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Irrigation at Paolo Scavino: confronting drought in Barolo

2022 was Italy’s driest recorded year since 1800, inducing the country’s worst drought for seventy years. Unusually high temperatures, scarce rainfall and limited winter alpine snowfall severely challenged Piedmontese farmers, who rely heavily on rivers, lakes and reservoirs; by July 2022, Piedmont’s water reserves were empty, and 170 municipalities were rationing drinking water. In Barolo, 13.57 inches of rain fell between January and October 2022, significantly below average, and the lowest regional rainfall since 2003. 2022’s scant rainfall was further compounded by various distinct factors; 2021 was much drier than 2002, the year’s final significant rainfall was recorded 9th December following four dry months; 2022 began dry, 111 days passed between 2021’s final significant rainfall and 2022’s first (30th March); temperatures during the first four months of 2022 were higher than 2003, exacerbating the dry first quarter. The average annual temperature was also much higher than in 2003; in 2022, average temperatures surpassed the 10-year average 103 times between May and August. 

Fortunately, drought in 2003 was followed by a wetter, cooler 2004, tempering regional concerns about prolonged drought and its impact on grapegrowing. Disturbingly, 2023 has not provided similar relief; the year’s first noteworthy rainfall (c. 50-70mm) came on May 1st, even later than in 2022. Despite judicious efforts to tailor vineyard management to favour water retention, reduce evaporation and protect vines, lack of rainfall between budburst and early shoot and leaf growth is a showstopper—equally, drought during flowering, fruit set, veraison, and berry ripening is a significant challenge. Most notably, drought can delay or inhibit budburst; impair pollen viability, decrease pollen tube growth, and interfere with fertilisation, resulting in reduced yields; reduce canopy development and leaf coverage, increasing sunburn risk; alter berry composition, including increasing tannin concentration and reducing polymerisation (more condensed tannins) leading to greater astringency; compromise a grapevines natural defences, making it more susceptible to infections; and ultimately, can cause grapevines to limit or halt their growth entirely due to the closure of stomata

Seven days before 2022’s first meaningful rainfall, I followed Isabella Oddero and Luca Veglio through Bricco Rocche to Villero and Fiasco; our cars disturbed the parched, arid land, leaving large, engulfing plumes of hazy dust in their path. In the vineyard, the dry, fissured earth was concrete underfoot, making infiltration difficult for any expectant rain. Three days later, Caterina Burzi hastened me to slow down driving through Boiolo toward La Serra, concerned that similar dust clouds were covering nearby vines and vineyard workers. From atop La Serra, Barolo’s scorched landscape was tinted by a parched ochre hue, and distinctly less vegetation than is typical of March. “After almost 45 harvests, my father cannot remember a year like this [2022]’ remarked Lorenzo Scavino Azelia. Two months ago, and again two weeks later, I witnessed the same dust clouds erupting from trails segueing vineyards on Barolo’s ochre-hued landscape as I had the year before. Facing consecutive dry, warm vintages, some winemakers are considering more dramatic, demanding and controversial responses.

Irrigation at Paolo Scavino

Following two troublesome, drought-stricken vintages, Enrico Scavino, and his daughters Enrica and Elisa, are trialling irrigation. ‘Last year some shoots did not reach even a third of our trellis height’ Elisa worriedly recalled when I interviewed her in April, ‘and this year, many of our vines have not produced a second shoot’. Stunted growth and hampered productivity aside, the families most pressing concern is the survival of their treasured old vines, particularly those in steeper, drier parcels. Their foray into irrigation has not been without costs, challenges and complexity, first being finding a viable, permitted water source. 

