What does climate change mean in practice for a winemaker in one of the world's most Northern wineregions, Germany's Mosel? An interview with Philip Lardot.
This is an excerpt from a WSET-4 study called Wine Production in a Changing Climate by WSET-4 student James Cacace. James is a regular customer at ASOP Wines and kind enough to let us share this interview with winemaker Philip Lardot on our website. Much obliged.
Global warming could result in a shift in the distribution of grape cultivation, meaning that wine production might become profitable in regions formerly unsuitable or marginal for wine-growing. Areas that may be suitable for viniculture will increase especially in northern Germany, Denmark and southern England. It is to be expected that higher temperatures and CO2-concentrations will benefit viniculture in Germany. In southern Germany for example more and more wines are already being produced that used to be produced further to the south only.
JC: Is your choice of choosing Germany and the Mosel area for your career as a winemaker related to the fact that this could be one of the countries that could benefit the most from increased temperatures?
PL: This played a relatively small role in our decision of settling here, but it was certainly something that we took into account.
JC: A general view is that German producers are still well positioned for the near future with their traditional grape varieties reaching optimal ripeness every year. What is your idea about this positive vibe and how are you preparing to take advantage from it?
PL: It has certainly become easier to reach good ripeness every year with the traditional varieties here and I think this will have a significant impact on the perceived quality hierarchy of different sites. Looking back at older documents and the current market, most of the well-known sites in the Mosel are the warmer ones, often shaped like amphitheatres that face south, capturing as much sun and warmth as possible. Depending on the style you are looking for, these vineyards can sometimes be too warm to produce classic lighter styles of Riesling in vintages such as 2018, 2019 and 2020. I think in some ways it is time for us to look to warmer regions and see how they have been dealing with rising sugar levels and changes to viticultural practices that can be made to adapt to the new climatical conditions. Personally I am very happy that most of our vineyards are in St. Aldegund and face east, which means that they capture the morning sun that dries the grapes in the mornings but that we get some shade later in the afternoon, when it is already much warmer.
picture left: @novh, picture right: Markus Praat (ASOP Wines)
JC: On the other side climate change also presents new challenges every year as weather conditions become more unpredictable and extreme. What are the challenges you have experienced so far regarding climate change?
PL: The obvious answer would be rising sugar levels, but in my opinion this can still be dealt with properly by adapting the surface of the canopy and being accurate when choosing picking dates. There are some other new challenges too though, especially sunburn on Riesling. Traditionally people have worked with relatively open canopies near the grapes, to prevent botrytis, but this is becoming increasingly dangerous. Personally I like to open up the canopy on the north side,where there is no direct sunlight and I like to do that very early in the season (as in starting some leaf removal next week, as opposed to the traditional way of doing this in August). In a way grapes are not too unlike from our own skin, the sooner a grape is exposed to limited levels of sunlight, it will develop a thicker skin and become more resilient. On the other hand this can also lead to increased phenolic compound levels and cause bitterness when it is done too quick or when the UV radiation is simply too much. 2019 and 2020 both had a couple of days with temperatures of over 40° in the shade in the flat, meaning the temperature in the steep vineyards was more like 50°-60°. Depending on viticulture the level of damage did vary a bit, but these temperatures are simply too high for riesling (and many other varieties, especially white ones) and resulted in serious losses.
JC: In a northern European country where getting even a white grape variety to ripen during a normal growing season was a challenge as recently as three decades ago, the shifting weather now allows for a greater variety of grapes in more places. Do you think the future for German wines means moving into heavier white wine production and increased red production?
PL: In general I would agree, but I do not think that we are already so far that we cannot produce light wines anymore, especially not on the Mosel. I think with adapted viticulture it will still be possible if the climate stays somewhat stable. On the other hand it has opened up possibilities for a lot of grape varieties that would not have made sense in the past, just the last few weeks I have heard of colleagues having planted Gamay and Chenin blanc.
JC: Besides reaching optimal ripeness and quality increased temperatures could also make it increasingly difficult to produce the most classic of German wines, the dry, light, fresh Riesling. Are you worried of the fact that German wines could lose their traditional style?
PL: Not yet, but it is certainly a risk, if climate change continues like this. As already mentioned before, I think there are a lot of things that can be done in the vineyard to counteract the warming. Viticulture here has traditionally always been done in a way to maximize sugar production, I think there are still plenty of things that can be done to balance out the warmer weather.
JC: You make your wines from old vines and in a natural way. That means no intervention and wines that ferment to dry and undergo malolactic fermentation. How do you see these practices in relation to climate change and could the increase in biodiversity and in general working more sustainable be a solution to the climate change threat in this sector?
PL: I believe we should all try to do our part, whether that just means watching what you eat and drink as a consumer, or whether it means trying to minimize our impact on nature as a producer of wine. As many of our vines are on such slopes that we cannot work them with any machines I think we are doing relatively well on CO2 emissions, we try not to use too much water in the cellar, limit plastic packaging, not use obnoxiously heavy bottles etc. On the other hand vine growing and winemaking require quite a few inputs, even when done in a fairly natural way. Even wines that are not fermented with continuous temperature control and perhaps pumped and filtered many times, they still need to be made in a clean cellar, if the grapes come in too warm they need to be cooled, they will still be put into glass bottles and in my case often shipped to destinations that are quite far from the local market.
- the end
Markus Praat (ASOP Wines): This interview was taken on June 17, 2021, well before the 2021 vintage turned out to be a disastrously cold one with tiny yields and struggles all across the board to ripen the grapes to maturity; just to show that climate change isn't something we can count on, it's something that happens to us, in all its unpredictability.