Issue 1, 2019. February-March



Extreme weather, including rising temperatures, can feel like a distant threat for temperate Georgia. But studies show that wine-growing regions, including Kakheti and Racha, are at risk. The Georgian government is already taking some steps to help the grape and wine industry, but the biggest innovations are being pushed by wine growers themselves.

Sally White

Every year climate change causes billions of dollars of damage to the wine industry, with Georgia among the wine countries most affected. According to one of Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), "[t]he wine regions of Mendoza and San Juan in Argentina are exposed to the highest risks due to extreme weather and natural hazards worldwide. Kakheti and Racha in Georgia come in at number 2 [. . .]" This was noted in a study covering more than 7,500 wine regions in 131 countries.

Last summer broke heat records in Georgia. Now, climate scientists expect more record-breaking temperatures, with those at the University of Brest in France stating "man-made global warming and a natural surge in the earth's surface temperature will join forces to make the next five years exceptionally hot."

Georgia is not short of studies on the impact of greenhouse emissions (such as those the World Bank, the EU, USAID, World Life Fund for Nature, et al.), but most of the attention within Georgia itself has been given to the need to cut pollution and to food staples. In contrast to other parts of the country's agriculture industry, wine is robust, with a number of major groups able to invest, though the vast amount of Georgia's grapes are produced by small-scale subsistence farmers who cultivate long-held family plots.

Effect on Grapes

The rising heat is critical for grapes. Writing in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research, Don Mateo Keller of Washington State University's Department of Agriculture describes the consequences. "An upward shift in seasonal temperature will dramatically shift the growing season, thereby changing the normal pattern of grape development toward an earlier onset of flowering, veraison (the onset of ripening), and harvest. The timing of veraison may be of particular importance, because earlier veraison implies that the critical ripening period shifts towards the hotter part of the season."

"The consequence to grape chemistry is substantial: elevated fruit sugar, lower acid concentrations (especially malic acid), and lower anthocyanins and methoxypyrazine levels. Higher sugar delivers shifts in alcohol, altering flavours and mouthfeel."

Climate change, it has long been recognized, will hit Georgia hard: shrinking glaciers, less rain and snow, more weather extremes, frequent heavy downpours and hail, soil erosion, higher temperatures and more wind. An in-depth report prepared in 2009 by the Ministry of Environment Protection and Natural Resources for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change stated that "it can be concluded that comparing the climate change scenarios obtained under all available methodologies, both in Western and Eastern Georgia, an increase for the years up to 2100, in the mean annual temperature of 3.50 C, will be accompanied by a decrease in precipitation by about 9-13 percent."

"These trends can already be observed-on average in 1952-65 in eastern Georgia there were 54 days of drought, but by 1998-2007 there were 72. The report continues: "[. . . ] an increase in precipitation and floods is expected [. . . ] land erosion is intensifying [. . .] The growth in the pest population both in crops and in forests is anticipated. These processes are being already observed [in 2009]."

Especially concerning for farmers is that "against a background of rising temperature and declining precipitation, a decrease in air relative humidity by 6% and in the value of hydrothermal coefficient by about 30% is anticipated, that will cause a fall in soil moisture content," the report notes.

Local Solutions

Tougher growing conditions are making some major wines expand control of their vineyards, rather than buying from the small-scale farmers. Thus, they can better monitor growing conditions to ensure quality for Western export markets, as opposed to volume, for Russian or Chinese export markets. The deteriorating quality of the soil in many vineyards is a frequent criticism in international agriculture reports. "What we can say is that Tbilvino cultivates all its own vineyards and uses drip (micro) irrigation systems," said Executive Director Zurab Margvelashvili, of Tbilvino, a company having bought 37 hectares in Kakheti last year. "And we use high-quality nutrient materials for the vineyards," he added.

Government action has been to support grape prices (when justified), to compensate for weather damage and to offer loan assistance for irrigation installations and for new plantings. Specifically to help with the disruption and damage arising from climate change, it has backed a project to help combat crop disease financed by the Austrian Development Programme and the EU. Its aim is to have a network of agro-metrology stations equipped to forecast when the risk of crop disease is high. These stations measure wind, air pressure, sun radiation and the temperature and humidity of air and soil and send out free text messages with advice on treatment.

Lessons from Abroad

A paper from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences suggests that the general shift of warmer temperatures poleward will lead to a "huge shake-up in the geographic distribution of wine production," according to researcher Marc Lallanilla. In California, Australia, Spain, Italy, Germany and France (where temperatures have risen by over two degrees celsius since 1950) vineyards are harvesting earlier. Wineries worldwide, reported Nature Climate Change last year, are trying to find new, more heat-tolerant grape varieties and developing new ones to stop their industry from migrating to cooler regions. For example, in Germany's Upper Rhine Valley, new types of grapes, known as the "piwi varieties," can adapt to the new climate and withstand fungal mildew.

As elsewhere in the world, self-help is the major solution, which for small Georgian farmers is less than easy in spite of generations of experience with vines. One way, though open for few because of the cost, is to buy land in cooler areas-some such land in owned in Kakheti by the government. A few owners, in common with the Chianti region of Italy (according to an EU-funded research paper on climate change) are pursuing a solution of relocating vineyards uphill.

At Danieli Winery, a family owned estate in Akhmeta at the far end of Kakheti, owner Olaf Malver remembered lessons he had learned from his 15 years in the western U.S. A producer of top-quality wines, Danieli has begun to move vines higher up his hillsides.

"We were lucky to already have higher-located land available to experiment with growing grapes at higher altitudes, in soils with good drainage and close to a cooling forest. These lands are actually in the Kisi terroir that likes dry, well-drained soil and coolness, and we have planted these grapes high on the trellises (a new thing in Georgia as well) to get some ventilation from below to avoid mildew. Our Kisi is now demanding high prices," he added.

Twins Wine Cellar at Napareuli, another Kakheti family estate, has taken a scientific approach to studying local conditions. It has seen the bad state of Kakheti soils from the "piling on of fertilizer" to combat adverse growing conditions and the increasing incidence of heat-triggered vine disease.

One of the ways the owners, the Gamtkitsulashvili family, "is trying to tackle the current challenges is the bio-vine approach. We do not use mineral fertilizers with our vines. We do not use irrigation systems in our vineyards. Instead, we cultivate the soil frequently so we can maintain humidity. We treat vines only using special contact liquids which are not absorbed by the vines. As a result, the yield in vineyards has decreased but the grape quality is high."

Another approach to combat the effects of climate change under consideration by the Gamtkitsulashvili family is that "perhaps it would be possible to strengthen existing vines." Or, by re-examining old, currently unused varieties! In Spain, the historic Catalonian wine company Bodegas Torres, in addition to seeking higher-altitude planting sites, has been looking at the country's ancient grapes in a project in collaboration with France's National Agricultural Research Institute. It has rediscovered 46 grape varieties. As it told The Atlantic magazine, "Some of these varieties thrived extremely well in the arid testing environments, due to characteristics like their berries ripening near the end of autumn, and to water-retention mechanisms like restricting or slowing leaf growth."

Some 8,000 years ago, Georgia gave the world wine. In the 21st century, with its almost bottomless vine gene pool and wide range of climate zones, as Olaf Malver points out, Georgia could make history again with a climate change solution for vineyards internationally.