Are wines losing the battle against climate change?

Heroic viticulture produces some of the world's most beloved wines, but climate change might be one challenge these 'heroic' farmers can't overcome.
John Loeffler
Photo of viticulture in Douro Valley, Portugal
Heroic viticulture in Douro Valley, Portugal

P. Tarolli 

  • Over time, wine grapes have been cultivated in many rugged landscapes.
  • But climate change is making it harder than ever to grow high quality grapes.
  • Many varietals could disappear in the future unless farmers - and grapes - can adapt.

In rural Italy, Portugal, and Spain, centuries of viticulture have carved grand terraces into the hills, cultivated world-renown wines, and fostered a unique agricultural lifestyle that has been designated by UNESCO for cultural preservation. But for the farmers who are keeping these ancient traditions alive, climate change might do what the harsh terrain could not.

It is called heroic viticulture, and it’s not for the faint of heart. To grow grapes “heroically”, one of four agricultural conditions must be met: a slope of more than 30 percent, an altitude of at least 500 meters above sea level, vines are grown on agricultural terraces, or the vineyard occupies a small island with difficult growing conditions.

Due to the physical topography required for heroic viticulture, mechanization is pretty much impossible. These vineyards need to be tended to and harvested by hand, with winemaking techniques that have been passed down for many generations. It is the kind of work that only a special breed of farmer is capable of; in short, it is the work of heroes, in the classical sense of the word.

So it’s not without irony that such an agricultural tradition, largely untouched by industrialization, should be threatened by the consequences of the industrialization it had no hand in, and that these breakers of mountain slopes might in turn be broken themselves by a changing climate brought on by the work of others.

The climate threat

Are wines losing the battle against climate change?
Soave’s traditional steep-slope vineyards at the FAO-GIAHS site, North of Italy.

“The great effort required to manage and survive these areas reinforces the specific human-environment connection,” Paolo Tarolli, a professor of soil and water conservation and agricultural water management at the University of Padova, writes in an article for the journal iScience, published on July 14, 2023. “This is why they are recognized as cultural uniquenesses of primary historical and social importance, where traditional knowledge is the still determining element.”

That effort, over the centuries, has produced unique landscapes of steep mountainsides blanketed by vibrant terraces, “impossible” island vineyards, and farming traditions still passed down much as they were practiced a century or two ago.

For a farming tradition this steeped in bringing nature to heel in the extremity, it seems like a travesty for heat or drought to be the thing that undoes it all. But that is the challenge heroic viticulture faces, and adapting is not as easy as carving terraces into bedrock.

“It is difficult to talk about a single [temperature] threshold for heroic viticulture,” Tarolli told IE over email, “because of the significantly different climatic conditions in which it is practiced. However, heatwave intensification could be a critical issue in the future.” 

As an example, Tarolli cites Pantelleria island in Italy, where viticulture is practiced through agricultural terraces and head-trained bush vines and which is designated a UNESCO site of Intangible Cultural Heritage. But it is also where there is “a progressive abandonment of coastal zones due to temperature increase in favor of higher elevations zones where the climate is mitigated.”

And it’s not just rising temperatures having an effect, but disrupted water cycles, where prolonged droughts can be quickly followed by deluges that wash away vital topsoil that is increasingly hard to replace.

“Under the projection of progressive aridification of agricultural landscapes…it is imperative to adopt optimal and sustainable strategies for water resources management,” Tarolli said.

Farmers, even highly experienced viticulturists in a place like Italy, can only do so much on their own, and the problem of climate change and the ecological challenges it brings to these regions necessitate a much bigger political response than farmers have traditionally been able to muster.

“The effort of farmers itself is not enough under the actual intensification of climate change,” Tarolli emphasized. “On one hand, if sustainable practices are adopted, irrigation technology and rainwater facilities are implemented, and soil organic carbon is enriched, the entire agricultural system will be resilient, and the climate change impact could be mitigated,” he said. “On the other hand, heroic agriculture also needs clear, concrete, and constant political support in terms of special subsidies (e.g., promoting ad-hoc regulations and increasing rural development programs), as well as support in the dissemination and education.” 

