Climate change impacts on the Spanish wine industry

With COP25 taking place in Madrid this last fortnight, we took the opportunity to pop along and see what the Spanish wine sector is doing to adapt to the consequences of climate change.

According to the OIV, global wine production fell by about 10% in 2019. Mediterranean countries like France, Italy and Spain have been hit particularly hard thanks to some extreme weather conditions, with a cold and wet spring followed by a hot, dry summer.

In Spain, the fall was around 24% (34.3 million hectolitres) compared to 2018, but was also down by 12% compared to the last 5-year average. Extreme weather conditions have contributed to these low numbers. We have seen water stress in central and southern Spain. In August and September, severe cold snaps (or gota fría as it’s known in Spanish) hit Valencia, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, Aragon and Rioja. And in June, the Community of Madrid was ravaged by devastating forest fires.

If there is any consolation to be taken from all this, it is that many are predicting quality will be high, with a lack of humidity helping to ward off problems in the vineyard. But no-one should let that distract from the fact that the wine growing industry needs to respond, and it’s good to see that Spain’s producers are doing just that.

The first thing to say is that this is not a new issue. Spain’s main wineries´ association, the Federacion Española del Vino or FEV, developed its Wineries for Climate Protection certification scheme back in 2011 to encourage decarbonisation and a commitment to the circular economy. Under the scheme, wineries are required to reduce GHG emissions, waste and water usage as well as taking concrete steps to implement renewable energy and energy efficiency. Results are audited by a third party and there are currently 23 certified wineries.

Trinidad Marquez, FEV’s head of environment policy, told us ¨2019 has been a key year for the project with the renewal of certification for the first companies that registered in 2016 and 2017. Things started quite slowly because sustainability requires a lot of communication and outreach, but we are very happy with where the scheme is now; every day more and more wineries are taking the steps to get certified, and interest is growing among other players in the sector like distributors or end consumers. We believe that sustainability is a way forward for the sector and that the WfCP offers a solid and tangible tool to demonstrate progress and commitment to the environment.¨ With wine consumers displaying growing interest in the carbon footprint of the wine they drink, schemes like the WfCP clearly offer a good level of transparency and help buyers make a more informed choice.

But bodegas are also taking a much closer look at the impacts of climate change on vine cultivation and wine production, and that issue was on the agenda at this year’s COP25 meeting in Madrid. A lot of the headline conclusions are very much in line with Eric Asimov’s excellent recent piece in the New York Times, namely:

  • a need to look creatively at where grapes are grown. In Spain, that means looking again at cooler, more northerly plots closer to the Atlantic coast;
  • seeking out altitude to optimise diurnal shift and allow more even grape ripening;
  • using plot orientation and pruning techniques to control the amount of sunlight reaching the fruit;
  • looking at later-ripening grape varieties (eg the Bordeaux example).

These fundamental changes to the climate are also prompting innovative projects to help wineries prepare and adapt to new growing conditions.

The VISCA project, for example uses data collated from partner wineries Codorniu (Spain), Symington (Portugal) and Mastroberardino (Italy) to help growers. Using forecasts on phenology, irrigation and weather, producers can design short-, medium- and long-term adaptation strategies to climate change. This is not just an academic exercise. At Codorniu they are applying commercial vinification across a 3 ha area. So the final results will be comparable to a medium-size wine cellar making them directly applicable to commercial production.

Another project is LIFE Priorat + Montsant. Financed by the European Commission, LIFE aims to develop and demonstrate a large-scale model of sustainable wine production. The project applies a set of methodologies for the efficient use of natural resources to show winegrowers and winemakers the benefits of implementing sustainable production techniques. It also aims to raise awareness amongst consumers about the importance of the wine’s carbon footprint.

With Spain’s climate looking increasingly volatile it’s vital that producers explore a multitude of methods to adapt to climate changes and offset the negative impact of changeable weather and climate disasters. It’s good to see that producers are taking this seriously, but there’s still plenty to be done if we want to ensure the future of Spanish wine.

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