanging clothes out to dry after washing; with humidity, it takes much longer.’

‘In Sicily, we compared cordon-trained Merlot planted on Vitis riparia rootstocks with (indigenous white) Carricante trained in bush vines on Ruggeri [rootstock],’ says consultant Antonini. ‘Merlot is a humidity-loving variety with a rootstock not intended for drought, and with a demanding training system that shows a lot of water stress, whereas Carricante isn’t. Merlot in this manner was like a golf course in the desert. Today we must force the roots of the vines to dig deep in order to minimise the extremes of the climate and encourage it to reach the best quality nutrients.

‘So in my opinion,’ he concludes, ‘we need to work with an overall approach that starts from the soil, including pivotal rootstocks and grapes suited for drought-like conditions. The most resistant varieties are usually the indigenous ones in specific regions, for example Carricante in Sicily.’

Italian viticulture is experiencing new threats including record temperatures, drought, storms and humidity that each contribute to today’s vintages becoming less consistent, year by year. A warmer climate seems to have been more positive than negative in most of the regions so far, due to the naturally resilient geography of the country. But Italy’s greatest hope of preserving this natural virtue may well be to nourish and preserve the biodiversity of its indigenous grapes.


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