Daniel Exposito, winemaker at Domino de la Vega

Daniel Expósito – Winemaking in the Age of Climate Change

Winemaking has never been easy.  For while it is true that wine is really just fermented grape juice, there is a lot that can go wrong in the vineyard and in the cellar.  Threats like draught, frost, hail, oxidation, and unfriendly bacteria are just a few of the challenges that if not mitigated properly, can turn a promising vintage into expensive vinegar.  Luckily, over the past thousands of years, winemakers have learned a thing or two and have developed solutions for most of the curve balls that mother nature can throw their way.

While these threats are mostly localized, there are on occasion, bigger, more “global” issues to contend with.  Take pests for example.  At the end of the 1800’s, the biggest challenge to the wine industry, was phylloxera, a tiny pest that attacked roots stocks, and all but decimated wine production in Europe.  It wasn’t until growers learned how to graft European grapevines on to American root stocks, that the epidemic was curtailed, and the industry eventually rebounded.

“Climate change is not a hypothesis, but a fact,”

Wine production today faces another global threat, this time with climate change.  In a sense, climate change, could be a slower moving, less obvious “phylloxera” of the 21st century.   For Spain specifically, the changing climate means having to adapt to growing conditions which are hotter and dryer.  Some studies have even suggested that Spain’s climate could resemble that of North Africa by 2050.  Perhaps ok for camel breeders, but not good news, for the world’s largest exporter of wine.

Vineyard in Spain

Long hot summers are often coupled with little to no rainfall in Spain. It’s a challenge that will become increasingly difficult with climate change.

Oenologist and head winemaker at Valencia’s, Dominio de la Vega, Daniel Expósito, is taking a proactive approach.  “Climate change is not a hypothesis, but a fact,” says Expósito, who has been making wine for Dominio de la Vega since 2001, and was named “Oenologist of Year,” in 2009 by the Association of Oenologists of Valencia.  “As of 2006 we became aware that climate change affects wineries.  It was in 2007 that we started the Zenit-Demeter project.”  The Zenit-Demeter Project is a collaboration among 26 Spanish companies from various disciplines within the wine industry which collect and share data in an effort to identify best practices and techniques for adapting to the changing climate.  It’s the largest oenological project in the world, funded by a 20 million euro budget, with some of the biggest names in Spanish vino, like Miguel Torres, Protos Cellars, and Martín Códax participating alongside barrel producers, vine nurseries and yeast producers.

As a winemaker in the region of Utiel-Requena, Expósito’s research focuses on two main areas of wine production; the sparkling, Cava, and red wine made from the indigenous Bobal.   Since grape growing is extremely specific in terms of microclimate, altitude, soil type and orientation to the sun, Expósito measures and records quality indicators in the juice and wine produced from specific parcels of land.  “In the case of cava, we’re looking at parameters of acidity;  pH, total acidity, malic acid content, and tartaric acid content,” Expósito explains.  For reds, its about finding strategies to minimize the affects of a shortened maturity cycle.  When grapes mature too quickly the result is often an overbearing amount of alcohol (due to the sugar content) and a lack of complexity.  For this, Expósito says, “we look at collected data from indicators such as anthocyanins, tannins, polymerization, polyphenolic maturity index, and correlate them with storage capacity and organoleptic tasting.”

“the Earth is constantly changing, so a winery like ours, has to be constantly alert, investigating and observing what happens with its climate, soil, grapes and wine.”

All of this data is collected over a five year period, as the wine is maturing, allowing Expósito and his team to make conclusions about different strategies and techniques which can be used to counteract the affects of a hotter, dryer vineyard.   It’s no easy task.  Not only must the research be done why simultaneously focusing on producing great wine, but it will never be complete.  As Expósito explains, “the Earth is constantly changing, so a winery like ours, has to be constantly alert, investigating and observing what happens with its climate, soil, grapes and wine.”

Grapes ready for harvest in a Spanish vineyard.

Grapes ready for harvest in a Spanish vineyard.

Despite the dire outlook that often accompanies a story such as this, Expósito seems remarkably optimistic.  When asked about predictions that Spain’s climate will someday resemble that of Morocco, he responds simply that “Estimations are estimations, almost always alarmist in the face of reality.”   To boot, Expósito tell us that while their findings do support the need for adaptation, that the challenge is “perhaps less alarming than (he) expected.”  He believes this could be evolutionary, stating that “having a variety very adapted to the area, such as the Bobal and being very old vineyards, the (climate) changes may have had less impact, so that changes in terms of viticulture and processing do not have to be drastic.”

It’s encouraging news indeed, and hopefully a trend that Expósito’s data will continue to support.   But as only time will tell, it’s at least comforting to know that Daniel Expósito and his fellow consortium of experts on the Zenit-Demeter project, are working on it, and that Spain will likely remain a wine growing country in the future, camels or not.





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