Some of the world’s most celebrated wines – and the historic cultures of the communities which produce them – are under threat, scientists have warned.
The harvesting of grapes on steep slopes is known as “heroic” viticulture – named so for the difficulty in producing fruitful harvests on such challenging terrain, typically without the use of mechanised tools, and many such vineyards across Europe have been designated Unesco world heritage sites.
But researchers have warned that farmers and scientists must work together to protect this centuries-old tradition in the likes of Italy, Spain and Portugal, where climate change is threatening to disrupt the delicate equilibrium cultivated and maintained for generations.
Scientists set out their concerns in a paper last month published in the journal iScience, warning that soil degradation and drought – such as those which devastated swathes of Europe last year – are the most worrying risks posed by climate change.
Furthermore, the researchers from the University of Padova warned of a simultaneous threat posed by the “rural exodus and a gradual abandonment of mountain landscapes” which have “characterised” the past 50 years.
“The new generation is not attracted to continue working under extreme conditions if economic benefits are insignificant,” they wrote, and warned that the technological modernisation of society is “degrading” the rural cultural background of previous generations.
“The risk is not only losing an agricultural product or seeing a landscape change, negatively impacting the local economy,” said lead author Dr Paolo Tarolli and his co-writers. “The risk is losing entire communities’ history and their cultural roots.”
Vineyards are considered “heroic viticulture” sites if they have a slope steeper than 30 percent, are located on small islands or at an altitude higher than 500 metres above sea level, or if they incorporate vines grown on terraces – conditions key to developing the wines’ prized flavours.
Some of the most famous examples include the Prosecco Hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, Portugal’s Alto Douro region, and the Spanish Canary Islands.
The increased frequency of weather extremes driven by climate change accelerates soil degradation, the researchers warned, pointing to the ability of intense rainfall to “quickly trigger slope failures” without optimum water conservation processes.
Meanwhile, prolonged droughts can threaten already difficult and costly irrigation processes on such slopes.
“The key to success lies in combining the traditional knowledge of winemakers with innovation and scientific rigor,” the researchers said.
“In this way, farms can work closely with scientists to optimise investments for a more functional, sustainable, and safe agricultural landscape – a winning alliance to face these diverse natural and anthropogenic challenges.”
The warning came just days after researchers at the University of East Anglia and London School of Economics suggested that climate change is likely to increase the potential for UK wine production over the next two decades.
Wine growing conditions in parts of the UK could grow to resemble those in famous growing regions of France and Germany, they suggested, with new areas in England and Wales finding they are able to grow varieties rarely found at present, including still pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and riesling.
But, the study published in the journal OENO One also warned that British weather will remain unpredictable, and that producers will therefore need to remain “agile”.