Above: if you were in Piedmont, Italy or Southeast Texas, you might think that was a rice field or a crawfish farm. In fact, it’s a flooded vineyard. A heat wave, massive rains, and severe hailstorms dominated the three weeks I was in northern Italy during the second half of July and the first week of August.
Climate change is always a sticky subject to cover when you’re a wine professional leading a guided tasting in Houston. It’s nothing less than inevitable that there will be some oil and gas professionals among the tasters. And especially when it comes to the older (and monied) petroleum crowd, some of those guests will reliably grumble, however amicably, when the topic comes up.
As a rule, I always begin my spiel by saying, we may not agree on its causes, but if you ask a grape grower, even the most conservative grape grower (and grape farmers tend to land on the conservative side, like most farmers), they will invariably tell you that they have observed clearcut shifts in climate over the last 30-40 years and beyond.
To this I always add: Whether or not it’s caused by human activity is a question for another time and place. But there’s no denying that it’s happening. Just ask any grape grower and they will tell you that 1) they harvest their crop much earlier than their grandparents did; and 2) extreme weather events, like violent rainstorms and intense hailstorms, are more frequent and more harmful than they were for past generations.
While I was in Italy teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences during the last two weeks of July and the first week of August, it would have been challenging to find anyone who denied the devastating effects of climate change — or its causes. During the roughly 21 days I was in the country, there were a seemingly never ending heat wave; numerous hailstorms that literally destroyed cars across northern Italy; and concentrated bouts of rain that caused widespread flooding — even in areas, like Como township and lake, where flooding rarely if ever happens.
During my recent visit to Italy, my first in more than a year and a half, I took every opportunity I could to travel across wine country. Every day, it seemed, was punctuated by a major weather event that brought traffic to a standstill.
The hailstorms were so intense and the car damage so widespread that drivers on the freeway would pull over and vie for cover under overpasses. In the more than 30 years I’ve been traveling to Italy, I had never seen anything like it.
In the days that followed rainfall, the smell of sulfur being sprayed on the vines was often intense. There was one day when I abandoned my daily run because a grape grower warned me that the fumes could be harmful. (Farmers, even on certified organic farms, use sulfur to contain the spread of vine disease after intense humidity events like heavy rainfall.)
In Lombardy (northern Italy), where some grape farmers have already begun picking fruit for their classic method (sparkling) wines, the regional office of the Italian national farmers union, Coldiretti, has already predicted a 15 percent drop in production for the 2021 vintage. That estimate is surely a conservative one.
As Italy prepares for the general harvest to begin next month, climate change — whatever its causes — is on everyone’s mind.