While the Consorzio has previously allowed producers to water new plantings (it has recently extended this permission to irrigation in ‘emergency circumstances’), it has been forbidden to do this using water from shared, local sources. Additionally, Italian water infrastructure is generally poor—running water was not commonplace in Langhe until 1991, resulting from a project spearheaded by Giacomo Oddero—so, finding a viable water source is not straightforward. The Scavino’s eventually decided to drill their own well using a stirrup drill, which utilises a large rotating drill bit, surprisingly even at 6-7m depth the family only found dry earth. After drilling, they then had to find a pump which could be submerged the depth of the well and fill the 100hl tractor-attached water tank used to transport water from the well to selected vineyards, which are spread across the Scavino’s holdings, including Fiasco, Monvigliero, Rocche di Castiglione, and Rocche dell’Annunziata, totalling four hectares of their thirty-hectare estate. Nevertheless, pumping and filling the 100hl tractor still takes two days, and manoeuvring steep vineyards in a laden tractor can be difficult and risky.

There are various ways to implement irrigation, flood, furrow and overhead irrigation apply large volumes of water and are generally not suitable for quality-orientated winegrowing—overabundant available water encourages unwanted vegetative vigour. Instead, the Scavino’s opted for drip irrigation, which involves installing tubing with emitters on the ground or alongside a growing vine which emit small amounts of water over a limited time, simulating light rain. All this comes at significant cost, ‘I’m crossing my finger the investment is a waste’ Elisa remarks, reflecting on the cost of piping, emitters and installation. 

After installing drip irrigation, vigneron need to decide when to irrigate and how much water to apply. At Paolo Scavino, timing and volume decisions are based on experience, observation and operational practicality. Currently, vineyard workers rotate through selected vineyards sequentially, irrigating each once every two weeks and applying roughly 12-15 litres of water per vine. ‘We are still learning, we are watching the results, Elisa admits. Albeit more costly, there are supplementary tools available to apply water more precisely, as well as ample research and experienced growers in warmer climates making fine wine from irrigated vineyards. At Ridge, vineyard managers observe soil moisture sensors, sap-flow sensor sleeves, and above-canopy sensors compared to the vapour-pressure deficit, to precisely tailor irrigation. Data from these sensors reduces wasted water and gives vines what they need for optimal growth. Nevertheless, irrigation appears to be working at Scavino, ‘we can see a difference in vegetation and shoot length’ explains Elisa. 

Unchartered territory

Irrigation is not without controversy, particularly in mainland Europe, where it is commonly associated with high yields and simple wines. Many Europeans wine regions have gone as far to enshrine this distaste in their appellation rules, banning producers from irrigating if they wish to label their wine with a given appellation or denomination. Some commentators even portentously argue that irrigation disrupts ‘terroir expression’, erases vintage variation and homogenises wine style, others still erroneously argue that irrigation forecloses producing fine wine. More seriously, irrigation does present significant environmental and ecological hazard, as well as placing serious strain on dwindling water resources. Considering Barolo’s limited water reserves, Scavino’s method is probably unscalable, not least because it would require many scattered wells and a vast fleet of gas-guzzling tractors transporting tanks of water via Barolo’s narrow, winding roads, paths and tracks. Finally, some Piedmontese producers have argued that rushing to irrigate is ‘kneejerk’, and that less ‘problematic’ practices (cultivating soil before winter precipitation, promoting cover crop to reduce evaporation, improving soil management for water retention, and extensive shoot thinning for optimising water use) ought to be explored first. Importantly, the two are not mutually exclusive.

It’s not clear why Barolo has had such limited rainfall since 2020, nor whether this disturbing trend portends ongoing strife. Nevertheless, if it does, warmer winters, dwindling snowfall and increasing summer temperatures will continue to induce and exacerbate drought. Whilst grapevines are remarkably adaptable, with deep roots that can tolerate some hydric stress, Piedmontese farmers are in unchartered territory, which may well continue or worsen. ‘We would rather be prepared for any future than be too late’ Elisa asserts, elaborating on Scavino’s multifaceted approach to tackling drought, which combines nascent irrigation trials and revised, innovative vineyard practices. So, whilst it’s unlikely that irrigation need ever be a permanent feature in Barolo’s vineyards, costly, arduous experiments like these add to the collective capability to respond should the need ever materialise; other winemakers might eventually benefit greatly from today’s ongoing investment at Paolo Scavino. I for one, will be watching with great interest.

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