The other day I was reading the paper in the bar next door to my house. The following headline caught my eye: ‘The maximum temperature in La Rioja will increase six degrees at the end of the century, the same as the rest of Spain’. One of my buddies, a journalist who writes about wine, dismissed the article as filler in a month when not much else was happening.
This comment got me thinking about the potential consequences for the Rioja wine business as well as the nonchalant attitude of most people in the trade around here to climate change, an attitude that was familiar to me when I was director of the exporters’ association.
I looked around in the internet for a chart showing grapes and temperature that I had seen at a presentation in South America. When I found it, my suspicions were confirmed: a big increase in temperature meant that in the future, Rioja could be too warm for the tempranillo grape. According to this chart, tempranillo is one of the few grapes that seems to thrive in cooler climates, with pinot noir being the coolest. There are a number of varietals that like warmer weather than tempranillo (cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, garnacha, carignan (our mazuelo), zinfandel and nebbiolo.
I’m not an agronomist, but it seems to me that Rioja has several alternatives if the temperature really does increase:
- Plant at higher altitude
- Pick earlier
- More leaf canopy to protect the vines from the sun
- Authorize new red varietals such as the ones suggested in the chart
In my opinion, these changes are possible as long as the future Rioja Regulatory Council recognizes that a problem exists. However, Spain is a nation of followers rather than leaders. One of Spain’s greatest philosophers, Miguel de Unamuno, summed this attitude up with his famous phrase “que inventen ellos” (let others invent). My tenure as the director of the exporters’ association was sometimes frustrating because of the wineries’ and growers’ reluctance to look ahead, preferring to wait until reaching the point of no return to make decisions.
I think that in the last ten years, Rioja has actually benefited from warmer weather – a longer growing season that has produced fully ripe grapes, even in Rioja Alta and Alavesa, where in the past, potential alcohol often only reached 9%, and the relative absence of spring frost. However, the newspaper article leads me to believe that this positive trend could turn negative if the temperature continues to rise. I hope the right decisions are made before it’s too late.