The keynote speaker, Al Gore.

The “Climate Change Leadership Summit: Solutions for the Wine Industry” which was held in Portugal this year, approached Vinpro to deliver a paper about how we contend with climate change. As a viticultural region, we are considered throughout the world to be a model example of future threats to the industry resulting from climate change.

Over the past few years the Western Cape has experienced extreme droughts, as well as heatwaves and veld fires, which have almost become the norm. When Al Gore, the keynote speaker, started talking (he subsequently launched into shouting to convey the gravity of the matter) his slideshow was full of photos of the empty Theewaterskloof Dam and desiccated vineyards in Vredendal. The international sympathy was palpable and once again I realised the enormity of our problem.

The conference abounded in interesting lectures by international leaders in and from the wine industry value chain. The intention was to show that we can all make a difference when it comes to a carbon footprint; by so doing we can promote a sustainable industry and create a better image from the viewpoint of the consumer and the rest of the world.

Once the climatologists had scared the wits out of us by stating how doomed we were, the more optimistic wine industry experts took the floor.

 

Highlights discussed during the conference, were:

  • Portugal produces most of its electricity requirements (in some months more than 100%) using renewable resources, such as wind, sunlight and hydro-electricity, and is considered a world leader in the green movement.
  • Use cork instead of screwcaps, these are much better for the environment. Portugal has more than 730 000 ha planted to cork oaks which remove 14 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually.
  • Cellars can be much more energy efficient if appropriately designed.
  • The production of wine bottles produces a lot of CO2 and the easiest way to reduce your wine’s carbon footprint is to use a lighter bottle.
  • Rather drink local wine, transport can be responsible for the biggest part of a wine’s carbon footprint.
  • Eat less meat and drink more red wine.
  • The grapevine is very hardy and adaptable. Many viticultural practices can be applied to counteract inclement conditions.
  • Plant grapevines against higher slopes, where it is cooler and the precipitation is higher.
  • Make use of solar panels to reduce the wine’s eventual carbon footprint. Soon the end user will be insisting on this.
  • Electrical vehicles and tractors are the future. Combined with solar panels, this can considerably reduce operational costs and the carbon footprint.
  • Recycling of all waste products, such as glass bottles, can make a big difference.
  • Biodiversity = sustainability.
  • The wine industry is sensitive to climate change. Wine grapes are like the canary in the coal mine.

 

As Vinpro’s soil scientist, my lecture was about the selection of vineyard location, soil preparation and soil management. Special emphasis was placed on the importance of meticulously following all the steps involved in grapevine establishment in order to eventually bring about a properly buffered grapevine that is able to resist the detrimental effects of climate change. Just one incorrect action, such as making the plant hole the wrong way, may cause the grapevine to suffer during the next heatwave.

Selection of new vineyard locations starts with climate and resource investigation, since these factors cannot be easily controlled or changed. Water security is undoubtedly our biggest challenge and locations where grapevines are less dependent on irrigation will be increasingly in demand for wine grapes.

The next step is a thorough soil and terrain survey in suitable areas to measure the natural resources. This information is essential when taking decisions about cultivars and rootstocks and where these grapevines should be planted. Grapevines should be planted on high potential soils which promote bigger and deeper root systems. The grapevine with the stronger root system is the one which will handle the extreme climate better.

 

 

Following selection of the best soils, situated against the best slopes, soil samples are taken to adjust the soil fertility. Deep soil preparation is recommended to correct any physical and chemical limitations.

Deep soil preparation is essential to ensure a deep, properly buffered root system which is able to resist the detrimental effects of climate change.

Poor decision making, such as ridging and the incorrect method of making plant holes, was highlighted. I warned against excessive irrigation and fertilisation, both of which create a lazy root system. The first irrigation should be postponed for as long as possible to force the roots to grow deeper in search of water and nutrients. In difficult times a shallow root system will not have the ability to supply the plant with water and the grapevine may be permanently damaged or even die.

Dry land grapevines with deep root systems on good soils fared best during the drought, while intensively irrigated grapevines on sandy soils struggled most when the taps ran dry.

Subsequently I focussed on cover crops and the benefits thereof to the soil’s carbon levels. Cover crops reflect sunlight and keep the soil cool, increase infiltration and suppress the growth of weeds. Soils with a higher carbon content require less fertilisation and irrigation and make a difference to the water retention ability of sandy soils.

 

– For more information, contact Heinrich Schloms at heinrich@vinpro.co.za.

 

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