Does the future look dry for Tuscan wines?

How winemakers are contending with climate change

Phoebe Owston
April 29, 2019 - 17:34

2002, 2011 and 2017 are just three recent Tuscan vintages negatively affected by global warming. Forecasting and estimating the effects of climate change have kept the world’s scientists occupied for years, yet little is written as to how tangible consequences are being managed in the region’s wineries.

A small winery with approximately 2.5 hectares under vine, Poggio La Noce stands in the hills of Fiesole, elevated between 800 and 1,000 feet. Relatively young, their first vines were planted with Sangiovese in 2000 and their second with Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino in 2018. The focus is firmly on sustainable winemaking, meaning that once the fruit comes in from the vineyard, it is processed and left relatively untouched, allowing the grapes to ferment with their natural yeast.

“The wine is made on the vine,” Claire Beliard, co-owner of the estate, explains, while detailing how her staff obsessively watch the weather, especially in this decade where one year can prove climatically polar-opposite from the next. “2016 and 2004 were perfect classic years, when the weather was nice and regular. In a decade, we’ll get three regular vintages. The rest of the time, it’s all over the place,” Beliard stresses before specifying that the erratic weather means that it’s difficult for a gradual maturation cycle to develop.

Ruffino, a major player on the Italian wine scene, also cites the difficulties in dealing with varying weather conditions. “We try and mitigate the effects of weather-related stress that the plant experiences,” comments Lorena Troccoli, agronomist and Poggio Casciano estate manager. Canopy management and pruning are preferred methods. Guyot and spur-pruning are the main methods in Tuscany, but Troccoli suggests that they may need to be revised in years to come in order to protect grapes from excessive heat and light.

To counteract the effects of extreme heat, Poggio La Noce does everything in its power to trick the ripening cycle into becoming more gradual and measured. Pruning in February, later in the year, means the plant develops later and does not asked to be picked so early, avoiding early ripening and unpleasant wine. Topping—chopping off the tops of the main shoots—forces the plant to grow side shoots that disperse the energy in the plant; by having less fruit on the plant, you slow down the sugar development when the climate wants only to speed it up. “We’re making the plant struggle a little bit, so it doesn’t do as much with the fruit as fast,” Beliard declares.

Struggle goes hand in hand with the effects of climate change, and with rising temperatures and greater sun exposure, sunburn is a risk and blocks the plants' photosynthesising ability. Ruffino provides some respite from harsh sun radiation with Kaolin, a clay-based solution applied to the leaf canopy to protect the vine leaves from excessive sun exposure, allowing photosynthesis to occur and ensuring high-quality fruit.

Less rainfall is another issue. No irrigation takes place at Poggio La Noce, employing a minimal intervention attitude until the earth gets really dry when they churn the top soil to disrupt the groundwater evaporation process, keeping the land moister for longer. Ruffino’s Poggio Casciano, an estate of over 220 hectares, has little choice but to irrigate using water to support the colossal production, albeit always with sustainability in mind by reusing excess water.

What’s clear is that, regardless of size or bottle count, the unpredictability of the weather can leave wineries perplexed about how to plan and carry out their agricultural calendar. Ruffino has the advantage of running several estates in Tuscany, where their staff can train and gain an understanding of the different microclimates, meaning extensive expertise is behind every climate mitigation decision. Poggio La Noce’s immediate hands-on approach means they can observe the fruit closely before it gets into the winery and act accordingly. Climate unpredictability is now part and parcel of winemaking—there’s hope to be found in the adaptability of Tuscan producers.

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