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Viticulture in Piedmont: optimism and adaptation in the face of a changing climate

In years gone by Piedmontese farmers could expect at best, two great vintages in a decade. The years spanning 1940 to late 1970 were challenging. But the climate is changing, Silvia Altare tells me the region faces more sudden, dramatic weather and a general shift toward less and less normality. Despite frost in late April 2017, Barolo saw the hottest summer of the last 150 years. Hail storms, having typically been common in summer, now crop up in Spring and Fall. Despite this, the vigneron remain both positive and optimistic. The Langhe people are resilient, over the years much has changed, now more than ever they demonstrate their hardy nature. With the help of some of the regions most lauded producers, I explore viticulture in Piedmont, discovering how they are working with the vine through a changing climate.

Although sharing similar latitude with Bordeaux, Piedmont has a colder, continental winter climate, and significantly lower rainfall. This is in part due to the rain shadow effect of the alps, which almost encircle the hilly region. To some extent Piedmont has a microclimate of its own. The growing season can be very hot, a stop for refreshment at Koki wine bar in the midst of summer is almost essential under the blaring sun. The often warm summer is then followed by a misty autumn and a cold, foggy winter. The region experiences a relatively broad diurnal temperature variation throughout the growing season. Generally speaking, Barbaresco is a little warmer than Barolo with the vineyards often lower, it is also much closer to the Tanaro river than Barolo and as such experiences its effect more profoundly.

Whilst the region champions a number of varieties, Nebbiolo is the most spectacular, ethereal and capable of producing truly profound wine. The variety is one of the first to bud and last to ripen, with harvest taking place in mid to late October. It can be a difficult grape to grow, it is light skinned, leaving it susceptible to coulure, especially if there is wet weather during budbreak or flowering. It also often succumbs to hail, frost and other climatic hazards. To aid in ripening, producers will often plant Nebbiolo in the most favoured sites on south and southwestern facing slopes, which give the grape more access to direct sunlight.

Changing climate and conditions

Agriculture is uniquely exposed to climate change, Jancis Robinson points to global warming as having helped deliver a consecutive run of great vintages in both Barolo and Barbaresco. Concomitantly, Ian D’Agata, Scientific Director of Vinitaly, is trepidatious. D’Agata notes that great sites such as Rabaja, which have previously been favoured for their exposure, now face challenges. In warm years, such as 2003, the grapes are overripe, they lose their charm, and are disappointing by Rabaja’s standards.

Despite this, there is much optimism ‘global warming, so far, has been merciful to us in Barolo‘ tells Silvia, she points to only 2002 and 2014 as notably challenging vintages in the last 20 years, the rest on average ranging from good to outstanding.

Sun blaring on Sori San Lorenzo

Whereas previously seasons have been fairly predictable, with vigneron able to forecast and prepare appropriately, this is less often the case. ‘The weather has changed, we are losing seasons’ Claudia Cigliuti tells me. The new normal is an absence of normality. Piedmont now experiences long and severe periods of draught, these draughts are often followed by heavy rain. ‘Rains sometimes come almost like tropical storms, which are totally unusual for us, and they do not allow water to penetrate the soil, they create problems of erosion‘ explains Isabella Oddero. Soil erosion is a shared concern, this heavy rain is troubling for Giuseppe Vivalda, Vineyard Manager at Bruno Giacosa, who shares these anxieties. Heavy rain falling in short periods of time results in soil erosion which depletes soil fertility, draining essential nutrients, and causing damage in the fields. In a hilly region such as the Langhe, intense downpours can create considerable concern in the vineyard.

Hail nets and muddy soil in Cannubi

Winter has gotten both warmer and drier, vegetative growth is beginning around 2 weeks earlier. In recent years it has snowed less frequently and less heavily, ‘winter 2019 it basically didn’t snow nor rain and it was unusually warm’ says Silvia, who also points to unpredictable hail storms throughout the growing cycle.

In spite of premature growth, extreme temperatures and volatile meteorological events, the best producers in both Barolo and Barbaresco are able to retain both freshness and elegance in their wines. Achieving optimum ripeness can be challenging, particularly in late-ripening varieties like Nebbiolo. In particularly warm summers, sugar ripeness can peak before phenolic ripeness is achieved. In the lightly-coloured, tannic and intensely perfumed Nebbiolo, lack of phenolic ripeness can be distinctly problematic. As is the case in many grape-growing regions, the Piedmontese lean toward a philosophy of minimal intervention, particularly in the winery. In order to maintain continuity and balance they must adapt the way they work the land to compensate for challenging climatic conditions.

