Climate change: the resilience of mountain bubbles

“There are no more seasons than once” says popular wisdom, but idioms aside, climate change is certainly a fact that constantly finds confirmation in our daily life. Attilio Scienza, professor of viticulture at the State University of Milan and well-known international expert in this sector, labels this as an irrefutable fact. Studies are plenty and some of the most alarming forecasts predict that in a hundred years Sicily will be a desert and that the Po river valley will have the same temperatures as today’s Pakistan, with all the related consequences. On a recent trip to the German Moselle area, a producer told me that, if forty years ago bringing the grapes to perfect ripeness was an operation that was successful two or three vintages every decade, with the new millennium this happens practically at every harvest, with no problem.

There are many consequences this climatic upheaval brings to the picture. Excessive heat inevitably leads to a decline in the grapes produced, exposes the vine to a greater risk of contracting diseases and perhaps could even lead to the onset of some new diseases in the future, still unknown to us in the agronomic field. The high temperatures, especially during the harvest phase, would create imbalances from the point of view of the aromas of the wine, leading to incomplete aromatic development, caused by the alteration of the ripening times, up to the risk of the disappearance of some varieties. Especially those with limited adaptability such as Pinot Noir. 

The general structure of the wines would also be affected by these changes, the organoleptic profile would highlight more mature and evolved aromas while the structure, enriched by an average increase in alcohol, would bring us back to a rich and concentrated style similar to that of 20 / 25 years ago that for some years we have (finally, I would say) forgotten.

But, is everything so dark? This scenario appears decidedly unfavorable for the producers and even more so for the enthusiasts, but to cheer them up it must be said that nature has always proved to have many resources and that the vine, specifically, highlights among its main characteristics the ability to adapt as determining factor for its survival. The plant partially knows how to compensate for these climatic changes and if we add the fact that human experience will lead (and is already leading) to an adaptation of cultivation methodologies, things start to take color again and that the scenario suddenly reappears less dark. Technology and research can also be decisive in this process. The first can contribute with the development of increasingly advanced systems in terms of prevention, for example by individually identifying the plants in distress thanking to drones or by leading to the development of increasingly advanced irrigation systems. Research can help, as Professor Scienza always says, in many other ways: using more spaced planting distances in order to favor the development in depth of the roots, relocating the vineyards to hilly areas, inland, near the coasts or above all at high altitude. 

Last but not least, genetics can also be useful in this process. The improvement of rootstocks (which have practically not evolved since the times of phylloxera) and the selection of vines more resistant to high temperatures and able to preserve the acidity in the bunches despite the heat, can be decisive aids.

Being from Trentino, I can testify that in recent years the choice to raise the height of the vineyards has been a winning choice and is more and more a present trend. Altitude is one of the determining factors for which these scenarios, which may scare more than one reader, appear less worrying. The average of the vineyards used for the production of Trentodoc exceeds 450/550 meters height and reaches the maximum altitudes just under 900 meters on sea level. Here the temperature ranges guaranteed by the Dolomites, the great exposure to winds on the steep slopes and the cool climate of the harvest period are valid allies, which add up to everything already mentioned previously. The production of Trentodoc is the clearest example: the grapes harvested at high altitudes have rich and ripe aromas, the acidities are perfectly preserved and allow for very long aging on the lees, sometimes over ten years. Therefore, the name of “mountain bubble” is perfectly suited to the characteristics that this territory is able to impress.

Speaking of Trentino, it is impossible not to mention Ferrari’s historically forward-looking and innovative path: the winery founded by the pioneer of the traditional method, Giulio Ferrari, already more than a hundred years ago had understood the potential of our territory and started already to certify its production as totally organic, recently developing new plants that exploit the elevation of the territory. 

The virtuous example of Trentino is, of course, only one of the many that can be found in the production landscape, but it is the one I know best. Obviously the hope is that the global warming does not continue with the pace of recent years, that human sensitivity leads to environmental protection – first – and to the development of a series of measures that allow us to taste more and more wines expression of the territory, always having a clear awareness that nature cannot be controlled, you can only live with it.

– by Roberto Anesi, July 22nd 2020

Sommelier and Trentodoc ambassador, Roberto Anesi lives in Canazei, where he takes care of his restaurant El Pael. In 2017 he received the AIS award as the best sommelier in Italy.

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