Italy battles vineyard challenges

23 November, 2023

Italian wine output is dropping, but producers are finding ways to mitigate the damage caused by climate change and fungal disease in the vineyards.

The world’s largest wine producer for many years, Italy has recently faced a turbulent landscape due to the extreme changes in climate and fungal diseases that have hit vineyards.

Italian wine lobbies the Unione Italiana Vini (UIV) and Assoenologi, said output in Italy looks set to fall 12% this year to below 44 million hectolitres as a result, with France set to reclaim the number one producer spot for the first time in nine years.

Despite the longstanding success of Italy’s offering, wine overall is seeing a gradual decline. IWSR Drinks Market Analysis reported that “wine is a category in slow decline and there are few signs of this changing imminently”. Wine volumes for H1 2021-2022 were “down 5%, and of the top 20 wine markets, only Brazil is drinking more wine now than it did in 2017”, the IWSR reported.

However, in a joint statement with food and agriculture institute ISMEA, the lobbies added that regions in northern Italy were set to register a small 0.8% growth in output. With this growth in the north, production was expected to fall around 20% in central regions and around 30% in the south. Recent bad weather conditions and the impact of fungus plasmopara viticola are seen to be the cause, according to harvest forecast data. The fungus attacks grape vines’ leaves and fruits, causing grape downy mildew.

Central issues

Set on the Tuscan coast in central Italy, Tenuta San Guido is a historical property of about 2,500ha. The soils of the region are partially clayey, situated at an altitude between 100m and 400m above sea level, with west and south-west exposure.

The climate also has its own nuances, with hills embracing the land that stretches from Bibbona to Castagneto, protecting the vineyards and olive groves from north-easterly winds, while the summer sees this corridor cooled by winds generated between the valleys of the Cecina river. This creates an ideal situation for Sassicaia, as Tenuta San Guido is the only estate to have vineyards suitable for claiming the DOC Bolgheri Sassicaia, an appellation that was initially a sub-area of the DOC Bolgheri as early as 1994, converted to autonomous DOC in December 2013.

Today the winery looks for “wines that best identify a specific vineyard plot. We are far from the past when we tended to follow certain already established patterns”, says Tenuta San Guido general manager Carlo Paoli. “Now there is a tendency to experiment more carefully, with the idea of looking for the product that best adapts to a specific territory and environment,” adds Paoli.

With the changing climate, Paoli says the 2023 vintage was “very variable” depending on the area, and it “did not always have a positive outcome”. The fungal disease was also felt for Tenuta San Guido in areas where “conditions are not optimal”, which compromised production.

In Bolgheri, Paoli notes they found a “situation unfavourable to fungal diseases” as the “soil is fresh and deep, we are in a coastal area and therefore very subject to daytime and nighttime ventilation”. These conditions prevent humidity stagnation, which is the basis of fungal diseases such as the downy mildew. To further contribute to the prevention of the spread of disease, the winery uses manual defoliation of the vines to avoid humidity.

Southern soil

Further south to Sicily is the Etna DOC, one of the earliest DOCs in Italy and the first in Sicily. In this region, Mediterranean warmth is tempered by the cooling effect of altitude on Mount Etna and by the different volcanic soils.

The oenology of Etna wines has been described as an “island on an island”, with the area’s most important factors being the orientation of the vines, the intensity and duration of sunlight, rainfall, altitude, temperature variations, ventilation and the type of volcanic soil.

Etna DOC white wines have gone up in the past year in terms of production and sales, according to Maurizio Lunetta, director of the Consorzio. “The first market for us is Italy, then the US, Germany, Switzerland and also the UK. I think that in the next year production of white wine will rise because it is volcanic and minerally,” says Lunetta.

In terms of the climate challenges 2023 has brought Italy, Lunetta says: “We are lucky when it comes to climate change as we can produce in altitude. Our production area goes from 400m to 1,000m above sea level.”

With this, the challenges are still “something we are facing like every other producer, and many cultural techniques are changing in Etna”. Lunetta adds: “This year has been a year where we’ve had many problems such as mildew. In Sicily this isn’t something we’ve had issues with before because the climate is dry, but this year in June we had a lot of rain, causing this to grow.”

In the Etna DOC, 60% of the surface is organically cultivated and it utilises the sulphur and copper, but “this year it was not enough to control the fungal disease and as a result the harvest was down 30%. I think in the next year maybe we can produce at a higher altitude and it will be possible to produce higher than we have been”, continues Lunetta.

To adapt to the changing climate, Paoli says: “It is not only the rise in temperatures but also the rainfall and drought which arrive at unsuitable times of the year and which create imbalances in the vegetation of the plants. Before entering the vegetative state, the vine carries out basic functions underground: the roots stock up on nitrogen, magnesium, manganese and all those micro elements essential to carry out subsequent functions.

“The vine assimilates in the form of mineral salts which is conditioned by the presence of humidity in the subsoil, if it is dry with cracking clays, the supply of substances to the roots is limited,” Paoli adds.

The most important period for the vine to determine the production of the following year is autumn. However, autumn tends to arrive late, leaving winemakers to find suitable soils and think about soils in a different way.

“For example, using old vineyards whose root system is very developed and deep and is less affected by these problems,” says Paoli. “For the heat, on the other end, it is necessary to intervene with specific treatments such as caolino [kaolinite or kaolin in English, a clay mineral (powder)], which reflects the sun's rays and safeguards the vegetation of the leaves. There are many adaptation systems, and they must be a priority for agronomists, you should never force nature but rather follow its indications.”

From a winemaking point of view Paoli says there have been changes and “due to climatic imbalances, a risk of losing the balance between phenolic and technical maturity”. For example, depending on the trend of the vintage, a harvest with an intense phenolic maturation,will see longer macerations, while, in harvests where the phenolic maturity is lower, they will aim for freshness and compromise on a less complex body.

Paoli also notes how vineyard management is “fundamental, especially in a phase of climate change like the one we have been observing for several years now. You must always have the concept of adaptation in mind”.

This adaptation could look like: “Growing grapes at higher altitude or latitude, using a late winter pruning to postpone the growing cycle in order to better escape from frost damage and allocate ripening in a cooler, more qualitative time period or using natural and inert compounds such as caolino to protect leaves and clusters from excessive overheating,” adds Paoli.

While the climate continues to change and create new and challenging conditions for producers, Paoli says the category is still “very good and promising”. He adds: “Italian wine is still young and if we go back 30 or 40 years, we see that the panorama was very different. Today the growth is positive and, in the minds of producers and entrepreneurs, it is increasingly expressed in qualitative and not quantitative terms”.

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