Italian winemakers are finding innovative ways to combat climate change amid alarming reports

In April of 2021, winemakers across Europe find themselves facing the whim of a belated frost. On Tenuta di Trinoro, a vineyard in Tuscany, a team of 24 took several hours on a scorching cold night to set off and light 3,500 candles to keep the fragile young vine buds from freezing. Then, with a harsh summer of sun and drought approaching, the vine had to speed up the harvest to avoid ending up with a sugary product with a high alcohol content.

Data released during the COP26 Climate Change Summit in Glasgow in November 2021 revealed that these extreme weather events and rising temperatures have caused production in the Italian wine industry to drop by 9 percent this year. The report is a stark warning that climate change is having increasingly drastic effects on Italy’s wine industry.

A successful year for wine production

At COP26, the International Organization for Vineyards and Wine (OIV) presented findings on the effects of unfavorable weather and climatic conditions on world wine production in 2021. In addition to the late spring frosts in Italy, there were heavy rains in summer – which tend to run from the side The hill instead of breaking through the ground – and the hail that ruined the fruit. Unusual frosts, intense heat waves and storms have battered the country, causing the industry to lose an estimated 2 billion euros ($2.3 billion) so far this year.

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Although individual adversities can be managed in some ways — such as covering vines with nets to protect from the cold — the unpredictability of such dramatic weather events remains a problem. “When you see the problem, it’s too late,” says Benjamin Franchetti, whose family runs the Tenuta di Trinoro vineyard. “The issue for us now is predictability.” Franchetti and his family are now considering installing some kind of infrastructure, perhaps heated pipes, to deal with the unexpected frost.

The unusual late spring frosts of last year were particularly destructive due to the unusually warm weather earlier in the year which caused delicate and early ripening buds easily susceptible to frost damage. Consultant winemaker and enrichment scientist Francesco Bordini calls this the “most dangerous effect” of global warming. “In northern and central Italy, it is normal to have some frost at the end of March and early April, but it is not normal for buds to start breaking in the middle of March,” he says. As Franchetti explains, if a system such as lighting fires is not used to keep warm chromium, can lead to a significant reduction in yield that year. This method is used throughout Europe, and it is a popular method of protecting plants from frost, since there are 300 burners distributed over one hectare that are able to raise the temperature by 3 degrees Celsius.

credit: Vinifranchetti

Vines feel hot

Global warming, a central issue discussed at COP26, threatens Italian wine production throughout the rest of the year as well. Higher summer temperatures, as well as long dry periods, have multiple adverse effects. Through the process of photosynthesis, heat activates and speeds up the sugar production in the grapes, causing the sugar to rise. During the fermentation process, the sugar turns into alcohol – thus producing wine with a high alcohol content. Coldiretti, the Italian agricultural lobby, also said in a statement, “The rise in temperature is altering wine made in Italy, which over the past 30 years has seen an alcohol content increase of one percent.”

Plus, when summer nights experience soaring temperatures, Bordini explains, the vines don’t absorb nutrients into the soil during the night and thus produce less acidic, tasty fruit. “If you want to understand whether antique will be good or bad, check if there are warm nights during the summer,” he says. Red wines can also experience a loss of color intensity during particularly hot summers, as the pigments are affected by heat.

Higher temperatures and lower summer precipitation can also result in vines that require additional watering. Tenuta di Trinoro had to increase the water supply to the vines last year to keep them hydrated. “This is definitely a problem,” says Francetti. “We had to adapt and find new ways to do things.”

Climate change is affecting the wine industry in Italy
credit: Vinifranchetti

harvest acceleration

The effects of heat and accelerated photosynthesis mean less time for grapes to ripen, an effect seen across Europe. As such, producers in Italy last year experienced rapid harvests – in some cases almost a month earlier than they did 10 years ago. But Bordini explains that although the grapes may be ripe, they are not necessarily ready for the grape-making process. He says, “Hot year wine contains very strong tannins because the fruit had less time to ripen and, as such, less time to increase the quality of the tannin.” Tannins do not develop faster in the hot year, unlike sugars. But delaying the harvest until the tannins improve is not an option. “The acidity drops sharply and sugar levels rise rapidly during this period, so you can’t wait or else the wine will become like jam,” Bordini says. “Unfortunately, tannin maturation is the slowest process.”

Bordini reports that Italian winemakers are trying to combat this problem by delaying the ripening of the grapes. Techniques include slowing down photosynthesis – for example, shading vines with nets or removing leaves that strategically collect sunlight. Another popular method is to spray the leaves with white clay, which reduces the photosynthetic capacity and lowers the temperature of leaves and grapes. “The system has been studied in Israel for fruits and vegetables,” Bordini says. “In the end [few] Years, in very hot regions, wine producers in Italy began to use it as well.”

Climate change is affecting the wine industry in Italy
Credit: Stefano Triulzi

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According to Bordini, grape varieties that are not native to Italy are suffering from global warming. That’s because they tend to be early-maturing cultivars—like Merlot, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir—ready to harvest in late August and early September. “If ripening occurs even earlier in the hottest months of the year, the quality is much worse,” he says.

Native species such as Sangiovese or Nebbiolo are late maturing, however, and can adapt better to higher temperatures. “Historically, these have been favored because the grapes stay longer on the vine—which gives them longer time to increase their flavor,” Bordini says. “And now, it’s still easier to preserve the acidity, freshness, and flavor of these grapes.” He notes that many wine producers in the region where he lives, Emilia Romagna, began preferring Chardonnay over local varieties like Albana about 30 years ago. Now, however, they are reverting to the original varieties. “I think soon it will not be possible to grow Chardonnay anywhere in Italy,” he says.

The struggles of Italian winemakers resonate around the world in sectors from coffee production to rice cultivation. Speaking at COP26, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “From the depths of the oceans to the tops of mountains, from melting glaciers to extreme weather events, ecosystems and societies around the world are being devastated. COP26 must be a watershed for people and [the] Planet.” But even with the pledges made during the summit to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the famous Italian wine faces a difficult future.

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