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Long Read: Extreme weather in Italy’s vineyards

Decanter explores the impact of recent intense heat and storms on vineyards and speaks to winemakers about how they are adapting to extreme weather events linked to climate change.

Different parts of Italy – as well as other areas of Europe – have faced severe storms, heatwaves, wildfires and floods so far in 2023, leading to devastation of infrastructure and loss of life in some cases.

In vineyards, extreme weather phenomena have added to winemakers’ concerns around the impact of climate change. Italy’s wine harvest may shrink in 2023, said agriculture group Coldiretti, citing recent storms and intense heat linked to climate change.

Extreme weather in Italy: A new normal?

Two anticyclones originating in North Africa – the first dubbed ‘Cerberus’ and the second even more ominously, ‘Charon’ – caused temperatures to soar across southern Europe in June and July, trapped under an oppressive and persistent heat dome.

According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, parts of Greece, eastern Spain, Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy reached temperatures in excess of 45°C.

On 24 July, a weather station in Sardinia recorded 48.2°C, close to the record-breaking 48.8°C recorded in Syracuse in Sicily in 2021.

The heat came as UN secretary general António Guterres declared, ‘The era of global warming has ended. The era of global boiling has arrived.’

In recent years, droughts and floods have also become more common in Italy. The 2017 vintage was notoriously hot and dry throughout large swathes of the country, while last summer, the government declared a state of emergency following the worst drought in the country’s history to date.

In the spring of 2023, flooding devastated parts of the country, particularly Emilia-Romagna, where half of the region’s average annual rainfall was reported to have fallen in just 36 hours.

A flood-damaged vineyard in Bagnacavallo, Emilia-Romagna. Credit: Francesca Volpi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Storms hit northern Italy

More recently, in July, severe storms swept through northern Italy.

Trees were uprooted in Trentino-Alto Adige and electric storms lit up Lake Garda on 24 July, the thunder still rumbling overhead well into the following day with outbreaks of hail reported in Friuli, Langhe and Roero.

The impact on vineyard areas remains uncertain. In its harvest forecast, Coldiretti said potential yields looked stable overall across Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto, despite the recent storms.

‘Northern Italy has been hit with a frequency of which there is no memory.’

Elisabetta Currado, wine & marketing consultant at Castello di Gabiano and Villa Cambiaso, both in Piedmont, told Decanter, ‘In a matter of minutes, hail can destroy a crop, sometimes even compromising production for the following years. From early July to the present, northern Italy has been hit with a frequency of which there is no memory.

‘You see these black clouds coming in carrying ice that falls, hitting random areas in spots depending on the currents that are created. It’s just a matter of luck. So far we have seen hail pass us by, but it didn’t hit us; we just held our breath until it passed.’

She added, ‘This summer, hailstorms struck at a stage called pre-closing bunch, and in other cases with the berries almost fully ripe (invaiatura). In half an hour of hail, water and wind, some [producers] were more unlucky – as happened in some areas of the Langhe and Roero, where they completely lost production.’

Eduard Bernhart, director of the Südtirol Wein / Vini Alto Adige consortium, told Decanter, ‘We had some hail… everywhere a little bit, but not huge damage at the moment.’

Mildew pressure

Grapes affected by downy mildew. Credit: Lorenza photography / Alamy Stock Photo

For some vineyards in Sicily, mildew has been a significant issue following heavy rain in May and June. The island claims the largest surface area of organically farmed vines in Italy, which makes disease pressure, such as downy mildew, harder to control, and although the subsequent period of extreme heat saved bunches, for others it was too late.

Benjamin Franchetti, of Passopisciaro on Etna, and also Tenuta di Trinoro in Val d’Orcia in Tuscany, said, ‘Especially in Sicily we have had severe issues of peronospora [downy mildew], unseen in the past 20+ years. We expect production to be almost halved for 2023. After months of rain we are now experiencing extremely high temperatures. Let’s see.’

‘The 2023 harvest will be one of the most difficult of the last years,’ commented Arianna Occhipinti. ‘Beside the recent big wave of heat, we had heavy rains in May and June, important for the flowering of our grapes. The start of downy mildew may impact our upcoming production for about 30-35%; the sulphur and copper treatments (the only treatments we carry out in the vineyard) in higher concentrations, were not enough to contain the problem. The 2023 harvest will be lower in quantity but higher in quality.’