Adaptation in the vineyards

As grapes ripen sugars accumulate and acid levels fall, balance between sugar (potential alcohol level) and acids is considered one of the most critical aspects of producing quality wine. In regions where warming is an issue, there has been a tendency to pick earlier in order to avoid excessive alcohol and inadequate acidity. However, picking earlier may result in inadequate phenolic ripeness. Ruinart’s Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaïotis has shown that picking early, based on sugar ripeness, can result in a failure to achieve aromatic maturation. Picking date was a defining factor in the 2018 Burgundy vintage, a particularly warm vintage encouraged some to pick too early, where this was the case the finished wines felt incomplete.

Picking ‘early’ ought to be an exception; ‘as a woman is pregnant for 9 months, delivering a baby earlier is a possibility, but it’s to be considered an exception, same for the Nebbiolo variety’ explains Silvia. At Elio Altare, achieving balance in warmer vintages consists of a shift in the way fruit is picked. Traditionally, grapes intended for still wine are picked during a single pass of a particular plot, this is both practical and economical. Where necessary, she now opts for 2 or even 3 harvests of the same plot: the first pass achieving fresher/higher acidity, the second perfect maturity and additional richness with the third. Once the three passes are complete, they are blended, the result is a ‘perfect’ balanced juice. This method is resource and capital intensive, demonstrating a measured and unique commitment to balance and expression.

Much can be achieved in the vineyard with appropriate and suitable canopy management. In Burgundy, Christopher Roumier opts to trellis higher in order to increase shading. In Australia, shade treatment is used to reduce cell death and loss of berry mass in Shiraz. ‘There is no standardisation in our practices but a total personalisation from vineyard to vineyard’ says Isabella. An increasingly unpredictable climate makes managing Piedmonts varying mesoclimates a challenge. At Oddero, precision and care is taken to carry out pruning and canopy management plot by plot dependent on the needs of each. In some vineyards the trellis is raised as to achieve greater leaf coverage toward the top. This is not specifically to encourage more shading, instead it delays the first topping and reduces the total number of passages and consecutive cuts required. By doing this one can avoid disrupting the plants hormonal signalling and support vine health. At Oddero, three times the number of people now work in the vineyards than has been previously required.

Vines at Oddero (Credit Clay McLachlan)

At Cigliuti, changes in vineyard management are most prevalent in summertime. ‘We green prune strongly in this period, leaving a little more vegetation in June/July in the areas most exposed, we also remove more suckers toward the back of the rows, where there is more shade’ Claudia tells me. Green pruning is a crucial practice if vines are to resist summers of heat and drought. The goal here is to eliminate a proportion of the buds in order to ease the burden of the vine. Standard practise is to eliminate those buds which do not possess nascent grapes and those which do not leave the main trunk. The objective is to leave only the vegetation defined during winter pruning and increase canopy porosity.

At Bruno Giacosa, Giuseppe tells me there is a focus on supporting vine health through canopy management. ‘We avoid cutting too much. We use a soft pruning, removing the more damaged parts of the vine, in this way the vines live longer and are healthier‘. For each variety pruning starts with older vines which are less vigorous and then younger vines which are more vigorous. When the shoots are cut, they lift and widen the trimmer, taking care never to cut in the same place twice, instead always where the new growth is. The intention is to avoid trimming the older shoots and causing damage to the vines. The last trim takes place when the vines have grown, creating a sort of hat on the top of the rows, assisting with shading where necessary. This is particularly the case for the Nebbiolo, where defoliation is never performed.

Soil erosion is a natural process, it is necessary over time to form land. However, rapid erosion of the top soil caused by profuse and unexpected periods of rain leaches nutrients from the soil, decreasing soil productivity and over time permanently eroding channels and fracturing farmland. The rate of erosion is sensitive to climate, periods of intense drought leave soil particularly vulnerable. When this drought is followed by heavy rain the erosion rate is significantly increased. The Langhe’s steep hills and sandy soils, which are prone to leaching, mean that the region is particularly vulnerable to issues associated with erosion. In light of recent climate change erosion has become evermore challenging.

