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Climate change and how the Douro is taking the lead – The Drinks Business article

This article is original from The Drinks Business, 24th October, 2018 by Lauren Eads and mention The Porto Protocol project

 

With searing record temperatures this summer in Europe, which followed severe frosts in April, flash floods and hail in the arid Douro Valley, devastating wildfires in California, and crippling drought in much of South Australia and South Africa, 2018 has been a year of extreme weather.

 

The signs of climate change are difficult to ignore. According to NASA, 17 of the 18 warmest years in the 136 years since records began have all occurred since 2001, save for 1998, while 2016 ranks as the warmest on record. The earth is getting warmer, and with that comes increasingly erratic weather. But what does this mean when it comes to wine? According to a 2016 report by AdviClim, an organisation assessing the impact of climate change, future fluctuations in climate are “very likely to have key effects on wine quality and style”. Over the long term, this may cause “geographical shifts in suitable grapevine varieties and production areas.” The report says: “A changing climate is therefore one of the major environmental and socio-economic issues facing sustainable viticultural development and production over the next century.” The question of climate change is, without exaggeration, the biggest challenge facing modern agriculture, with viticulture seemingly on the front line. As Paul Symington, chairman of Symington Family Estates, which owns the Graham’s and Cockburn’s Port brands, and also produces still Douro wines, points out: “With an apple or a pear, you don’t really notice the difference if there’s slightly more or less rain. But wine is unbelievably susceptible to minor changes, and we are absolutely a laboratory for climate change.”

 

A vulnerable product   

 Whatever their current climate, wine producers are being forced to look ahead and adapt their methods as the climactic goal posts shift, with rising temperatures driving increasingly erratic weather patterns. The Douro Valley is no exception. In May a major storm hit the Pinhão Valley, with 90mm of rain falling in an hour and a half. A second storm followed a month later. “Erratic weather patterns are a reality,” says Symington. “Temperatures are increasing. Erratic weather in Champagne or Sussex is annoying. In the Douro, it is really serious because the erosion and destruction of our steep terraces and tracks is huge, and very costly. The Douro has always been a hot area, which is one of the reasons it makes great Port. But we don’t want less rain and more heat. These temperature changes are already having a significant impact, because we already farm on the edge.” In the past 10 years, the Douro Valley was only not affected by hail in 2013, says David Guimaraens, technical director and head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, which owns Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft Port brands. “The biggest issue for the wine industry in the Douro is erratic weather. This means there can be a hot spell in the middle of winter so the vines start budding then. It also means there can be frost in spring, and thunderstorms and erosion, which is a major issue.” Aware of its changing environment, Port producers have issued one of the loudest rallying cries for the wine industry to combat climate change.

 

In September 2017, Symington Family Estates wrote to the Portuguese minister of agriculture drawing attention to the rapidly increasing temperatures in the Douro, with the aim of kick-starting the conversation. Between 1967 and 2010, the Douro Valley recorded a 1.3°C increase in average temperature, while the average rise throughout the vegetative cycle, from bud burst to picking, registered a 1.7°C uptick. Furthermore, 16 more days on average have experienced a temperature of more than 35°C.

Last year saw the earliest harvest on record in the Douro, Valley which ended on 26 September at Symington Family Estates, with an extremely dry year forcing producers to pick earlier. “When I started in 1979 that was the date we started picking,” says Paul Symington. In July, The Fladgate Partnership served as a lead sponsor of The Porto Summit 2018, a conference on climate change, at which the 44th President of the US, Barack Obama, attended as a keynote speaker. “We are an agricultural product that is extremely vulnerable,” says Adrian Bridge, managing director of Fladgate, which in March 2019 will host a second conference on climate change in Porto. “One of the places that vines often thrive is in remote areas where nothing else will grow. The Douro valley is a fine example. We grow a product that’s vulnerable in environments that are tough, because that’s what makes good wine. The reason I started Climate Change Leadership: Solutions for the Wine Industry, is simple. I’m sick of going to conferences where people tell me what the problem is. I understand the problem. What we need is the solution.” The Summit also saw the launch of The Porto Protocol, devised by Bridge, which seeks to encourage the global wine industry towards one common goal: to minimise the effects of climate change by doing more tomorrow than they are today to reduce CO2 emissions, and to share their experiences and expertise via the platform. “We do a lot, but you find even with companies like us that you reach a point where you say ‘what else can I do?’” says Bridge. “I’m looking for inspiration. What better place than other wine companies dealing with these issues in other parts of the world? We shouldn’t hold things close to our chest.” At the most basic level, tackling climate change is about reducing carbon footprint, and therefore CO2 emissions, whether as a company or on an individual basis, to minimise the rise of global temperatures.

 

“We all live and share the same planet,” says Márcio Nóbrega, viticulture manager at Sogevinus, which owns the Kopke and Barros brands. “To preserve the planet, ourselves and for future generations we should have respect for the planet. In our offices in Vila Nova de Gaia, we are the promoting reduced use of print paper and less electricity consumption.

