Climate change leads to labor shortages in vineyards

Like many readers of this article, I suspect I am rethinking my attitudes towards travel. Just as lockdown should have finally ended the executive’s transatlantic leap “for a meeting,” as a wine writer, I’m also more wary of flying, more mindful of my carbon footprint. (The Maldives trip I described a fortnight ago was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.)

As Henry Mance wrote recently, rail travel is increasingly attractive, although still criminally expensive compared to travel on a low-cost airline. And yet, after a week of meeting six top wine producers in London, I’m starting to wonder if I really need to travel, especially to the wineries I’ve visited before.

The penultimate week, I had the chance to sit down with the best wine producers from Bordeaux, South Africa, Montalcino, Napa Valley, Bolgheri and Barossa. Almost all of them had the same concerns: climate change and working in the vineyard.

Monica Soldera and her husband Paolo Franco were visiting from the legendary family estate of Case Basse in Montalcino. They mentioned the effects of climate change on their Sangiovese vines three times during our conversation. Scientific research programs instituted by Monica’s late father, Gianfranco, on the terroir he carefully selected in 1972 had equipped them well for warmer summers, they said.

The 2017 vintage of their Toscana Sangiovese (so labeled since 2006, when Gianfranco left the official Brunello di Montalcino growers group) was the last release they wanted to talk about. The harvest, which began on August 26, was the earliest and the grapes had to battle sunburn in temperatures of 40°C. Clever leaf strategies were required.

As for the employees of the vineyard and the cellar, the team is the same each year, supplied by a local company. Most are, perhaps unexpectedly, Bangladeshi. They weed, pick and make the vital selection of grapes deemed perfect enough to produce the wine (which sells for around £600 a bottle). Rejected grapes are bagged and disposed of, away from the chain-link fence that surrounds this hallowed property.

Torbreck enjoys an equally high status in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. Winemaker Ian Hongell from Torbreck confirmed that many winemakers in less favored Australian wine regions have had to leave grapes unpicked this year and may have to do so next year as well. This is a direct result of the punitive tariffs on Australian imports imposed by China, until recently the most lucrative market for Australian wine.

It’s been particularly painful since South Australia, the country’s wine state, had two very good vintages in 2021 and 2022 when, rather to everyone’s surprise, the weather wasn’t too hot and dry. (as was the case in 2020 and 2019) .

The most recent issue for Australian winemakers has been labor. The border closures kept out traveling Cambodian and Vietnamese workers, as well as the usual backpackers and interns. The available local labor tended to turn to more pleasant jobs, often in hospitality. Being a beat barista in the face of the scorching sun, “bee stings, sticky hands, spiders and snakes,” according to Hongell, who admitted that “the smell of coffee is more appealing than the smell of a diesel tractor”.

While the old vines Torbreck specializes in require hand picking, overall the Australian wine industry has seen a surge in machine picking, already more prevalent than in other countries.

Covid also affected the launch of a new Napa Valley Cabernet with impeccable credentials. DVO is a joint venture between Ornellaia, one of Tuscany’s most glamorous estates, and Dalla Valle, a cult Napa producer based on a hill above Oakville.

Axel Heinz, 51, represents the Italian faction on behalf of the Frescobaldi family, while Maya Dalla Valle, 34, who has taken over management of the estate from her mother, oversees blending for DVO. For this joint venture wine, Axel and Dalla Valle selected various vineyards throughout Napa Valley to supply grapes for the blend.

The 2018 was DVO’s first commercial vintage (after a 2017 trial hit by a wildfire) and was set to launch in 2020 until Covid pays the price.

Both Ornellaia and Dalla Valle are located in wine regions notable for their alcohol content, which has tended to increase due to the warming of our planet.

But the effects of climate change have been most pronounced in Napa Valley, hit by wildfires in 2017 and 2020, the backdrop for two of five DVO vintages to date. The water shortage in Napa Valley is so severe that in 2021 some grape growers were unable to irrigate.

Maya Dalla Valle employs nine permanent employees for their 8.5 hectares of vines. Napa Valley’s hourly rates of $30 to $75 for vineyard workers are probably the highest in the world. Heinz is responsible for an annual production of 50,000 cases (16 times more than Dalla Valle). It has a stable workforce, including Senegalese, Moroccans and Eastern Europeans.

The most dramatic response to climate change was described by South African New Wave pioneer Eben Sadie of Sadie Family. It was his first visit to London in five years. “Our wines have changed a lot. Acid fusion is real,” he said, shaking his head at rising alcohol levels as acid levels in the grapes plummet. “And that’s not just in Swartland, but also in Burgundy and Moselle. My Grenache going from 13 to 13.5% is not a disaster but Pinot Noir [in red burgundy] at 15 percent is.

His response was to import Mediterranean grapes from 2002, which retain their acidity and are much better equipped to deal with hot, dry climates. Their products are not yet included in his superstar blends Columella and Palladius but will be once the vines are old enough. He is particularly delighted with his microvinifications of Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini. “Poor Greeks! says Eben because he thinks his Assyrtiko is so much better than any version in his native Greece.

There is unlikely to be a shortage of vineyard workers in South Africa, where unemployment is at an all-time high; the challenge is to bring about real social change for them. (I always smile wryly when I read “hand-picked” on South African wine labels.)

The exception to this obsession with rising temperatures? Emmanuel Cruse of Ch d’Issan in Margaux who hosted a magnificent dinner for 70 at Kensington Palace to celebrate Issan’s service 870 years ago at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England .

After a string of warm, ripe vintages, Bordeaux, like much of France, had an unusually cool and wet growing season last year. Cruse railed against a new generation of “engineering” Bordeaux winemakers who seem to him to apply a winemaking recipe, but who have “no experience of bad vintages”. We have everything we need in terms of equipment in the cellar, but what we need much more is work in the vineyard.

This is undoubtedly all the more important as the vine struggles against less and less predictable weather conditions.

Favorite: a few bottles at a high price

  • Gianfranco Soldera, Case Basse 2016 Tuscany 13.5%
    £525 in bail World Wine Consultants SA; $599 to $889 various US retailers

  • Torbreck, Descendant 2018 Barossa Valley 15%
    £114.06 Vinatis UK; $84.99 to $109.99 various US retailers

  • DVO 2018 Napa Valley 15%
    Around $320 to $400 various US retailers

  • Sadie Family, Palladius White 2019 Swartland 12.5%
    £69.90 Hedonism, £70 The Sampler; $120 to $189.99 various US retailers

  • Sadie Family, Columella 2018 Swartland 13.7%
    £92.25 in exchange for bond wine owners; $99.95 to $203.99 various US retailers

  • Ch d’Issan 2015 Margaux 13.8%
    £55.50 in deposit Grand Vin Wine Merchants; $78.59 to $141 various US retailers

Tasting notes on the Violet Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More resellers of Wine-searcher.com

Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson

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