The SW Summary: Harvest during a global pandemic, Merlot under threat of extinction, the future of the on-trade wine scene and changes in the Mediterranean climate

By Hanna Halmari

Harvest during a global pandemic

Writing for VinePair, Tina Caputo reflects on the current and upcoming challenges facing wineries preparing for this year’s harvest. Closed borders and social distancing measures have forced wineries to find new and innovative solutions to working in the vineyard. Caputo provides the example of Swiss wineries, who usually employ workers from multiple European countries to assist during the annual harvest. In light of restricted travel options due to Spain’s closed borders, Swiss agriculture association AgriGenève reached out to Swiss Air to organise a chartered flight to carry 141 Portugese workers to Geneva.

Wineries have also had to adapt production to Covid-19 conditions. Whilst most work in the vineyard can be adjusted to adhere to social distancing rules, this will be more difficult for the upcoming trellising given the increased number of laborers. As Caputo explains, “More than 50,000 laborers perform the task… and while most of this workforce is local, the sheer number of people working in the vineyards will make distancing difficult.”

The number of laborers needed will be even higher during the upcoming harvest. For example, Champagne requires around 120,000 seasonal workers and around 60% of this workforce usually comes from Eastern Europe. Alongside the challenges to securing the necessary labor, wineries must adapt the working environments and housing to new safety and sanitation requirements.

Caputo highlights how these obstacles will be harder to overcome for small, independent producers, commenting how, “For some, the question isn’t how to safely harvest or how to get enough workers, it’s whether to harvest at all.” Wineries will have to make quick decisions regarding this year’s harvest. The article ends with a quote from Bill Smart, vice president and general manager of Lambert Bridge Vineyards in Sonoma County, who aptly notes, “Grapes don’t wait to ripen because they are concerned about a pandemic.”

“Merlot as we know it is on the verge of extinction”

So warns Mélissa Godin in this article for Time. Discussing the effects of climate change on the flavour of French wines, she notes how “Merlot will be the first victim of climate change amongst grape varieties in [Bordeaux].” Bordeaux has never provided an ideal environment for grape growing and climate change has, and will, only increase the level of effort needed from winemakers.

Godin describes how the last few decades have seen the Bordeaux harvest start increasingly earlier in the year, “resulting in many French wines having higher alcohol levels than they used to.” Whilst this has been problematic in Bordeaux, other regions such as Champagne and Alsace have found benefits in the higher temperatures, with winemakers reporting “since 2017 that droughts have decreased the amount of mildew on their vines.” However, as temperatures continue to rise winemakers are conscious that these benefits will not be long-lasting.  

In response, scientists are working on experimenting with different vines more resilient to a warmer climate to see if they can survive in the region. Despite a history of strict regulations on the use of grape varieties, in July 2019 French appellation authorities added seven new grapes to the short list of varieties allowed to be grown in France. The research is slow to progress, however, due to the slow growing cycles of vines. 

Winemakers not only need to adapt to higher temperatures, but they are also faced with risks of erratic weather patterns. Godin highlights how “unusually hot weather” resulted in a 12% output decrease in French wine in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic places further economic pressures on French winemakers. Wineries have and will continue to be negatively impacted by lower sales and exports, cancelled wine events and shortages of seasonal workers. French winemakers must continue to find ways to adapt to the changing environment, but there is no doubt that “the taste of Bordeaux is going to change.” Read more here.

The future of the on-trade wine scene

Writing for Meininger’s, Robert Joseph contemplates the future of the on-trade wine scene. Joseph quotes Time Hayward, journalist and restaurateur, who commented, “Even usually optimistic industry voices are beginning to admit that perhaps three-quarters of current restaurant businesses in the UK won’t survive lockdown and subsequent social distancing.” Hayward notes how given the fact that many restaurants were already running on an unsustainable model prior to the pandemic, many of them will unfortunately have no choice but to close down. 

In light of restaurant closures and less large-scale social events due to social distancing measures, Joseph outlines the clear challenges facing the on-trade wine industry. Both expensive and unfamiliar bottles will be impacted. Although “only 20% of consumption by volume takes place in the on-trade in most countries, the value of that segment is far higher.” Furthermore, sales of unfamiliar wines are largely reliant on handselling in restaurants. However, the problem is not isolated to top-end products. As Joseph explains, “Plenty of producers and distributors depend on the sale of inexpensive wine ordered in large volumes by cafes and bars.

So how should producers respond? Joseph offers two areas of focus: marketing and distribution. Whilst not novel advice, they are now more important than ever. To read more, click here.

The impact of climate change in the Mediterranean

One of the nine case studies in McKinsey Global Institute’s publication “Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts” focuses on the Mediterranean basin. In this case study the impacts of climate change, predominantly heat- and precipitation-related aspects, on Mediterranean economies and communities are explored. This article by McKinsey provides an overview of the findings. 

According to the study,  since the late 19th century the Mediterranean basin’s average temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius, slightly higher than the global average of 1.1 degrees. Temperatures are projected to continue rising and are expected to “raise hydrological variability, increasing the risk of drought, water stress, wildfires, and floods, and noticeably change the Mediterranean climate.”

Some key findings include:

  • The “number of days with a maximum temperature above 37 degrees” are projected to “increase everywhere in the Mediterranean region” by 2050.
  • Rainfall throughout April to September is projected to fall by up to 10% by 2030 and 20% by 2050 in Italy, Portugal, Spain and areas in Greece and Turkey. Drought conditions could “prevail for at least six months out of every year in these areas” by 2050.
  • Water stress will increase throughout the Mediterannean a water supplies are projected to decline by 10% in 2050 and up to 25% by 2050.
  • Larger areas – “up to double the current areas on the Iberian Peninsula” – will see increased risks of wildfires.
  • Warmer temperatures will likely result in higher disease infection rates, with researchers already warning that “the West Nile virus is likely to spread by 2025 and to spread further by 2050.”

The case study also examines the likely impact of climate change on the region’s production of grapes and wine up to 2050. Traditional winemaking regions may see production fall as a result of water stress and higher temperatures. Vineyards will have to test new grape varieties as certain current ones, such as Merlot in Bordeaux, will not be able to survive in warmer climates. According to the study, “certain growing areas in Italy, Portugal, and Spain could experience large declines in production or even collapse.”

With many vineyards already taking action, the study discusses the measures that wine growers can take in order to adapt to the changing climate. These include, “cultivating grape varieties that ripen more slowly or require less water….harvesting earlier, reducing sunlight on grapes, irrigating vineyards…[and] planting different crops or moving to new locations, including higher altitudes and slopes other than the conventional south-facing ones.”  Read more here.

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About the author

Hanna Halmari

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and the head of conferences at Innovation Forum. Hanna specialises in sustainability research and events across various industries. She holds an MSc in international development from Kings’s College London, where she developed a strong interest in political economy and post-communist transformation. Hanna speaks Finnish, Bulgarian and English. In her spare time she is a dedicated Radio Lollipop volunteer at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, enjoys travelling, and tasting new wines.