Tackling climate change

Tackling climate change in southern Tuscany

Morellino di Scansano DOCG is a ripe-fruited, mainly easy to drink Sangiovese based wine from southern Tuscany.  It had its moment of glory back in the 1990s but with a few exceptions has struggled to make an impact on the world market since then.  Half of the production comes from the very competent co-operative, I vignaioli del Morellino di Scansano, while the rest is divided between big players Mantellassi and Val di Rose (owned by Cecchi)  and many smaller estates.  The leader in quality terms for decades has been Fattoria Le Pupille, especially its single vineyard wine, Poggio Valente.

The commercial success and Scansano’s position in the struggle with climate change are connected by its southerly location. Much of the wine is consumed locally by the tourists who visit the coast and the hills of the region and especially by Romans who have holiday homes here. The rest of the wine is sold in supermarkets with a few top labels making it into specialist wine shops and restaurants.  Rome is only an hour an a half away we are about as far south in Tuscany as it is possible to be. 

In terms of grape growing, Scansano has a warm Mediterranean climate which should mean low rainfall in the season with most of the rain falling in autumn and winter.  The heat is tempered by breezes off the Mediterranean and by at least part of the delimited region being in the hills (200-300 m only).  However, there is also a part on the plain close to the sea and very competent wines are made here too (e.g. Poggio Argentiera). 

The effects of the changing climate

In August 2019 I spent the best part of a week in the area and made a point of asking every producer about the climate, how it is changing and what they are doing to meet the new challenges. Here is a summary of what I found:

  • Rising temperatures – Though none of the estates I visited said they had the data, they all commented on rising temperatures. (Apparently the data has been collected at regional level for the last 15 years.) The types of insects that are being seen were normally only seen yet further south until the last two decades. Further, the types of flies and grape moths that used to be common in the warm coastal strip are now being seen in the hillsides and much further inland in Chianti Classico. Due to the rising temperatures, both the beginning and the end of the season bud burst and harvest are now 7-8 days earlier than they were in 2000.  Earlier bud burst makes the vines susceptible to spring frost.
  • Regular drought and irregular rainfall – However, the point that was commonly made was  that climate change is not just a matter of rising temperature but changes in the pattern of the season.  Alessio Durazzi, director of the growers’ organisation (the consorzio) said that long droughts are becoming common with resulting drop in yields. The hot, dry year 2017 saw a decline of 26% in production and the effects of drought were still felt in the otherwise good 2018 year. Winters are drier than they were, meaning that reserves of water are not built up.
  • Tenuta Belguardo (acquired by the famous aristocratic family, Mazzei, owners of Fonterutoli in Chianti Classico) commented on the new pattern in spring with unusually dry Februaries and lots of rain in May (as happened for example in 2019). Rain in May is not ideal as the resulting humidity means a great deal of extra work in the vineyard to avoid fungal diseases.  Tenuta Ghiaccio Forte commented on the number of storms being experienced. Thus, the overall annual rainfall is much as before but is distributed less helpfully and of course rising temperatures mean that plants need more water to thrive. Water is lost because it falls as a deluge and cannot be absorbed by the ground. Similarly, high temperatures mean that water is lost through evaporation and through the vines needing more water to function normally. 

As alway, estates differed in the ways they respond to these immediate challenges. Some, for example, Belguardo regard the availability of irrigation as absolutely essential to protect young vines, to make up water deficits when drought is prolonged and to ensure quality in the final phase of ripening.  An element of water stress is good for quality but prolonged water stress and high temperatures mean that the vine shuts down. As a result skins and pips do not ripen properly, resulting in astringent tannins. Having both the infrastructure and the wells or lakes to irrigate can avoid this problem. However, the issues of the availability of water and who has rights to that water can only get more intense if temperatures continue to rise.  (At this point in conversations, there were dark mutterings about the complexities of Tuscan politics!)

