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How wines from Italy are adapting to climate change

Italian winemakers adopt innovative methods, such as lighting giant candles to counter frost, to deal with climate challenges

Italy is the current world leader in wine production. (Photo: Marialaura Gionfriddo, Unsplash)

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It has been another unnerving year in the vineyards of Italy, the current world leader in wine production. The River Po has struggled to remain wet. A glacier collapsed in the Dolomites. The Italian government declared last summer that drought had produced a state of emergency in five northern regions, citing climate change as a culprit. In 2021, even as exports hit a record $7 billion, overall production was down about 9%.

Still, Filippo Mazzei, who produces wines at Castello di Fonterutoli in Tuscany, is not especially worried. The wine business is highly vulnerable to even subtle changes in climate. But it’s also a repository of expertise, passion and innovation. If there is a way to blunt the havoc that climate change threatens to wreak on their vineyards, vintners will probably figure it out.

Mazzei can afford to take a long view. He left a thriving career in commercial credit to take over the family vineyard in the heart of Chianti Classico in the 1980s. Before his corporate exit, he says, he was summoned to Paris by a board member who asked him why he would leave such a promising path to return to fields of “rocks.”

The question may have been snide, but it’s hard to fault the logic behind it. Margins in the wine business are narrow even for most high flyers. Chianti, in the 1980s, was not flying high. In the preceding decades, the region had become synonymous with cheap red wine.

Mazzei’s family traces its roots in the wine business, on the same rocky Tuscan hillsides that he showed me one bright morning in September, to the year 1435. The family already had a few centuries of wine production under its belt by the time Philip Mazzei, one of Mazzei’s ancestors, befriended Thomas Jefferson, the American oenophile who went (deeper) into debt to stock his Virginia plantation with Bordeaux.

After returning to his ancestral rocks, Mazzei joined other top Tuscan vintners who sought to compete with the best wines of France. “The market was the cheap wines were Italian and at the high end was all French wine,” Mazzei says. “Germans were used to drinking Bordeaux. In Switzerland, Bordeaux.”

Ambitious Tuscan vintners, experimenting with non-indigenous grapes, had begun producing signature brands that became known as “Super Tuscans.” Mazzei’s flagship wine, Siepi, made from a blend of local sangiovese and non-native merlot grapes, is much admired by the critics who affix numerical ratings to seemingly every bottle under the sun. Siepi typically scores in the high 90s, with recent vintages selling for around $100 a bottle — pricy, until you compare it to some of its Super Tuscan peers.

Mazzei no doubt could’ve made far more money in global finance. But he’s doing fine. Elegant and patrician at 64, with 90 full-time positions at his winery and a constellation of ancillary hospitality businesses — restaurant, wine club, tours, etc. — he is both a star winemaker and successful businessman. Meanwhile, Fonterutoli, the tiny ancestral village at the heart of Mazzei wines, with a population of a few dozen, remains an almost ridiculously picturesque global headquarters.

It’s hard to know how much a rapidly changing climate might upset Mazzei’s beautiful world. Climate change is arguably just another variable in a business that’s already a delicate and ever-shifting combination of art, science, intuition and luck. “I don’t think we have to adapt,” Mazzei tells me as he surveys a newly muddy expanse of merlot. August rains had already eased the summer’s anxiety and breathed new vitality into the vineyard. The morning’s burst of rainfall was welcome but unnecessary; Mazzei was already looking forward to a good harvest and another round of the high scores that make marketing an expensive wine so much easier.

“It’s the vine that is adapting,” he says. “The vines are doing their job. I don’t see enormous risk for the moment. In 30 years, who knows?”

While Mazzei is surely correct about the adaptive properties of some of the world’s most fussed-over grape vines, the humans who manage the vineyards are doing their share of adapting as well. Hot summers have been moving up the harvest timetable throughout Europe, altering long-established rhythms. Meanwhile, in some previously inhospitable northern climes, new grape varietals are winning fans: English sparkling wine is not the punchline of a joke.