And that is where the real-world trouble for heroic viticulture comes into sharper focus. As unique and worthy of support and preservation as this tradition might be, it is one of countless social, political, and economic traditions facing down the threat of climate change. What exactly makes heroic viticulture worth the expenditure of scarce resources when there are many others which are in just as much need of support?

“The message of our work is not saying that society needs to exclusively prioritize this sector of agriculture while not giving support to others” Tarolli said. “The message here is to highlight the unique relation among people, history, culture, tradition, agriculture, and landscape and the multiple risks of losing it if climate change mitigation action is not taken.” 

“The risk is not only to lose one ‘world-renowned wine’ and its market,” he added, “the risk is losing the multiple benefits of an entire sector, with cascade negative effects on an entire society: hotels, restaurants, workers, culture/museum sector, green tourism, cultural identity.”

New technologies

Are wines losing the battle against climate change?
Prof. Paolo Tarolli and students visiting Coffele wine farm in Soave’s traditional vineyards, in the north of Italy.

As the climate continues to change, the character of different regions is also in flux. Areas that once thrived are becoming desolate, and areas that were once inhospitable are becoming livable. Can viticulture take root in previously incompatible climates? Maybe, but something irreplaceable will still be lost along the way.

“Global warming will create conditions for the expansion of viticulture in new regions, [like the] south of Britain, Canada, or even Scandinavian countries,” Tarolli said. “There will be new identities in these regions in the following centuries, as is the natural evolution of man and landscape. However, ‘transferring’ a tradition with cultural roots and renowned landscape from one region to another will be impossible.”

To address the new challenges of heroic viticulture in the era of climate change, new technologies will need to be developed to adapt the land to the new reality, assuming that vineyards can still be cultivated as before.

“On the front of irrigation, there is room for improvement through advanced precision irrigation solutions,” Tarolli told me. “In addition, micro rainwater storages need to be implemented to maximize the water resource They have a low impact, and they are easy to design.

“If located adequately along the preferential flow path, they can collect rain from runoff events; that water then can be reused for emergency irrigation contributing to a more climate change-resilient agricultural system.”

The impact of economic changes

Are wines losing the battle against climate change?
Field survey with drone and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), soil erosion monitoring in Soave vineyard landscape, Italy.

It’s not just climate change that is transforming the landscape and threatening heroic viticulture. The economics of urbanization has also taken its toll, as fewer young people stay behind in rural areas to take up the farming traditions of their parents and grandparents.

“The problems are two-fold,” Tarolli said, “One, the modernization of our society with new job opportunities, and two, the growing effort (because of climate change pressure) in cultivating land under extreme conditions.”

Put simply, it’s a similar problem facing many rural communities in industrialized nations: it’s just too hard to keep up traditional farming practices in a changing climate when better economic opportunities can be found in cities. This problem can be mitigated as well, but it will require more than farmers themselves are able to manage.

“We can only remedy this by concretely supporting the younger generation, offering a good reason to stay [in these rural communities],” Tarolli said. “And this translates into capillary education about the importance of our rural roots and support through sustainable and mitigation action.”

The problem, of course, isn’t evenly distributed, with some less-renown wine regions seeing more younger people leaving than their more famous—and lucrative—counterparts.

“Indeed, the problem is that part of the young generation is not following the job of their parents,” Tarolli said. “In the case where the benefits [of staying] are clear, and there is a strong identity, the family (and the farm) is preserved. In several other cases, especially for those regions where the wine is not so competitive or famous, there is rural exodus and abandonment.”

Adapting to the new reality

For a tradition so steeped in overcoming adversity, heroic viticulture would seem to have a distinct advantage in the face of climate change, so is there anything to be learned about adaptability in the face of climate change that we can learn from heroic viticulture and the farmers that practice it?

“The lessons can be described as a sequence of keywords: adaptation, research and technology, community and political support, and education,” Tarolli emphasized.

That adaptability might require more of a transformation of the culture around heroic viticulture than simply introducing new techniques or technologies. It might involve recasting these regions as something other than the producers of wine in itself. Unfortunately, there’s little time left to figure out the right answer. 

“Farmers are historically resilient, and they can successfully adapt,” Tarolli said. “Humans are resilient, and science and technology can help in finding effective solutions. However, climate change is running too fast, thus it is imperative to act as soon as possible since the risk is not only to lose tradition but ourselves.”

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