The Heat Is Online

Spanish Vineyards Fall Prey to Warming

Global Warming Hurts Spain's Vineyards, Forces Vintners to Move

Bloomberg News Service, May 22, 2006

 

May 22 (Bloomberg) -- Global warming is killing vineyards in southern Spain, threatening a 2 billion-euro ($2.4 billion) wine industry and forcing grape growers to move to cooler climes of the Pyrenees.

 

Winemakers from Europe's largest grape-growing nation are shading vineyards, developing heat-resistance crops and moving to mountainside locations. Temperatures may rise 7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, said Jose Manuel Moreno, professor of climatology at the University of Castilla La Mancha.

 

Any increase in temperature in Spain may make it impossible to produce wine in lower areas, according to Xavier Sort, technical director of Miguel Torres SA, the maker of Sangre de Toro wine. The average maximum day temperature in Spain during the summer is 29 degrees Celsius (84 Fahrenheit).

 

``Agriculture will need to change, and there will be winners and losers,' Moreno said in a telephone interview. ``Warming will harm plants that last more than one season, such as grape vines, the most.'

 

Miguel Torres SA, based near Barcelona, is buying fields in the peaks of northeastern Spain, where the weather is cooler, said Sort. Castell d'Encus vintner Raul Bobet has picked a spot 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) high in the Pyrenees for his label.

 

``There may be a move of wineries into the Pyrenees in the future,' said Xavier Sort, technical director of Miguel Torres. ``It could be a source for future growth.'

 

Wine makers must plan for longer to protect their grapes, because vines can keep producing wine for as many as 80 years and will be exposed to several generations of warming temperatures, said Richard Smart, an Australian wine industry consultant who advises on climate change, in a telephone interview.

 

``The wine sector itself is at fault,' said Smart. ``I don't think they have thought about how serious the problem is.'

 

Heat and sunlight increase sugar levels in wine grapes, which can boost alcohol content beyond what is palatable. Hotter weather may also curb grape acidity, changing the flavor, and unexpectedly rainy and cold seasons can devastate a year's crop.

 

In Malaga and Cadiz, the most southern wine-growing regions, temperatures can top 40 degrees during the summer months. Spain is the closest major European wine producer to the equator, making it particularly vulnerable to climate changes.

 

``Climate change is the biggest environmental challenge modern society faces,' said Jose Ramon Picatoste, an official in Spain's Environmental Ministry, at a conference in Barcelona in March. ``Industries will need to adapt.'

 

One degree of climate changes makes wine-growing regions in the Northern Hemisphere similar to regions 200 kilometers further south, said Bernard Seguin, a scientist at France's National Institute for Agronomic Research.

 

Higher Ground

 

``If you are able to change grape varieties, it's not such a problem,' Seguin said. ``If you can't, then it does become an issue. To me, it's the most direct and striking example of the warming until now.'

 

Some producers may benefit from warmer weather, said Carlos Falco, director of Marques de Grinon, a winemaker in the Rioja and Montes de Toledo regions. Hot weather in 2003 led the Priorat and Ribera del Duero regions in northern Spain to get wine scores above 90, according to the Wine Spectator.

 

Regulators have stuck to practices from the 19th century, when vine diseases in France led vintners to expand into the Rioja region. Watering grapes became legal in Spain in 1996.

 

While winemakers such as Cordoniu, a producer in the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions, are adopting automated irrigation techniques, regulators in Rioja still restrict the times when vineyards can be watered.

 

`Crucial Problem'

 

Regulators should loosen rules so winemakers can decide for themselves when to irrigate, said Sanchez, head of the Madrid- based Spanish Federation of Winemaking Associations. His organization is developing heat-resistant grapes in greenhouses.

 

``The ability to irrigate vineyards is going to be a crucial problem,' agrees Christian Butzke, associate professor of enology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

 

``Grapes are the highest value-added commodity that we know of in agriculture,' Butzke said. ``No other crop can be converted into such an expensive product.'