What If Every New Year Is The Hottest on Record? Spanish Winemakers Confront Drought Conditions

Wine

Perhaps no European wine nation has been hit as hard by climate change this decade as Spain. Last year raised the stakes: January through April of 2023 brought the driest start to a year on the Iberian peninsula since the 1960s, and winemakers across the nation battled to save the vintage. Catalonia and Andalusia were hit particularly hard.

Now, vintners are hoping for a better year but also strategizing on how they can protect future crops.

Plummeting Harvests

Catalonia’s Penedès region, a leading source of Cava, has been particularly impacted by the compounded droughts. Vins El Cep, a midsized Cava producer there that’s owned by four families, has seen its losses mount. In 2021, El Cep lost 5 percent to 10 percent of its average crop. In 2022, it lost 25 percent to 50 percent. In 2023, along with being forced to harvest in July (instead of late August or early September), it lost at least 50 percent of its total crop, and some of its vineyards saw a loss of 70 percent.

“In 2020, we had two times the rain [compared to] a normal year, which was followed by three years of drought,” said Roger Canals Marlès, the winery’s sales manager. “So it’s not just that every year can have drought; it’s also that every year has had a lot of instability.” Canals says the last four years have been incredibly unpredictable for wineries in the region.

Because of how detrimental the droughts have been to certain grape varieties, the team at El Cep has been experimenting with new blends to add freshness and acidity. Canals said that the Parellada grape was less affected by the drought than other grapes, so the winemaking team has been using it more often to maintain the crisp vibrance that their customers expect in their wines.

Vins El Cep farms old vines with deep roots that can handle drought better, but they may die if conditions do not improve in 2024.

Emotional Drought

The weather has also inflicted emotional strain. Maite Esteve, CEO and partner at El Cep, has been working at the company for more than 30 years. She feels an intense responsibility for the health of the winegrowers they buy from and the vines themselves.

Some of El Cep’s vines were planted by her grandfather; losing them comes at a high personal cost. When asked how she’s been handling the onslaught, she said that she feels the suffering of the plants. She also feels proud of the wine quality they were able to achieve despite the challenges, but stressed about the future.

“I’m also a little angry,” said Esteve. “We [at Vins El Cep] arrived at the perfect moment; we worked hard to get here. My dream is to make good wine with a great team, and I have it all, but now we have this problem with the climate.”

Changing Cellar Techniques

Earlier in 2023, Catalonia declared that the 24 municipalities in the region were in a drought emergency due to the lack of rain. “I have friends that have seen 60 percent less production,” said Lucy Chilvers, the founder of Lucy Chilvers Wine, a small wine brand based in the region. “I have had 50 percent less this year. Someone else has lost one of their vineyards completely because their vines had no roots [after they shriveled].”

Droughts not only affect the timing of harvests but also the flavor, acidity and potential alcohol levels of different grape varieties. Chilvers had to harvest her Merlot first this year because the acidity dropped, the pH rose dramatically and the potential alcohol level was on the verge of becoming unmanageably high. She takes a low-intervention approach to winemaking, which can be even more challenging when there’s an extreme lack of water. Some days, she and her team would harvest grapes in 104° F temperatures, which made the skins more fragile and the grapes more viscous.

 The abandoned village of Aceredo sits on the bottom of a drained resrvoir in Galcia, Spain.

The village of Aceredo in Galicia, submerged since a reservoir was built in 1992, has been revealed as the drought drains the waters. (Rui Almeida Fotografia/Getty)

Vineyards Dying

Victoria Sánchez and Nahuel Ibarra are the owners of Pequeños y Salvajes, a small family-owned winery in El Barraco in La Sierra de Gredos, a mountainous region about two hours outside of Madrid, where they do everything themselves, from pruning the vines to bottling and marketing. This year brought both drought and hail.

“In 2019, we would harvest at the end of August or the beginning of September, but this year we started our harvest at the end of July,” said Sánchez. “Climate change has made a big difference for us. Three months before the harvest, we had a hailstorm on one of our plots that is 500 meters higher than our other vineyards. We lost 30 percent of our grapes from that plot.”

All things considered, Victoria and Nahuel are proud of what they were able to accomplish in 2023, though they are concerned about the effects of the drought on the 2024 harvest. “I think the problems are coming now, in the new year. We will see if some of our vines are dry or dead or if they can continue living. We harvested 25 percent less this year because of the drought. It was horrible.”

 The Muga family stands in the courtyard of their winery.

The Muga family has been making wine in Rioja since 1932, but is now adapting to never-before-seen climactic conditions. (Abel Valdenebro)

Working to Adapt

Isaac Muga Palacín, technical director of Bodegas Muga in Rioja, says that Spain’s most well-known wine region has not escaped the onslaught of heat over the past few years. “In the history of Rioja, there have always been years of drought; but with the intensity of these last two years, [this] is something never seen before,” said Muga.

Rioja faced not only extreme heat through August and September but also tumultuous rains later in September. This one-two punch caused many of the vineyards that were already struggling to sustain their grapes to then grapple with mold and rot because of the unexpected moisture.

Although climate change has caused chaos in the wine industry in Rioja, Muga and his team have found a thin silver lining. They noticed that the vineyards stationed in higher altitudes of Rioja Alta were able to retain more water, producing higher-quality grapes.

Bodegas Muga is also involved in I+D+I projects (also known as the RDI Network), a multilevel strategic network that supports research, development and innovation throughout Spain. The winery is contributing to research in areas such as selecting more drought-resistant vines that can maintain their grapes’ quality. These collaborations will take time before they produce results, however, and time is a resource that many wineries do not have if conditions continue to rapidly worsen.


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