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Relentless sun requires more cautious management of the vines’ canopy, to keep grapes from being scorched. The intense heat is also increasing sugar content in grapes, helping to fuel a slow, steady rise over recent decades in the percentage of alcohol in wine — a dubious trend for both wine and the humans who consume it — while sometimes leaving acid levels off kilter.

Recurring drought is forcing some vintners to reduce the density of their planting, to limit the competition for water. Many are considering the irrigation of vineyards that have relied, sometimes for centuries, on nature alone. Irrigation is said to make vines lazy, allowing them to tap water near the surface instead of working their way far down into more complex soil that adds grace notes to the character of a fine wine.

Yet water has been so scarce throughout southern Europe that the governing board of Chianti wines recently relaxed its rules on irrigation, acknowledging that history, tradition and expertise may not be sufficient to overcome a chronically parched landscape.

***

The Monti del Chianti is a relatively low mountain chain, peaking at nearly 900 meters (almost 3,000 feet), that parallels the Apennines in central Italy. Tectonic collisions formed the chain and produced the neighboring Tuscan geography. Over millions of years, marine basins receded and hills and valleys took shape, defining the gently rolling contours of the countryside. Though Tuscan soil is complex and rich, fruited plains are few. A drive along the region’s serpentine roads, which hug the wooded slopes, makes for a jolly roller coaster ride.

The vineyards of the Ricasoli family are well settled in this landscape. The family has been in possession of Brolio Castle, at the center of its vineyards, since the 12th century or so, several hundred years before the birth of Galileo or the papal Salt War against Perugia. By the late 1600s, the Ricasolis were exporting wine to foreign markets.  Bettino Ricasoli was one of the first prime ministers of a united Italy.

A millennium in business provides perspective, but it does not ensure success. “The speed of change is amazing,” says Francesco Ricasoli, who has been running Brolio wines since 1993. Like Filippo Mazzei, Ricasoli was diverted from another career — photography — to rescue a troubled vineyard. His 1,200-hectare estate (about 3,000 acres) includes 240 hectares of vines, mostly planted in the sangiovese that produces Brolio’s portfolio of chiantis. In addition, there are 26 hectares of olive groves. More than 800 hectares are forest.

Brolio has been reducing its new vine plantings from the 6,600-per-hectare that it deployed in the past to about 5,000 now. “For many years now we’ve been discussing what we can do in reaction to the lack of rain or rising temperatures and many other issues that maybe most normal people don’t even know about,” Ricasoli says. Those other issues include infestations of insects that thrive in the drier vineyard and more aggressive wild animals. When a stream in the local woods ran dry this summer, dozens of wild boar began invading the Brolio vineyard. When water is scarce, consuming grapes on the vine becomes more than a treat for the animals; it’s a way to replenish their water deficit.

Massimiliano Biagi is technical director and agronomist at Brolio, where he has worked for 27 years. Touring the vineyards with him provides lessons in micro-climate and the subtle variations in vineyard management that Biagi obsesses over.

“Do you see the dark green?” he says, pointing at a hillside that is blanketed in green vine leaves. Biagi, it turns out, is not trying to draw my attention to the prevailing green. He wants me to differentiate, to see what part of the field is greener. Sure enough, there is a vertical row of vines that is slightly darker and more vibrant than its neighbors.

That greenest row of vines descends along a narrow and very shallow depression in the hillside. Gravity has channeled slightly more water and nutrients into the soil along this modest rut, making the plants with roots there slightly more robust, a status they flaunt in color. For Biagi, the row of easy-living vines is maddening.

“My goal is to make everything uniform,” Biagi says. “More green means the plant is more vigorous, and the quality is less. This we don’t want. We want uniform vineyards with low vigor to produce quality.” To make great wine, Biagi says, the plant can’t be permitted to become too comfortable. It has to restrain its ambition and focus limited resources on making fewer, better grapes. “The vine has to suffer,” he says.