 

At Quinta de S. Luiz in the Douro, we are improving our winery, making it more efficient in terms of energy and exploring the concept of gravity. In the vineyard, we are working with Advid, the association for viticulture development at Douro, and Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, studying grape varieties and their behaviours, and soil sustainability.” Reducing your energy use is a clear way to support environmental efforts in the long term, by using solar panels to power bottling lines or conserving water. But dealing with the impact of erratic weather caused by rising temperatures, which can include water scarcity, increased UVB radiation, freak hailstorms and the associated risk of soil erosion, is a more immediate concern. Global temperatures might look set to rise, but the Douro does at least have altitude on its side, with producers tending to inch further up its steep terraces. “The Douro is the largest area of mountain vineyard,” says Symington. “We have vineyards at 110 metres above sea level, but also at 580m, and the temperature changes are dramatic. My own vineyard is at 450m-580m and the temperature is 2°C-2.5°C cooler. There’s an increasing tendency for Port companies to go higher up the hillsides. You see it in the price being paid for grapes right across the Douro, with producers looking to buy grapes from higher up because it’s much cooler there.” Seeking higher ground might be the answer in the short term, but Bridge is not convinced. “It might come to that, but I’m not going to accept that because temperatures are going to rise by 3°C we are going to have to run up the hills. If it does, that could change the flows of Atlantic currents and that might mean there’s no rainfall. You can’t make an assumption that where you currently are will be the same when temperatures rise. Planting higher is not a proven solution. It might be, but we simply don’t know. We need to focus on the short-term things we can do. Yes there are long-term solutions, and it might mean planting higher, but there are things we can do, like using less energy, conserving water, and using fewer chemicals. That’s a simple win-win. Energy, water and chemicals cost money.” Irrigation is another thorny issue for producers in the Douro. The irrigation of grapes for Port wine is prohibited without express authorisation from the IVDP, the organisation that governs the production on the fortified wine. A move out east towards vineyards on the Spanish border to produce still wines, whose vines can be irrigated, is also driving demand for water – and calls for regulation – exacerbated by the lack of consistent rainfall in recent years. In 2017, the Douro recorded 316mm of rain, says Symington. Its 30-year average is 658mm, equating to a 52% reduction in rainfall. He says the regulation of irrigation and water conservation is one of the most pressing challenges for the Douro Valley.

 

Capture winter water

 “It’s necessary, otherwise we are going to condemn 40% of the vineyards in the Douro,” he says, while also stressing that the majority of his family’s 27 vineyards in the Douro are dry farmed. “Water is a fundamental requirement for vines and human beings. If you deny water you condemn the vines to die. We should be trying to capture winter water. In much of the Alentejo we do that. Pretty much all vineyards have dams and they capture significant winter rainfall. The Douro is more difficult because it’s steep, but there are certainly areas where we could capture rainfall. Imagine if we had caught the 90mm of rain in Pinhão in a reservoir, instead of it running into the river and causing dramatic erosion? It’s not easy because it’s steep, but humans are capable of being inventive.” While water capture and conservation is a separate issue, a proposal to take water from the Douro River to irrigate vineyards was put forward this year, a measure that Bridge has long said would be disastrous for the region. He calls irrigation a ‘red herring’ as a solution to periods of extended drought. “We need to respect the fact that the Douro River stopped existing in the 1970s,” he says. “What we have is the Douro lakes. Young winemakers look at the river and think they can suck a bit of water out of it and there will be plenty behind it, but it’s a series of lakes and it doesn’t replenish. Last September the source of the Douro in Spain dried up for the first time. If there hadn’t been dams there would have been places you could have jumped across the river. The idea that it’s a big body of water and we are going to pull out a million litres a day is nonsense.” Guimaraens calls the move towards irrigation in the Douro “giving up on viticulture”. “There is so much work to be done with rootstocks, varieties, site selection and vine density before irrigation. When you start irrigating you get other problems. You start producing alcohol, and irrigation doesn’t solve the problems of excess heat. It can solve the vigour but it’s not going to solve other issues that an increase in temperatures are causing. It’s an easy way out.” He argues that better canopy management, going back to bush vines and better site selection are more prudent responses to rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall. “If it’s hotter and more arid we can change the focus of our vineyards more towards Regua, where there is lower aridity, to overcome difficulties with climate change. We also have altitude to play with. As you raise altitude the temperature drops and rainfall increases. Some vineyards won’t survive, but that’s a fact of life.”

 

Risk of erosion

To tackle the issue of hail, Fladgate has been working with a French company to reduce the impact of hail damage, which brings with it the added risk of erosion. “Next season we will be able to inject silver nitrate into the clouds,” reveals Guimaraens, which will change the make-up of the clouds and therefore reduce the possibility of hail.
“For the Douro it’s completely new. For the past 10 years the problem has been very serious. As the temperature warms there is an increased likelihood of hailstorms. When you build terraces you have to make sure you leave your waterways clear. It doesn’t rain much but when it does it can do a lot of damage. When you plant in the Douro you are landscaping, not just planting vines. You have a responsibility to the land.”

The pernicious nature of climate change is growing, and its impact on viticulture is vast and far reaching. The task of preparing for such unpredictable change is evolving, and will be felt well beyond the Douro Valley. But the message to those who sign up to the Porto Protocol is clear and offers a good place to start. “It doesn’t matter how big your contribution is, but everyone should be making one,” says Bridge. “We all have to be responsible and adapt. The first thing is to ask people to do more, and the second is to share your experiences.”

 

  • Global temperatures are rising, which will have a significant impact on the style of wine and ability to cultivate grapes in certain areas. Tackling this change will be one of the biggest challenges for the wine industry in the coming years.
  • Between 1967 and 2010, the Douro Valley recorded a 1.3°C increase in average temperature, while the average rise throughout the vegetative cycle, from bud burst to picking, registered a 1.7°C uptick.
  • In July, former US President Barack Obama was a keynote speaker at the first Porto Summit, an event on climate change sponsored by The Fladgate Partnership. A second event on the solutions to climate change for the wine industry will be held in Porto in March 2019.
  • The wine industry needs to work together to find solutions to adapt to changing climates, while working to continually reduce CO2 emissions.
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