Fires, smoke, drought and floods. Agriculture has always been a game of chance, but the rules in many of the world’s wine regions are changing as the climate grows erratic and intense. And while the novel coronavirus pandemic offered a reprieve from carbon emissions, the climate crisis still looms.
It forces winemakers to adapt both on the farm and in strategy. Coming harvests will tell whether modifications will be enough to survive. Here’s how winegrowers are preparing.
Wild Weather Upends the Industry
Australia has long endured bushfires, but the 2019–20 season was unusual. Major blazes broke out before the growing season began. The scope and intensity of the bushfires was related to extended drought and record heat.
By harvest’s end, a number of wine regions in Australia faced disaster. Fires tore through Adelaide Hills and decimated the vineyards of Golding Wines. The state of New South Wales was blanketed by smoke, which permeated Hunter Valley’s famed Semillon wines. Wind, frost and hail in their spring were followed by heat and drought that hurt yields in Barossa Valley. For now, many Australian wineries hope to mitigate threats through adaptive farming.
To combat increasingly hot and dry weather, James Agnew, general manager of Audrey Wilkinson in Hunter Valley, employs a combination of mulch, canopy coverage and sunscreen on fruit. For the long term, he’s assessing the “varietal mix,” an uneasy pivot for a region defined by Semillon.
Smoke taint forced brands like Tyrrell’s to dump much of their 2020 harvest. As such threats increase, research is underway for preventative techniques. An agricultural spray that coats grapes to curb smoke damage shows promise.
Australians elsewhere are exploring “climate appropriate” varieties.
“If wineries don’t produce enough good fruit over the next few harvests, they’ll fail,” says Marnie Roberts of Matriarch & Rogue in South Australia’s Clare Valley.
Roberts buys heat- and drought-resistant varieties like Arinto and Prieto Picudo, which provide flexibility to experiment. The goal with new grapes is to make something balanced yet delicious.
“We can adapt and evolve, but doing so constantly takes its toll,” she says. “We need to be positive…while letting go of what doesn’t work. That’s really hard—the letting go.”
In South Africa, Cape Town’s drought dominated headlines in early 2018, when the country was approaching Day Zero. While not as dire a situation today, the Western Cape’s water supply remains tenuous amid rising temperatures and frequent blazes.
Johan Reyneke, of Reyneke Wines, takes fire preparation seriously. He invested in firefighting training for his staff and related equipment, and he planted the native succulent spekboom around the farm for its carbon-storing and fire-resistant qualities. Reyneke believes the best weapon, however, is regenerative agriculture.
“Not only does it sequestrate carbon in the soil, but it builds humus levels,” he says. Increasing humus, the organic matter found in soil, reduces water run-off and related erosion. It also boosts the soil’s water-holding capacity.
Wellington, a warm region in the Western Cape, just emerged from a three-year drought. To plan for fires and warmer seasons ahead, Petrus Bosman, of Bosman Wines, removes non-native, highly flammable trees like blue gums to allow drought-tolerant indigenous species to flourish.
To prioritize climate-appropriate grapes, Bosman keeps a flexible outlook. He’s excited about Nero d’Avola.
“We’ve seen firsthand the amazing heat tolerance in Nero… the resultant wine is fresh and bright,” he says.
Last fall, the Kincade Fire in California engulfed swaths of Sonoma County. Businesses endured rolling blackouts, while workers donned masks.
After two harvests impacted by wildfires, Anna Beuselinck, co-owner of Campovida winery in Mendocino County, says a fire plan “is an absolute necessity.” Past experience has taught her flexibility and agility.
“The power outages and required evacuations can have as much or even greater impact as the actual fires,” says Beuselinck. To protect her business, she ensures that Campovida has reserves of wines and capital, and also employs multiple sales channels, outlets and storage areas.
As farming becomes less reliable, wineries now explore revenue opportunities up the value chain.
After losing all their fruit in the Adelaide Hills fires last December, Lucy and Darren Golding pivoted to hospitality. They developed the restaurant and tasting room experience at Golding Wines, with an increased focus on wedding and corporate events. Tragically, Covid-19 has cleared their calendar indefinitely.
Managing Emotions: The Toll of Volatility and Loss
While adaptive farming, revenue diversification and a bit of luck can help businesses navigate climate change, the industry is forced to manage personal upheaval and loss. Everyone copes differently.
“Out of our small team of eight, three people lost their homes,” says Beuselinck. “Following the fires, we had floods, power outages and now, the pandemic. The emotions and memories run deep, but so do the friendships.”
Campovida’s tight-knit group gathers weekly for support.
“In making wine, you learn there are things you cannot control,” says Noah Dorrance, cofounder/winemaker of Reeve Wines in Sonoma. “You try not to worry until there is something to worry about.”
Brook Bannister of Sonoma’s Bannister Wines, tries to view disaster as a problem of change.
“It seems like the enduring lesson from every catastrophe…is that impermanence is the rule,” he says. For Bannister, managing his “head space” is as important as day-to-day preparation.
“These are climate change-driven events, and it raises the possibility that these wines might not be viable in this way in this place at some point in the future,” says Bannister. Acceptance paves his path forward.
Surfing and mountain biking in South Africa’s wilderness keep Reyneke hopeful.
“I honestly believe that necessity breeds invention,” he says. “As the situation changes, so do people’s strategies. No doubt there will be casualties, but there will also be lots of innovation. Farming has always required multiple skills and creative thinking.”