Scorching Heat and Wildfires Worry European Winemakers

In wine regions across the continent, spring was dry and summer has brought record temperatures, shrinking the potential harvest and sparking wildfires

Scorching Heat and Wildfires Worry European Winemakers
Firefighters battle a raging wildfire in the woodlands near Avila, to the northwest of Madrid. (Getty Images)

Víctor Urrutia has been closely following the wildfires raging across different parts of Spain this summer. He has to—he's the co-owner, with his sister María, of estates in five Spanish wine regions, including the historic CVNE (Compania Vinicola del Norte de España) winery in Rioja.

As Europe has experienced one of its hottest summers on record, Spain has grappled with dozens of wildfires throughout the country. The northeastern wine-producing region of Navarra was stricken in June. In recent weeks regions on the western border with Portugal and to the south have been battling blazes, including Galicia in the northwest, down to Castilla y León and Extremadura, as well as parts of Andalucia, in the south.

"I checked with Agroseguro (an organization that manages agricultural insurance in Spain) and a lot of [wineries] haven't declared their fires yet," said Urrutia. Wildfires recently blazed through his Virgen del Galir property in the Valdeorras region of Galicia. "So far [Agroseguro has had claims] in Valdeorras, Ribera Sacra and Monterrei—those three in Galicia—and Navarra. According to them, the hardest hit to date has been Navarra."

Urrutia reports that wildfires have consumed more than 12,000 acres in Valdeorras, although the vast majority of it was forests. He lost 12 of Virgen del Galir's 98 acres to the flames.

"We're still assessing [the damage], because the thing about these fires is that they're extremely fast. And we don't have a lot of experience with them."

Unfortunately, vintners across Europe are gaining experience fast. Wildfires have scorched or come close to wine regions in Spain, Portugal, France and Greece so far this summer. And even those who have been spared smoke and flames are dealing with a more widespread threat: the heat. July has brought temperatures over 100° F for multiple days with little relief across the continent. London hit 104° F on its hottest day.

For vintners, that has meant trying to keep vines healthy and grapes growing. Many worry that yields will be down dramatically this year, after several small harvests in recent years. And hanging over everything is the concern that this is the new normal as the climate shifts.

Heat and smoke in Bordeaux

"Climate change—we're living it," said Bruno Samie, director of viticulture consultancy at the Gironde Chamber of Agriculture in Bordeaux. "Over the last seven months, we find a water deficit of [3 inches] and average temperatures nearly 2° C higher."

The team at the Chamber of Agriculture has been comparing data between 1991 and 2021 with the first seven months of 2022. Their numbers also revealed that low temperatures in 2022 are 1.24° C higher than the previous 30-year average, and high temperatures are 2.44° C higher.

The high temperatures combined with the drought could limit the yields for the 2022 harvest in Bordeaux if the situation doesn't change. In fact, if anything sets 2022 apart from recent years, it's the combination of high temperatures and low rainfall. "We've already lived through temperatures over [104° F], but so early and with so little water in the year, that's rare," said Samie.

Other French regions are facing similar conditions. "The drought has evolved dramatically," said Jean-Christophe Payan, after visiting the Ardèche and Rhône Valley. Payan is an agro-engineer specializing in water management and water stress for the French Institute of Vine and Wine (IFV). "The soils have the same water level that are usual at the end of August."

The good news is that vines are Mediterranean plants. "In terms of water stress, vines are adapted to and formatted for drought," said Samie. But the vintners’ goal is not just the survival of the vines but the production of ripe, healthy grapes into wine. The heat makes that far more challenging.

During this most recent heat wave, experts reported that vines were stopping vegetative growth, leaves were drying out, the plants were suffering some defoliation and loss of volume in the berries. "All of that accumulates," said Samie. Vines that grew rapidly during a warm spring are now slowing. In Bordeaux, the vegetative cycle was more than two weeks in advance of the average cycle, but the drought has caused the vines to slow down, and now the vegetative cycle is about a week in advance.

The worst-hit vineyards are those planted on deep sand or gravel soils with little water retention or those planted with young vines that lack sufficiently developed root systems. "They're going to have worries either in quantity or quality or both," said Samie. "For most of the older vineyards in Bordeaux, where the root system will look for water wherever it is, there's no major problem."

Firefighting planes]
Firefighting planes fly over a Bordeaux vineyard on their way to battling nearby wildfires. (Getty Images)

Then there are the fires. In the Bordeaux region, there were two massive wildfires, finally brought under control by 2,000 fire fighters after destroying 52,000 acres of woodlands. The Landiras wildfire, which charred 34,000 acres, borders the Sauternes and Graves regions, but did not advance into the vineyards. For much of the time the flames were burning, winds were generally blowing from the northeast, pushing smoke away from vineyards.

