July 6, 2009

Growing Heat Causing Spanish Winemakers To Change Scenery

Climate change is compelling Spanish winemakers to think about moving to higher ground in order to run away from the sweltering heat.

Spain, which is covered with acres of vineyard, "is in the frontline of climate change," said Juan Francisco Cacho, a wine expert at the University of Zaragoza, to AFP.

The country, the driest in Europe, might suffer with a possible "Africanization" of its climate and might develop "severe" desertification, says the environment ministry.

Larger wineries and the Spanish Wine Federation are now working on a new project, called Demeter, targeted at "gathering the knowledge necessary to face the challenge of climate change."

Vines thrive in the sun, but too much can harm the ripening of the grapes, said Cacho.

Heat steals sugar from the grapes while the parts that allow the wine to have its scent, consistency and its color ripen too slowly.

Spanish vintners have to decide between an early harvest with the correct amount of alcohol but is still considered "green" or an older one where the grapes create a higher quality wine but has a higher alcohol content.

"The wineries prefer to wait... So much that the wines produced today are often are 14, 15 or even 16 percent of alcohol compared to 12 previously," said Cacho.

The Demeter project's goals include "looking into winemaking practices that delay maturation," said Mireia Torres, director of the Bodegas Torres winery in Catalonia.

"We have an experimental area where we analyze the different effects of the viticultural practices in relation to climate," she stated.

A potential solution they are reviewing is a higher altitude. At a higher level, vines are safer from extreme heat and the air is cooler, which lets the grapes to ripen completely.

At Bodegas Perez Pascuas, three generations of winemakers have concluded that: "the vines at a higher level mean a better quality wine," said Jose Manuel Perez Ovejas.

The vines are currently at an altitude 2,690 feet and were spared from the worst of the summer heat.

"The (Spanish) vineyards are at a maximum of 800 meters above sea level. In 15 years, they will have to plant the vines at between 800 and 1,000 meters and the great winemakers are already buying land at higher altitudes," said Cacho.

Frenchman Lionel Gourgue, an expert for the "Vinedos Alonso del Yerro" of the Ribera del Duero region, thinks that a change to higher ground would be a great idea.

"The vine has always been planted on the hillsides... In the 1980s, mistakes were made, and we planted them anywhere."