Last week, leading Italian wine writer Pietro Stara published this op-ed by Fattoria dei Barbi owner and winemaker Stefano Cinelli Colombini on his popular blog Vino e Storia (Wine and History).
We are pleased to present this English-language translation here. Translation by our blogmaster.
Is the climate changing? Haven’t you heard the big news?
In Roman times, it was so hot that there were vines growing in York. But by the year 406, it was so cold that the Rhine froze over making it possible for the Vandals to cross with their heavy wagons. By the Middle Ages, the now frozen Greenland was so temperate that it was already known as green land. Hot and cold, floods and droughts have always followed one another, with cycles that we only partially understand.
And there is humankind. We’re great at destroying things. And we may have even changed the climate.
I really can’t say for certain whether or not this is the case. But I do know that constant, unpredictable changes are the norm. And anyone involved in farming is aware of that. Unfortunately, our mental horizon is based on our all-too-brief lifespan and not on history. That’s the reason we grow things based on what just happened yesterday. The problem is that a vine planted today will bear fruit for 20 or 30 years. And by that time, everything will be different.
But it’s not just the climate that’s changing. Consumers’ tastes are changing as well. And that means that the grape grower needs to be flexible and pragmatic. In this industry, there’s no room for improvisation or high-browed ideology — except during brief periods when times are good. Those times are fleeting. Two difficult vintages, 2014 and 2017, tell us that we are at the end of one of those good times because two challenging harvest over the course of four years make for a stress test that has eaten up all of our reserves. Few grape growers can withstand another bad harvest. But it’s still possible that it could happen.
What does this all mean? In my view, we need to completely get over our “success hangover.” We’ve been deceiving ourselves in recent years as we’ve tried to reconcile our existing vineyards (the ones that we live on today) with our production costs and market demands. But we also need to take into account extreme vintages like 2014 and 2017. And we need to hurry up because our reserves are gone and any one of these three urgent issues could do us in.
Is it going to be easy? By no means but what choice do we have? I don’t want to make a list of the cons in this situation because there are just too many of them and it would be a waste of time.
What I can tell you is what I’ve learned over two tough harvests like 2014 and 2017. First of all, we need to rethink our training systems in the vineyards. The vine is a malleable plant and this means that it can be modified, even radically, with limited cost. During the excessive rainfall of 2014 and the drought of 2017, vineyards with a density of 3,000-4,000 plants per hectare and traditional cordone speronato or cordone libero training were the ones that withstood the challenging conditions the best. And this was especially true for the vines with the highest canes. They were easier for vineyard workers to manage and it kept the fruit away from animals and from the humidity in the soil.
In my view, we should take another look at all the other training systems, like Guyot, head training, and vineyards with extremely high density, like those planted with 6,000 vines per hectare or more. They all require anywhere from 500 to 1,000 human hours per year per hectare. They don’t deliver better quality. And they don’t offer enough shading (except for head trained vineyards) to make them safer from vine disease. When affected by disease, they are subject to heavy, repeated spraying. They aren’t sustainable, no matter how you look at it. Yes to chemicals, no to chemicals. Organic, biodynamic, or “natural”? You can do whatever you like but you need to remember that the goal of grape growing is to produce fruit every year. Viticulture always needs to be sustainable and it needs to come with costs that will align with the pocketbooks of the end consumer.
Too many chemicals, vineyards that run from the top of the hill to the bottom, areas susceptible to erosion, and excessive tilling can be devastating because they can’t be maintained over time. But it’s equally destructive to adopt a “do it yourself” attitude, when you kid yourself that all you need is your own experience or that of your friends who have also failed to consult the right studies. We are never going to build a future by ignoring science and scientists. Nor can we build a future by believing that we can’t do anything about these problems. When you really think about it, the idea of eliminating all chemicals becomes a mere trend. Or worse, it become an immovable ideology that helps only those who subscribe to it.
It’s just not sustainable.
What grape varieties should you use? Use whatever grapes you want but be careful: Sangiovese, Trebbiano, and our other indigenous grapes have evolved over time in Italy’s dry climate. The great international grape varieties, on the other hand, come from France where it’s much more rainy. It’s true that the berries are larger and they are more resistant to humidity. But the problem here is the almost constant lack of water and not the excess of water (except for certain areas, of course). That’s why at least one in three vintages have problems in central and southern Italy.
The risks are acceptable only when they represent a small percentage of the estate’s entire land under vine. But if you have too many vineyards with varieties that aren’t suitable to the climate, it still won’t cost you too much to replant part of your holdings.
And what about in the winery? Today, our grapes are healthier than ever before, the harvests are faster, and the harvests arrive in the best period of the year for ripening. And the harvests are healthier than ever. As a result, there’s less need to use chemicals.
My feeling is that we should look to physics with more temperature control, more dry ice, more automated pumping over, and more machines in the cellar.
More enological science, more mechanization. This would give cellar workers more time to give the fruit the maniacal care it needs when it arrives at the winery and when it is fermented. That’s the key moment. Over the course of just a few short days in the cellar, the quality of the wine is determined.
Amphoras, unlined cement tanks, fermenting casks? They are pretty nifty but they cost a lot. In my experience, they do more to help bolster your relationship with wine writers than they do to help the quality of the wine.
Genetically altered vines that are resistant to drought and don’t need to be sprayed? It’s an interesting idea. It’s worth trying but we need to see if it works and what the resulting wines taste like. The clients might like it. And if we don’t try, we’ll never know. But until you can show me that it really works, I’m not giving up on the Sangiovese that I make my living from.
We need to remember that it takes a half century to transform a vineyard in Tuscany. If we don’t resolve the problems we face, will we ever even get that far? Drip irrigation? God willing! But it takes a long time to get anything done, bureaucratically speaking, that is. Tuscany has passed a law requiring that reservoirs be no more than two meters in depth and no more than 5,000 cubic meters. And they passed the law during the driest year in memory! A reservoir like that is great for ducklings. But when it comes to irrigation, it’s a joke! What’s the point? I’m not sure but there’s no getting around it.
Stefano Cinelli Colombini
Fattoria dei Barbi