Torres noted that harvesting this year started more than two weeks earlier than the historical average, altering grapes’ ideal balance for winemaking.
Production has been below average in the past four years due to less rain and higher temperatures, decreasing by 5%-10% as the number of adequate grapes has declined, he said.
NEW OLD WINE
On a recent morning at the ICVV, located outside La Rioja’s capital Logroño, centrifuges were beeping and steam from liquid nitrogen was rising out of a bucket as a researcher prepared to extract DNA from crushed vine leaves.
It is the only laboratory in Spain and one of a few worldwide conducting full molecular analysis of vines, said ICVV director Jose Miguel Martinez Zapater.
Their samples come from a nearby vineyard, used as a scientific bank, where cuttings of old vines up to 100 years old have been planted since the 1980s.
“The technique of resequencing genomes allows for the identification of specific mutations responsible for diseases in human populations,” he said. “The same technology is applied for grapevines, but we are looking for traits that can make the vines be better adapted to environmental conditions.”
Scorching temperatures could eventually cause winemaking to cease in parts of Spain, Zapater warned.
The ICVV, which has an annual budget of 6 million euros and around 100 workers, this year started using its vineyard to produce wine experimentally, concluding so far that climate-resilient vines still yield good wine with Rioja’s features.
Other research teams are similarly seeking to recover old grape varieties with long ripening cycles, and to study the result of crossing varieties.
About 60 km (37 miles) north from the lab, local winery RODA is also looking to the past for future climate solutions.
Hoping to protect its vines from rising temperatures, RODA last year planted a new vineyard with curved rows to better retain water from rainfall in hilly Cellorigo, which is among the coldest towns in La Rioja.
The grapevines were transplanted after being carefully selected from another vineyard where RODA studies the behaviour of old vines – some up to 110 years old.
“Our biggest concern is what will happen in 20 or 30 years. We will probably need to change varietals but we don’t really know how things will come out,” said agricultural engineer Maria Santolaya, of RODA’s technical team, as she reflected on the recent sweltering summer.
“We hope to not have many years like this one because it has been very problematic”.