Harvest losses of up to 80%: wine cellars struggle with fungi and climate change
Organic producers are paradoxically the ones most badly affected, as some try to grow new resistant varieties to avoid using chemicals
Some vines did not grow juicy grapes as usual this year, but dry peels instead, which are completely useless for any wine cellar.
The reason is mildew, a form of fungus, which has wiped out around one third of wine production across Catalonia compared to last year.
The country’s 11 denominations of origin estimated these losses on September 17, in a gathering at Finca Can Feixas, Cabrera d’Anoia, central Catalonia - yet, they also confirmed that grape quality is not being affected.
The plague has only worsened an already difficult year, given the widespread decrease in sales due to Covid-19, which has slowed down social activity everywhere.
Unprecedented impact of mildew
Mildew has been a nightmare for producers due to an especially rainy first half of 2020, prompting the wet conditions this fungus thrives in.
But this is far from 'just' a one-off plague, as this type of scourge is becoming increasingly more frequent and troublesome.
"In my life, the life of my father and of my grandfather, we have never experienced a year with such a big impact from this fungus like this year," Josep Maria Albet i Noya, the owner of organic wine growers Albet i Noya, tells Catalan News.
Climate change, the underlying problem
He hopes and expects a better year in 2021, so his main long-term concern is not only mildew, which has caused losses of "up to 80%" in his case, but climate change.
Although he says mildew is only "probably" to do with climate change, one of the main agricultural trade unions in Catalonia, Unió de Pagesos, takes it for granted on the grounds that lately the land is experiencing more heatwaves, long droughts and prolonged rain episodes, leading to wet conditions.
“In the first six months of the year we had more than the average rainfall for the whole year,” says Albet.
Early harvest, another worrying evidence
Even clearer evidence of the impact of climate change on Catalan vines is the fact that the grape harvesting period began in early August and is almost over in Albet i Noya as of late September.
"The level of fruit and acidity in white grapes are a bit lower [if the harvest comes earlier]. In the reds, the alcohol grows too much and the skin is not ripe"
Josep Maria Albet i Noya · Wine producer
On average, according to the 11 Catalan denominations of origins, the harvest began eight or nine days before usual.
Only a few decades ago, the time to reap the benefits, literally, used to begin in mid-September, and end around Halloween. Early starts like this year causes uncertainty among producers.
"The level of fruit and acidity in white grapes are a bit lower. In the reds, the alcohol grows too much and the skin is not ripe," explains the owner of Albet i Noya from Sant Pau d’Ordal, in the famous Penedès wine-growing region.
Mixing traditional varieties with resistant ones
That is why Albet i Noya and some other cellars are trying to adapt to the quickly changing conditions by experimenting with grape varieties that cope well with plagues.
A grape variety called Piwi is able to ripen later, "in a period when the temperature difference between day and night is higher" like late September, explains the wine grower.
Yet, at the same time, they are not letting go of the traditional vines in Catalonia yet either, such as Garnatxa, Xarel·lo and Macabeu.
"We emasculate the flowers, putting the pollen of resistant varieties [such as Piwi], then we mix it and they make love", he says with a pinch of humor.
The seeds of these grapes come from a crossing of the resistant varieties and the traditional Catalan ones, which are then planted.
Together with two other wine cellars joining this project (Alta Alella and Piñol), they have tried these crossbreeds 300,000 times, and only 1,500 have been able to resist mildew and oidium.
The project is called VRIACC, which stands for autochthonous varieties resistant and adapted to climate change, and the first bottles of wine of these new kinds of grapes could be ready in 5 years, "keeping the same quality and properties" of the old ones, Albet explains.
Legislation and ‘tradition’ potential problems
They aim to force the land to adapt to the new conditions as soon as the changes occur – although legislation is moving slower than this process and these new varieties cannot be used to produce wines in Spain just yet.
Josep Maria Albet i Noya is "sure" that legislation will adapt, because these new varieties are already legal in countries such as Germany, France and Italy.
However they will not only have to face the law, but also tradition.
Facing some criticism of a potential loss of the traditional Catalan varieties, Albet i Noya says the new varieties are the 'children' of the old ones, and they are "better" than them: "Your children are probably better than you; they have more culture, studies, knowledge, open-mindedness… They are better than you. With these varieties it's the same. They are better adapted to the changes made by globalization."
Organic producers more affected
Paradoxically, organic wine producers like Albet i Noya are more affected by this mildew fungus because they have not been able to use chemicals.
Therefore, they are struck more by climate change too – some firms are even considering giving up the ‘organic' label and using chemicals again which, at the end of the day, damage the land and contribute further to climate change. All in all, a vicious circle with no clear way out.