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08 July 2021

Attilio Scienza on climate change: "The agricultural world is ready but consumers must be educated"

Climate change, consumer perception, genetics and the relationship with DOC and IGT regulations, as well as research and organic farming. These are the main topics that Attilio Scienza, Professor of Viticulture at the University of Milan, scientific director of the Vinitaly International Academy and sector “guru”, addresses in an interview with the Vinitaly Press Office.

Professor Scienza: data unquestionably indicate that the climate is changing. Does the way grapes are grown also have to change?
“Change has always taken place and will continue to do so. Yet we should not underestimate the fact that wine-growers boast truly centuries-old traditions of adaptation to the climate. Furthermore, the climate changes we are now experiencing are not as rare as we might think in the history of European wine-growing. Inasmuch, genetic, environmental and cultural choices are the outcome of an extremely long journey of adaptation. Our wine-growers are very well aware that they have to plant vines further apart, that they have to use rootstocks that are more resistant to drought. They know they have to make sure that leaves increasingly protect grape bunches to avoid excessive exposure to sunlight. They know how to fertilize and so forth."

So, adaptation already exists ...
“Yes. The only problem concerns de-localization phenomena, which means moving wine-growing from old traditional areas to areas that have a more favourable climate profile. But I don't think this is a major problem. Curiously, the North is suffering more from climate change than the South. One might think that warmer areas would suffer more but, on the contrary, they have had more time to adapt. The temperature difference is much less evident in the South than in the North."

What will the consequence of climate change be on vines, grapes and, in the end, even on wine? Will consumer perception of the product change?
“The first thing to be done is to explain to consumers that things are changing. Before preparing a wine for change, it is a good idea to make sure that the people who will drink it are also willing to change. The question, if anything, is to make sure that wines are as similar as possible to the wines of the past. We cannot revolutionize ourselves, even if - unfortunately - alcohol levels will be higher, acidity will be more difficult to control, tannins will very often be not so soft and so on. Here, wine-making technique helps us as a marvellous tool for adapting to this phenomenon.
Varieties will undoubtedly play an important role in the future, in that the grapes we grow in many areas will have to change little by little. It will not be easy but it has to be done, since it has always been the yardstick by which mankind has adapted to climate change. The grapevine was the most effective tool for adapting to change."

Can genetic research be of help? And how can using new grape varieties merge with the historic or regulatory nature of DOC and IGT wines?
“That is one of the problems. We have rather rigid structures and each set of governing regulations focuses on a specific varietal composition, which cannot be modified all that much. However, we can modify IGT (typical geographical indication) legislation, which is a much more flexible tool for adapting grape varieties to climate change."

“IGT is a test bench. Once we have verified how we should deal with a new grape variety, then we can move on to DOC wines, but in the meantime IGT allows us to experiment. We are following up a number of old varieties in Lessinia (the mountain area north of Verona) with Aldo Lorenzoni. These varieties had been abandoned in recent years because they did not ripen well. They were grown at higher altitudes and only now have we realized that they would be ideal for reacting to climate change, given their higher acidity, greater stability and colour and sensory impact. They could well become a tool for creating new varieties through crossing."

Organic methods are become increasingly common. Does this approach differ from the conventional model as regards resilience to climate change?
“It is not easy to distinguish. The only problem you may face with organic methods is that we usually have more irregular and less predictable rainfall. Inasmuch, intervention using copper treatments is much more frequent. In integrated pest management or conventional pest control, we have more effective tools and perhaps even coverage times. When using copper-based products, if it rains, we have to repeat the treatment. That is the only problem."