Some of Europe’s most cherished wines, including the beloved Prosecco, are at risk of disappearing due to the impacts of climate change, according to a recent study titled “Heroic viticulture: Environmental and socioeconomic challenges of unique heritage landscapes”. These wines, deeply intertwined with the cultural heritage of the regions that produce them, face dwindling grape yields and increasing fragility.
The study, conducted by a research group from the University of Padova, highlights the dire situation facing Prosecco and other celebrated European wines, shedding light on the precarious state of the viticultural landscapes where they thrive.
The risk is not only losing an agricultural product or seeing a landscape change, negatively impacting the local economy. The risk is losing entire communities’ history and their cultural roots.Dr. Paolo Tarolli, lead author
Prosecco, a sparkling white wine cultivated in the mountainous vineyards of Italy, is particularly vulnerable. The wine’s unique flavor profile is derived from the floral and fruity, yet acidic Glera grapes and their cultivation at high-altitudes, where they are exposed to ample sunlight yet protected from excessive heat, producing a distinct taste. However, these steep, mountainous vineyards, designated as “heroic viticulture”, are facing severe challenges.
“Heroic viticulture” refers to vineyards that are characterized by conditions that are difficult to work with, such as slopes steeper than 30%, high altitudes, small islands, or terraced landscapes. The term “heroic” is used because growing grapes in such conditions is arduous and labor-intensive, requiring significant effort and dedication from winegrowers. Europe, notably Italy, is home to numerous such vineyards, including the renowned Prosecco Hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change, pose a significant threat to Prosecco production and “heroic viticultures” in general. Intense rainfall can lead to rapid soil erosion and “slope failures” on the steep terrains, endangering the grape harvest. Moreover, prolonged droughts make irrigation on these slopes exceedingly challenging, leading to smaller yields.
This year, Prosecco producers grappled with a tumultuous climate, experiencing heavy spring rainfall, hailstorms, and a scorching summer. The unpredictable weather patterns, driven by climate change, are estimated to reduce Italian wine grape harvests by up to a fifth.
The demand for Prosecco is surging, increasing by more than 33% in five years, surpassing the growth rate of French Champagne, which grew by just 1% during the same period. However, the labor-intensive nature of grape cultivation on high-altitude slopes, combined with demographic changes and rural depopulation, has led to a labor shortage in winemaking. Moreover, “the new generation is unwilling to continue working under extreme conditions if economic benefits are insignificant”, Dr Tarolli explained.
These areas represent a profound connection between humans and the environment, recognized as cultural treasures of historical and social significance. Preserving these landscapes is not only essential from a cultural standpoint but also economically crucial, particularly in mountainous regions where heroic viticulture can bolster local economies and discourage land abandonment.
Prosecco is not alone in facing climate-related threats to agriculture. Across the globe, crops such as rice in northern Italy and olive oil in Spain, UK have experienced dramatic yield reductions, battling with changing environmental conditions. Approximately 8% of the world’s farmland could become unsuitable for agriculture if global warming reaches 1.5°C, as alerted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
To safeguard these invaluable landscapes, the study suggests that policymakers and governments must enact clear non-structural measures and guidelines. This includes fostering competitive marketing networking and prioritizing education to instill in future generations the importance of rural communities, cultural heritage preservation, environmental equilibrium and sustainable agricultural practices. Balancing traditional wisdom with innovative, scientifically informed practices is crucial to ensuring the continued existence of the cherished beverages and the communities they represent in the face of evolving natural and anthropogenic challenges, the study suggests.