To accomplish his goal, Biagi has used heavy machinery to level the terrain on lumpy hillsides, smoothing out the nutrient-rich depressions. He has arrayed vines in a fan shape to promote greater equality among the rows. He has studied soil composition, the precise array of sandstone, limestone, clay and other sources that vary plot by plot across the vineyard. Ricasoli has published a 177-page monograph, in Italian and English, by researchers who conducted a multi-year analysis of various Brolio soil compositions. In one part of the vineyard, Biagi says, the soil provides more body and structure to the wine. In another, younger soil infused with sea deposits produces “a wine more fresh, more vertical, in terms of tannin,” he says.

His 27 years invested in 240 hectares has bred intimacy. Biagi treats the vineyard as a mercurial and occasionally unfaithful partner that requires constant monitoring.

Chronic water scarcity is hardly a detail to escape Biagi’s notice. He’s been spreading organic fertilizer and herbs in an effort to produce more humus in the soil, to generate more moisture. He has to be careful how often he plows; too much upturning without rain exposes soil to the dessicated air, drying it out.  “Our area was wet in the past. It was never dry, for centuries,” he says. “We use a root stock that can survive with a low quantity of water. But maybe it’s not enough. Maybe we have to find something else.”

Biagi wants his vines to labor for their water. But if the vines work too hard to survive a dry year, they will be weakened for the next year, producing fewer flowers on their buds. The vintage will be jeopardized. He reduced pruning on some vines this year, he says, because he was fearful of stimulating new branches that the plants would struggle to support.

The timing of water matters as well as quantity. When the vines are exerting themselves — during bud break, for example, and veraison, when the grapes ripen — they draw on water. Dryness is more costly at these times. If a plant is too dry as the season advances, it will eventually steal back moisture from its own grapes, leaving them shriveled.

As elsewhere, this summer at Brolio was a time of high anxiety. “It stopped raining from May to July 7,” Biagi says. “Not one drop.” When precipitation finally arrived, it wasn’t entirely benign. “This year, we had hail on the 7th of July,” he says. “I remember very well the night.” The hailstones, which Biagi likened to tennis balls, damaged the front rows of the vineyard that endured the full impact.

Ricasoli and Biagi have concluded that nature can no longer be relied upon to deliver the water the vineyard needs. They considered digging a well, but it would have to be so deep that it would be prohibitively expensive with no guarantee of success. Construction of a reservoir seems a more promising course.

“The idea is to make a reservoir with the rain from the winter and fall,” Biagi says. Locating a space capable of accommodating perhaps 80,000 cubic meters of water won’t be easy at Brolio. In addition to the vineyard and castle (adjacent to the narrow medieval street where, in a time-honored tourist ritual, I gashed the side of my rental car) Brolio includes a restaurant, wine shop and tasting bar.

Creating the reservoir and lining it — with clay or plastic — will be expensive. Its ultimate success, of course, still depends upon adequate precipitation; winter rain and snow have often disappointed in recent years. Nonetheless, Biagi hopes to place the reservoir near the middle of the property, using gravity to direct the water to lower levels and a pump to force it up to vines at higher elevations. For centuries, Brolio has made wine without such assistance. But times have changed. “We need water for the future of the vineyard,” Biagi says.

***

Letizia Patane is a good example of a what a thriving wine business can do. She grew up in a small town in Sicily, and now works a few minutes away from the place where her family has lived for generations. For centuries, that might have been a recipe for severely constricted opportunity. For many people, it still is.

But Patane is the export manager for Vini Franchetti’s vineyard in Passopisciaro, Sicily, which produces acclaimed wines in the shadow of Mount Etna. She speaks English and travels the world as an ambassador for products derived from the same volcanic hillsides where her grandfather once cultivated grapes. Because of Franchetti and other marquee winemakers, Mount Etna is now a destination for wine tourism, with vans of Americans, Australians and Japanese boosting the local economy.

