Spaniard shifts vineyards uphill in response to climate change
Scientists and vintners say rising temperatures may change the huge European winemaking industry, with vineyards. While northern areas, like England, stand to gain, Mediterranean nations like Spain, France and Italy, the three largest producers, will need to adjust. The effects of warming are already visible across the industry. Torres says harvests take place two weeks earlier than they did 40 years ago. In Germany, grapevines this year blossomed earlier than ever, the Wine Institute in Germany said in June.
Miguel Torres’s vineyards have survived bombs and plagues of parasites over the past 137 years. Now Torres, the head of the largest family-owned winemaker in Spain, says he is facing a new threat: global warming.
“We are moving into cooler areas of Catalonia, which has the great advantage of having the Pyrenees 200 kilometers from here,” Torres said in an interview at Mas Rabell de Fontenac, a 14th-century farmhouse near the company’s headquarters in southern Catalonia. “We have already planted vineyards successfully that we can use in the future.”
The fourth-generation vintner has planted vines 1,000 meters, or almost 3,300 feet, above sea level in the Pyrenean foothills near Tremp in northern Spain – four times as high as the main winery. Torres plans to buy more land in cooler areas, and is spending ?10 million, or $14 million, to cut his company’s emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases.
Scientists and vintners say rising temperatures may change the huge European winemaking industry, with vineyards. While northern areas, like England, stand to gain, Mediterranean nations like Spain, France and Italy, the three largest producers, will need to adjust.
The effects of warming are already visible across the industry. Torres says harvests take place two weeks earlier than they did 40 years ago. In Germany, grapevines this year blossomed earlier than ever, the Wine Institute in Germany said in June.
The quantity of wine produced is not at risk: The European Union estimates that its 27 members will make 15 percent too much by 2011. But experts say the quality from regions that have made wine for generations may drop.
“The real problem climate change brings is, it gives a high grade of alcohol, combined with low acidity,” said Pancho Campo, founder of the Wine Academy of Spain in Barcelona. “That turns the wine into a microbiological bomb. The wines lose their ability to age and, because acidity is so low, the freshness is lost.”
Many regions are now at an optimum temperature, and expected increases may bring regulatory changes in countries like France, which has strict guidelines on where certain varieties of grapes are grown, said Gregory Jones, a scientist at the University of Southern Oregon who has written widely on the topic of winemaking and climate change.
“Every single grape variety has its limits,” he said, adding that styles of wines associated with particular regions will shift elsewhere.
“The challenge with changing climates in the future is that, where’s the threshold by which a Burgundy becomes a Beaujolais?” Jones asked. “Governments need to allow regions to adapt to a warmer environment.”
Torres said that Catalonia’s vintners would have to act soon.
“In the next 10 years, we will see grapes which are doing well today by the sea – they will move to the central valley,” he said, mapping out a northward progression. “Those in the central valley, Tempranillo, they will go up to the mountains.”
Torres and his ancestors have grown vines for more than three centuries. The family company was founded in 1870 and it survived the plague of phylloxera that ravaged European vines in the late 19th century. In 1939, the bodega was destroyed by aerial bombardment during the Spanish Civil War.
The company owns more than 1,750 hectares, or 4,320 acres, of vines in Spain, Chile and California, including the main site at Pacs with a bottling plant and bodega, and the 104-hectare Sant Miquel vineyard in Tremp, Torres’s highest.
Raul Bobet, who has planted 23 hectares of vines across the valley from Sant Miquel, says he thinks the altitude will spare his vines the worst ravages of warming.
“I decided to set up a vineyard at 1,000 meters because of climate change,” Bobet said as he surveyed sloped fields of sauvignon blanc, Albariño and Riesling grapes. “I’m very concerned about grape quality.”
“By having these cooler nights and the influence of the Pyrenees, I’ll get that here,” Bobet added.
While vintners in Spain, which leads France and Italy in area of planted vineyards, are looking to the hills to preserve their trade, the climate in northern Europe is increasingly conducive to the production of quality wines. One beneficiary is Britain.
Stephen Spurrier, consulting editor for the trade magazine Decanter, says warmer temperatures persuaded him that it was time to plant on the farm his wife bought two decades ago in Dorset, southwest England.
“I had the soil analyzed by a French expert from Chablis at that time, and he said it’s absolutely perfect for vines, but the climate in 1987 was absolutely imperfect, so I gave up on the idea,” Spurrier said. “Over the last decade or so it’s becoming plainer and plainer that sparkling wines are the thing for the U.K. If it all goes well, we’ll plant in the spring.”
In reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, Torres is replacing cars for his 115-member sales force with hybrid vehicles and installing photovoltaic panels to generate heat and 670 kilowatts of electricity. The panels fill 11 percent of the power needs at the main site in Pacs.
“In 20 years’ time, when I’m very old and my grandchildren ask me, ‘What have you done? Look at the planet you are giving us,’ ” said Torres, who is now 64, “at least I’ll be able to tell them, ‘Well, listen, we did what we could. We did our best.’ “