Is there a risk of smoke taint? "I don't think so," said Gilles de Revel, a professor of enology at Bordeaux's multidisciplinary Science Institute of Vine and Wine (ISVV). "We will know when we analyze the wine, but the risk is very slight, even zero." Although the wind did shift in the direction of the vineyards toward the end of the blazes, it was very high in the sky and could be smelled on only a few occasions.

Until now, smoke taint has not been a topic of concern in the region, but for more than a year now, Revel has argued that that needs to change. Zones like the Médoc and Graves are close to forests, making them higher risk than, say, St.-Emilion.

Fires across Spain

According to the Spanish government, nearly 193,000 acres of land had burned, as of July 17, and several blazes have continued to rage.

Looking ahead to recovery, Urrutia points out that vineyards are natural firebreaks. "In our case, the fire actually jumped the narrow, lower part of the Galir River—it was extraordinary. The fire is all-consuming, but in spite of that, the vineyard can act as protection against the fire." He adds that due to the rapid speed of the fire, his team believes that with a lot of work, and with time, the damaged parts of the vineyard can be restored.

Spanish fire damage]
Ruins of a farmhouse stand in a charred forest in Spain's Valdeorras region. (Getty Images)

The growing season in Valdeorras was going well when the fires started. Most parts of vineyards were experiencing veraison, the onset of grape ripening marked by a change in color of the grapes. Regarding the possibility of smoke taint in finished wines from 2022, Urrutia can only speculate. "There's really no way of knowing at this point. One advantage we have is that we always vinify every plot separately, so we'll do that, and then we'll see."

While Urrutia is optimistic about recovering the impacted vineyards with time, the destruction of surrounding forest could impact biodiversity and microclimate. "And in the short-term, there's a risk of erosion, as well as not ever recovering the forest."

Rainfall in Spain since October 2021 is 25 percent lower than normal, according to the National Security Department, and the temperatures have been consistently hot, peaking at 114° F on July 16. Lightning strikes and human negligence have contributed to the wildfires, but arson is suspected as the cause of at least some of the fires.

95° F in Portugal—at night

Portugal had already been experiencing one of the driest agricultural years in memory when the summer heat wave arrived. To add insult to injury, thousands of acres of forest have been consumed by wildfires in multiple regions, sometimes bordering vineyards and cellars.

Winter and spring brought little to no rain. Water reserves both in reservoirs and in the soils dropped to historic lows, and many crops were compromised. Precipitation was smaller than half that of an average year and one-third of that of 2021. Vineyard irrigation is often forbidden by local regulations, and grape yields are already looking far lower than the usual, mostly due either to severe sunburn or the formation of small bunches, since the plants concentrate their energy reserves in their survival, rather than their reproduction.

In the middle of July, temperatures were recorded around 120° F in Pinhão (the heart of Douro Valley), but worse than that, the overnight low was 95° F. This extreme weather lasted for more than a week, causing the vines to shut down growth to protect themselves. Cellular growth stopped, and the veraison process was delayed.

Portuguese vineyard spared from flames]
The forest around this vineyard in Portugal's Bairrada was burned, but the vines remain green. (Courtesy Luis Lopes)

Temperatures have dropped since, with day temperatures at a more typical high of 100° F and nighttime lows below 70° F, allowing the vines to return to their steady progress toward harvest.

Luís Duarte, owner of Luis Duarte Vinhos and chief winemaker of Herdade dos Grous in Baixo Alentejo, reported that his expectations for the harvest are still optimistic, but the crop will be small, mostly because of the small bunches. Small grape clusters usually produce very concentrated wines, so hopes for a qualitatively great year are still alive.

Luís Louro of Herdade do Monte Branco in Central Alentejo reported that some vines are showing water stress, but it depends a lot on different soils' ability to retain water. Vines in clays and more fertile soils are looking healthy at this point. The concern is a great deal of heterogeneity, in the vineyard, and often in the same plant, with some bunches pre-veraison and others already showing their red colors.

Traveling north, Sandra Tavares da Silva of Wine & Soul in the Douro reported a similar situation, with a delayed ripening process. Old vineyards are dealing with the heat in a better shape, and the slow maturation allowed by the recent drop in temperatures and increased night humidity may result in very balanced wines.

In Palmela, south of Lisbon, some varieties were suffering from sunburn, according to Filipe Cardoso of Quinta do Piloto. Then a wildfire broke out around Piloto's vineyards and wine cellars, close to the town of Palmela. The vineyards proved to be a firebreak, but the hot winds destroyed most of the grapes. Cardoso, his staff and local firemen worked tirelessly to save his cellars from the flames. In a Moscatel block that lost most of its production, the remaining grapes will be vinified separately and Cardoso plans to donate proceeds from sales to the fire station.

The fires have also brought unwelcome memories. In 2017, Portugal suffered from its most devastating wildfires in recent history, with 116 people killed. Unfortunately, many worry that the rising temperatures and shrinking rainfall will bring similar tragedies in years to come.

News drought fires Disasters Economy Environment France Portugal Spain 2022

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