Andrea Franchetti, who died of cancer at 72 last December, was an iconoclast. After years in the wine business, and a stint as a restauranteur in Rome, he built his own vineyard in Tuscany in the early 1990s. He planted vines in a valley where the neighbors grew cereal but no one attempted grapes for miles around. He planted in unusually high density — as many as 10,000 plants per hectare in the valley, and somewhat less in the surrounding hills. Sangiovese, the soul of Tuscany and the grape that defines the wine that is arguably the region’s most admired expression, Brunello di Montalcino, found no purchase in Franchetti’s soil.

“Franchetti didn’t like Sangiovese. He didn’t like Brunello,” says Enea Barbieri, who wears many administrative hats at Tenuta di Trinoro, Franchetti’s Val D’Orcia vineyard in Tuscany. “More than dislike, I can say he hated it, really. He liked French wine. He wanted to produce French wine in Italian soil.”

Franchetti’s passions seem not to have led him too far astray. The 2019 vintage of Tenuta di Trinoro, which is the Tuscan vineyard’s flagship wine, with about 7,000 bottles produced annually, sells for about $350 a bottle. A New York City retailer said it’s “considered one of the most iconic wines produced in Italy.”

Marketing bluster aside, that’s still a remarkable statement about any wine from Italy, one of the world’s greatest wine-producing nations. But it’s especially flattering considering that just a few decades ago, Franchetti’s Tuscan vineyard was a field.

After getting his Tuscan venture up and running, Franchetti joined the early wave of vintners who moved, around the turn of the 21st century, to Mount Etna, where he combined new ways and old on a 26-hectare property, with about 10 under cultivation. Franchetti’s Passopisciaro vineyard grows what Patane says is the highest-elevation chardonnay in Europe. At the same time, the vineyard cultivates a traditional local grape, nerello mascalese, on vines that range from 80 to 110 years old, all of which are trained in a traditional Sicilian vine system called alberello.

“Old vines are very important, especially now with climate change,” Patane tells me. “Because old vines have bigger, deeper roots, they manage to find water more easily compared to the young vines. They produce less, but they also produce better quality.”

Deep roots are a particular advantage in Etna’s volcanic soil. “It takes at least 200 years for the lava flow to break down and become soil. If you dig down, there is almost no soil,” Patane says. “Everything is rocks, so the water goes down very easily because the soil is very well drained.”

Grass growing between vines, and trees bearing nuts, figs, olives, apples and cherries, add to the vineyard’s biodiversity. Much of Passopisciaro is on the site of a previous vineyard that was abandoned after an eruption in 1947.

Etna has been active for more than 2 million years. I ask Patane when the volcano’s most recent eruption was. “Last week,” she says.

Even at 1,000 meters of elevation, where Passopisciaro’s highest vines reside, Sicily is hot by day and cool at night. It’s getting hotter. Like other flora and fauna creeping up a mountainside in search of cooler temperatures, it’s possible that Passopisciaro’s vines will have to move up the sides of Etna in the future.

For now, the vineyard is grappling with the same problems that preoccupy so many other Italian winemakers: too much heat and not enough water, as well as periods of extreme weather. Carmelo Cutrufello, the winemaker at Passopisciaro, describes the trend on Etna as “drier and drier.”

Except when it’s not. In 2018, after a historically hot and dry 2017, the vineyard was so wet that workers applied a hydrophobic treatment to grapes and cut the vine leaves to expose the grapes to more air, the better to fend off mold. It rained so much that the water pooled in the vineyard, unable to drain. “It never stopped,” Cutrufello says. “It was very hard.”

Extreme and unpredictable weather increases costs, of course. Twice in recent years, a late spring frost at Franchetti’s vineyard in Tuscany required an emergency response. On such nights, vineyard staff monitor a series of temperature gauges. When the temperature dips into the danger zone, crews deploy giant candles to keep the air around the vines from freezing. “In one hour or less, we have to light up everything,” says Enea Barbieri.