Other estates, for example Ghiaccio Forte, put their trust in dry farming, aiming to get the vines into good enough condition to be able to withstand the droughts and deluges that are now becoming commonplace.  As already seen, this means that yields will be variable. When is it comes to replanting vineyards, growers take advice on the best clones and rootstocks to deal with drought, alongside all the other considerations (high or low yield, open bunches as Sangiovese is prone to botrytis bunch rot, deeper coloured berries, flavour intensity).  Ghiaccio Forte also commented on the value of planting varieties that thrive in the heat, such as Syrah and Petit Verdot. These could be used for Super Tuscan styled wines or a part of the 15% of blending varieties allowed in Morellino di Scansano DOCG. 

Changing approaches in the vineyard

Approaches to vineyard work have also changed to combat rising temperatures and unpredictable weather.

  • Lower vineyard density – Whereas the trend was towards higher vineyard density with an aim to increasing competition and raising fruit quality, now the trend is towards moderate densities 5,500-6,500 vines/ha. This is not fully a return to the past but it is going in that direction. 
  • Higher canopies and allowing more shade – Raising the canopy means a slightly lower temperature in the canopy, while keeping more leaves on in the canopy provides some shading.  Open, narrow canopies have become the modern standard since it was understood that sunlight is the driver of growth and that shallow canopies are less prone to fungal diseases. However, growers are now trimming the canopies less than they did. With rising temperatures fruit will ripen but the shade will prevent sun burn and slow down ripening.  A longer ripening season usually results in more pronounced flavours and aromas. 
  • Reducing evaporation from the soil When there has been rain, the ground can be covered with a mulch, a thick layer of vegetable matter to slow down evaporation from the soil between the rows (Ghiaccio Forte). Grassing between the rows has a similar effect but grass also takes water from the soil and so some growers are alternating grass and bare earth rows (Le Pupille). Overall, there is far less intervention in the soil than there used to be in order to stop water being lost through evaporation.
  • Slightly reduced yields – As a result of these changes yields are slightly lower than they used to be.  As was seen, high temperatures mean that the vine shuts down to go into preservation mode. But as the aim is maintain healthy vines and produce high quality fruit, this is a small price to pay.
  • Pick early if potential alcohol will otherwise be too high. The fashion has been to wait for the perfect ripeness of skins and pips to avoid any graininess in tannins.  But if sugars levels rise above what is really desired once converted to alcohol (e.g. more than 1414.5%), a compromise has to be struck. 
Changes to winemaking

The changes in the winery are fewer than in the vineyard. After all, the aim of the work in the vineyard is to deliver the best possible quality and quantity of fruit possible. If that is achieved, there should not be the need for a lot of changes in winemaking. However, the following were stated:

  • additional use of dry ice and other technology to reduce the temperature of picked grapes. To preserve fruit aromas it is important to keep grapes cool and to start fermentations in a controlled way. However, these inventions add costs to winemaking.
  • lighter extraction Growers report keeping temperatures during fermentation down to 2728º C, resulting in less extraction (fewer pump overs and less rack and return), and with less time on the skins. However, this costs money due to the costs of operating cooling systems. It was not clear whether this was a result of the changing quality of the fruit or simply a choice aimed at producing less extracted, more fruit-expressive wines.  It would be difficult to disentangle the effects of a changing climate and those of a retreat from wines with very ripe fruit and correspondingly high alcohol typical of the 1990s.  Particularly with the delicate aromatics of Sangiovese, many now think less is more. Here again we are returning to the past – but without the under-ripe, green tannins!
  • the choice of yeast (where that is selected) needs to take into account the effects of MLF in red wines and the aim of preserving acidity to ensure balanced wines.
  • nonetheless, alcohol levels have risen over the two decades. One producer put this in the range of a rise from 13.4% to 13.8%.

Scansano, like virtually all vine growing areas, has experienced a rapid change in the climate in the last twenty years.  Growers report that average temperatures have risen, bud burst and harvest are earlier, prevalent pests and diseases have changed and extreme weather events are much more frequent than they were. The number of challenging years is now outweighing the number of normal years. Growers know they are in a world where there are no more ‘normal seasons’. As a result they are having to work harder to produce well-balanced wines. 

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