‘The methods of work that we have changed in the vineyards are concentrated on the land, due to the problems connected to erosion and drought’ Giuseppe explains. During Spring and Summer the grass is mown with a lawn trimmer, this forms a layer of mulch which reduces both soil and water loss. Despite some uncertainties about how to maximise the effectiveness of mulching, it has been shown to be an effective tool in reducing soil erosion and improving drought resistance. Mulching protects against erosion by keeping the surface of the soil more permeable, meaning less volatile and persistent runoff. It also helps to shade the soil, keeping it cooler, which in turn helps to reduce water loss. In the near future the estate plans to introduce rollers which will squash the grass rather than cut it, the aim being that the effect of mulching is prolonged.

Dense cover crop at Odder (Credit Clay McLachlan)

The estate has not used herbicide for a number of years in order to encourage biodiversity and improve soil fertility. For the past few years, weather permitting, they have planted cover crop consisting of a mix of 12 different plants including cereals, legumes and brassicaceae. This mix of seeds supports the soils natural nutritional balance and is tailored to each sites specific requirements. In the less fertile soil a larger portion of legumes are used. Legume crops fix soil nitrogen via nodulation and are a core component in the nitrogen cycle. For more fertile soil a larger portion of cereals is used, this reduces the vigour of the vines. In the more balanced soils a mix of all 12 plants is used. Cover crop not only improves soil fertility, mitigating the impact of erosion, but the plants roots also have an anchoring effect on the soil which reduces the rate of erosion.

Biodiversity is also championed at Oddero where they have been trialling some biodynamic practices to support soil fertility. ‘Healthy soil is the first element to protect the plants and to help them to face new challenges in climatic conditions’ Isabella explains. The aim is to oxygenate the soil, in a similar fashion to Giuseppe, Isabella plants a mix of different seeds and herbs in order to strengthen and promote biodiversity.

Biodiversity at Oddero (Credit Clay McLachlan)

This work is a wonderful coalescence of practises which together not only promote biodiversity but collectively form a natural combatant to a range of climatic challenges, helping protect the soil and strengthen the plants ability to survive challenging conditions.

Hail is a major concern for winemakers, this year in Bordeaux vast swaths of vineyards were damaged by violent hail storms which tear the skin of berries. Hail storms have become more frequent and unpredictable in the Langhe. ‘We have hail nets on all our rented and owned vineyards since 2003’ Silvia tells me. These hail nets serve 3 functions: they protect from hail of course, provide shade to the fruit zone and support the shoots to grow straight and uniformly. Interestingly, the last time I was in the region there was talk that UNESCO (part of the Langhe is a World Heritage site) were concerned regarding the aesthetics of hail nets.

Looking to the future

Whilst firmly respecting tradition the winemakers of the Langhe recognise the value technology can add to their work in the vineyard. ‘We have technology to support us: we now know when/if it’s going to rain or snow, we can track temperatures, and whenever necessary we can possibly run for cover’ jokes Silvia. Sensors are also used at Oddero where they help to monitor humidity levels and temperatures in different plots. This proactive approach allows winemakers to tailor their work in the vineyard on a site by site basis, giving them increased ability to find balance and expression through turbulent times.

Serraboella from the tasting room at Cigliuti

As the Langhe’s climate continues to shift, site selection for future plantings will play a pivotal role in mitigating the impact of warming. Sites which had previously been considered not ideal for ripening Nebbiolo, may prove useful, particularly for Langhe Nebbiolo. In the Mosel, Ernie Loosen is selecting rows further up his slopes for production of dry Riesling, this has helped in particularly well-exposed warm sites.

The spirit amongst these vigneron is one of optimism and positivity, they embody the very nature of what makes agriculture and wine so dynamic and exciting. Claudia tells me she believes climate change thus far is manageable, Isabella expresses a continued desire to express place ‘We would like that our wines are a genuine expression of the varietal characteristics and of the typicality of our terroir‘. It is this desire to showcase the Langhe which fuels their dedication and the continued production of some of the most hauntingly beautiful wines on Earth.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Valerie Quintanilla

    Great read, Josh. One thing I’ve found particularly interesting is the shifting ‘top crus’ due to climate change. Cannubi will likely never lose its luster for Barolo-lovers, but people are now paying attention to other crus, like Villero, Monvigliero, and more. And, while it is true that climate change has dramatically affected harvest times, I also found it quite interesting when a producer one day pointed out you have to also consider that green harvest, vineyard selection, and overall yield management has become the standard. When yields weren’t managed due to more of a focus on quantity, naturally harvest finished much later. Can’t wait to have you back here!

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