At 10 euros per candle, and 300 candles per hectare, the math is daunting. The candles are generally good for two uses (unless the winds are high), and are usually deployed only in the valley, where the coldest air settles. Barbieri calculates that a single unseasonably cold night typically costs 16,000 euro or more in candles and labor.

Water strategies are also costly. Franchetti’s Tuscan vineyard, which has no access to public water, built a cistern in 2017, and spent more than 150,000 euros on a temperature control system for its stainless-steel vats, to keep temperatures from rising too much during fermentation. A new irrigation system, drawing on the vineyard’s local water sources, is planned.

In Sicily, where the hills are steep and the pyroclastic soil takes the form of lumpy volcanic leftovers, delivering water to plants is logistically complicated. “When it’s a very hot vintage and we don’t want the grapes to stop ripening, we send people up with water on their backs,” Patane says. “They spray a little mist on the leaves.”

All of these efforts, repeated at vineyards across the great wine-growing regions of the Mediterranean, have one goal: to give winemakers the best harvest. Of course, even amid the uncertainty of climate change, nature sometimes delivers the goods unforced. The 2016 vintage in Tuscany, for example, is widely considered to have provided all that vintners could desire:  There was plenty of sun and timely rains, followed by glowing reviews from wine critics.

***

When thinking about climate, and the human capacity to manage its increasingly erratic and extreme exertions, I kept returning to two conversations with winemakers. I am not a wine critic, but I was nonetheless invited to taste the winemakers’ work. It was not an invitation I would decline.

At Castello di Fonterutoli, Filippo Mazzei set a table for tasting five vintages of Siepi. Mazzei had mentioned that the 2017 vintage had received a lower score than the 2016. I remarked that, despite the elegance of the 2016, I found the latter vintage more interesting. I am accustomed to being educated on the job, and I thought my comment might produce a gentle reproach and memorable lesson from a master winemaker with a more sophisticated palate. Instead, Mazzei became animated.

The 2017 vintage had been difficult, he told me. According to an Italian government research council, 2017 was the fourth warmest year in Italy since 1800. It was also the driest. To make a great wine in 2017 took more diligence and skill than to make a great wine in 2016. (When the weather cooperates, decision-making in the vineyard is easier.) Mazzei was clearly proud of what he had accomplished, and believed his 2017 vintage was in the same heady realm as the much-lauded 2016.

At a more casual tasting at Passopisciaro in Sicily, I had a similar experience.  Having known that 2017 was a difficult year throughout much of Italy, I found myself once again surprised to discover deep delight in a Passopisciaro blend from that year. Winemaker Carmelo Cutrufello, a native of Sicily, was pleased.

“Were you happy with 2017?” I asked. Cutrufello broke into a broad, warm smile. “In the end, yes,” he said. “Because what we have is very, very nice. It’s very ripe and there is a lot of concentration, it’s very fruity. In the end it is maybe one of my favorite wines, and my favorite vintages. When you work so hard, and you get to the target right, you have something special.”

Industries, nations and societies will be dealing with climate change for years to come. In some places, the consequences will very likely be devastating. There is a limit, for example, to what poor, low-lying, coastal areas can do to manage a rising sea. Meanwhile, Florida has once again shown that the damage from extreme weather events is escalating.

For others who are less endangered, however, there is virtue, and progress, in doing the best you can, year after year, with the tools that you have, the technologies you develop and the passion you bring.

The wine industry has more exposure to climate change than many. In Australia and California, researchers are desperately searching for antidotes to smoke taint from forest fires, which destroyed much of Napa and Sonoma’s 2020 vintage. Fires in southern Europe this year mean that European winemakers will be keenly interested in their progress.

But through it all, winemakers are hanging in there, adapting to an increasingly variable landscape to make the best wine they can. “Every vintage is different,” Cutrufello said. “Every year is different. So you will never get to the point at the end. Because every year you have something to learn.”

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Story by Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg Opinion columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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