‘It is still difficult and premature to make accurate estimates about the quantity and quality [of the 2023 harvest]. Sicilian wine growers know how to manage the effect of climate change, focusing on quality and not quantity,’ underlined Assovini Sicilia president, Mariangela Cambria, who also co-owns Etna winery, Cottanera.

Franchetti added, ‘In Tuscany it has not been as bad. The unusually high levels of rain alternating with very high temperatures have not caused any serious issues. For now we have been spared from the hail and winds which are causing havoc in the north of Italy… for now.’

Some producers in Tuscany anticipate a smaller harvest in 2023, although it is early days and estimates vary considerably, according to a report this week by winenews.it.

It said the Consorzio Chianti Classico currently anticipated losses of around 10-15%, the Consorzio Brunello di Montalcino expected 5% losses and the Consorzio Bolgheri e Bolgheri Sassicaia estimated hypothetical losses of perhaps as much as 20%.

Making adjustments

Rising temperatures and increasing occurrences of drought in recent years have caused winemakers to rethink how to manage their vines and how to treat the grapes in the winery.

Many producers, from Piedmont to Bolgheri to Sicily, have stated that harvest today is around one month earlier than 20 to 30 years ago, highlighting the increase in temperatures and consequent advanced ripening of the grapes compared to the 1990s.

Marilisa Allegrini, of the eponymous Valpolicella family, told Decanter recently during a visit to the family’s Villa della Torre property in Fumani that the viticultural team would usually carry out a green harvest at this time of year.

However, the sporadic storms interrupting periods of extreme heat have forced them to wait and see what happens. Allegrini pointed out grapes that had succumbed to sunburn and, although she explained that they currently have an overproduction, they can’t yet risk dropping too much fruit in case of further losses from either sunburn or mildew.

Even if storms do not directly damage fruit, they can still create extra work for producers. ‘The pruning of the hailstormed branches has to be done,’ Currado said. ‘Even when damage seems limited, the vine still suffers from a slowdown in vegetative activity and must be treated with disinfectant products to heal scars and prevent mould and funghi from entering the vine.

‘Effective natural products are now available that can be used even on farms like us that work organically. Avoiding the ineffective anti-hail cannons, the only useful prevention is coverage with anti-hail nets, along with insurance. However, they represent a cost justifiable only with highly profitable productions.’

Canopy management is a technique that has become fundamental to ensuring healthy grapes. Whilst in the past the leaves could be cut back to expose the bunches to the sun for even ripening, in today’s warmer climates the leaves surrounding the bunches can instead be utilised to cast shade and prevent sunburn.

Strategically selected leaves can also be removed to slow down the process of photosynthesis, helping to curtail the swift advance of sugar ripeness in relation to physiological ripeness.

Additionally, cover crops between rows of vines can help to shade the ground and prevent the reflection of sunlight, which can occur on lighter soils, in addition to the benefits such crops can bring to a vineyard’s biodiversity and increasing nitrogen levels in the soil.

In his Barolo 2017 vintage report for Decanter Premium, Aldo Fiordelli noted that producers in that infamous drought year reduced the maceration time to avoid over-extraction. Some producers also opted for commercial yeasts over indigenous strains, he noted, to better cope with the higher potential alcohol of the wines.

During a masterclass hosted by Gaia Gaja on the family’s Bolgheri estate, Ca’ Marcanda, in 2022 in London, Gaja explained that the estate was transitioning from cordon to Guyot training in order to produce grapes with less concentration and more freshness.

Gaja noted that while Guyot training was associated with higher volume production, climate change has enabled the estate to produce quality grapes using the system.

Italy’s hillsides and mountains are also key if temperatures continue to rise, and some denominations, such as Brunello di Montalcino, have already amended or deleted pre-existing restrictions on maximum altitude for viticulture. Elsewhere, producers are seeking high altitude vineyard sites even if they are not accepted within the DOC/DOCG; it’s possible that we will see an increase of IGT bottlings from producers in the future.

Finally, east-facing vineyards are gaining a voice as traditional south-facing exposures risk producing over-ripe fruit. Capturing the morning sun while avoiding the worst of the afternoon rays helps producers to retain elegance and complexity in their wines despite rising temperatures.

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