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The Cava sector confronts the challenge of climate change II

Fri, 23 Feb 2024 |
D.O. Cava

As well as threatening our environment, climate change also drives innovation in our wine sector, where the sustainability of vineyards and Cavas takes centre stage.

The Cava industry has taken on the responsibility of facing these challenges proactively. Its mission is to ensure a sustainable future for the sector, without losing the essence of the terroir and the distinctive character of the resulting Cavas.

Organic Cava, focused on quality, is flourishing. Demand is consolidating, with more than 32 million bottles of this category produced every year. In addition, organic vineyards and other ecological practices play a crucial role in Cava production, mitigating GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions in the long term. In this global fight against climate change, the vineyard and its management are a key element.

Optimised irrigation and water harvesting practices

In order to maintain the winemaking tradition in the Cava region, and to preserve its characteristic landscape, the vineyards are moving towards precision agriculture - the science of improving sustainability using high-tech sensor and analysis tools, as well as data-driven decision-making.

"To overcome the new challenges, a fresh approach is being developed that aims to achieve more with fewer resources, and to professionalise agriculture. We are moving towards precision agriculture, which is more sustainable from an economic and environmental point of view. Digitalisation allows us to better understand the needs of each plot, and to reduce treatments and tractor passes, thereby avoiding unnecessary costs."
Ricard Fusté, viticulture technician at Sumarroca.

In order to address the challenge of climate change, attention has been focused on improving water retention in the soil, which leads to more efficient and sustainable management of natural resources.

As a result, many wineries are considering the installation of drip or underground irrigation systems. These optimised irrigation practices allow water to be used as efficiently as possible, thereby ensuring an adequate supply without wasting resources.

"In those fields where we have irrigation systems, which unfortunately are a minority, we have implemented moisture sensors to optimise water use and make it as efficient as possible. These sensors allow us to measure moisture levels at different depths, such as 20, 40 and 80 cm, which helps us to understand more accurately the percentage of moisture in the soil."
Mireia Pujol-Busquets, Deputy Director at Alta Alella.

With this information, irrigation can be adjusted accordingly, avoiding water wastage and ensuring that the vines receive the necessary amount for healthy growth and development.

"Although we cannot control rising temperatures, we can implement measures with regard to groundwater reserves. For example, we carry out surface tillage in order to break capillarity and prevent further evaporation of the water still remaining in the soil. Therefore, all the tasks related to the productive cycle of the vineyard are focused on conserving the scarcity of water from the winter rains or snowfalls."
Kiko Figueras, winegrower.

In response to the current drought conditions, numerous winegrowers have made adaptations to farm buildings in order to harvest rainwater, which is collected from roofs and used for phytosanitary treatments and other general applications. This measure helps to maximise the use of available water resources and reduces dependence on other sources.

An additional measure is the construction of rainwater ponds, which allow water to be stored for later use. However, their effectiveness depends on the availability of precipitation, which unfortunately is not falling in sufficient quantities at the current time. Despite this, these ponds should still be built to maintain supply at most critical periods, and to make the most of any rainfall that does occur.

"It is likely that in the future, a survival irrigation system will be established in part of the vineyards. Reserved for use in times of extreme drought, this would be supplied by well water stored in large ponds during rainy periods.”
Jordi Valles, winegrower.

Where it is possible, and where the necessary requirements are met, options such as deep-drilling for wells could be considered, subject to the appropriate permits being obtained from the relevant authorities.

However, some areas present additional challenges, due to the mainly clay soil type and water scarcity. In such situations, careful analysis must be conducted to determine whether it is feasible to leave these plots uncultivated, or whether minimal irrigation should be applied to maintain the viability of the vines. This decision will depend on factors such as water availability and quality, as well as the specific soil characteristics and climatic conditions of the region. The ultimate goal is to find a balance between water conservation and the sustainability of vine cultivation.

"When planting new vines, we give careful consideration to the soil and its capacity to retain water. We always work the soil on our estates strategically, in order to ensure optimal absorption and retention of water resources.”
Ricard Fusté, viticulture technician at Sumarroca.

Soil - a fundamental element

Soil plays a crucial role in viticulture, and its conservation becomes even more relevant in the face of climate change. The use of ground cover crops in vineyards is increasingly popular, as they help to slow soil erosion, improve soil structure, and retain moisture, so that vineyards can adapt to extreme and changing climatic conditions.

However, in exceptional situations, such as water shortages, specific decisions need to be taken. Sometimes the plant cover may be temporarily removed, so that the available water resources can be utilised largely for grape development.

"This year we had to remove all the plant cover in order to minimise competition with the vines for water."
Mireia Pujol-Busquets, Deputy Director at Alta Alella.

In view of the water limitations, surface tillage during the vines` growing season has become increasingly important. This helps to keep the vines in the best possible condition by optimising access to available water. In addition, soil rest has been implemented, avoiding tillage, mainly during the autumn rainy season.

In order to optimise the use of water, ensuring that the vines can always be irrigated, various measures have been implemented.

"Last year was a watershed moment that showed us we could no longer turn back, as the heat had become extreme. One of our most important decisions was to till the land every 10 to 12 days from July almost to the end of August. This was to prevent any weeds from competing with the vines for the scarce water supply available in the soil. During the winter, we also made alternate tractor passes to ensure that the little rain that fell stayed in the furrows, rather than being lost."
Marta Puig Artigas, viticulturist.

Another important approach has been to increase the supply of organic matter to the soil, using composted manure, for example. This enrichment of the soil aims to improve its water retention capacity during rainy periods. Although the effects may take years to be fully seen, spreading compost is beneficial for both the soil and the health of the vines.

Pruning strategies to adapt to climate change

An additional strategy to help adapt to climate change is delaying the date for pruning. This allows us to adjust the vegetative cycle of the vines to the new climatic conditions, thus reducing the risk of late frosts that can damage young shoots.

Green pruning is another technique used to manage the growth and balance of vines during the growing season. While not a direct measure against climate change, it can contribute to mitigating some of its effects. This technique consists of the selective removal of unwanted shoots, leaves, or bunches of grapes during the vine’s growing season.

Green pruning offers several benefits in relation to climate change. Firstly, by reducing the density of leaves and clusters, it improves air circulation in the vine, which helps prevent fungal diseases and reduces humidity in hot and humid climatic conditions. It also prevents cluster overload in the vine, which is especially relevant in extreme climatic conditions, such as high temperatures, where the vine can suffer from water stress. Cluster thinning helps to alleviate this additional load, and to maintain a healthy balance in the plant.

Another benefit of green pruning is that it allows the vine to concentrate its resources on the selected clusters, which encourages correct ripening of the grapes. This is essential during changing climatic conditions, as high temperatures can accelerate the ripening process. Green pruning helps to maintain a balance between the maturity and quality of the grapes.

Partnerships for a sustainable future

In an effort to join forces, industry associations and think-tanks have been formed to propose solutions and to research new ways of adapting to climate change.

One of these groups, Vins Vinents, brings together experts from different areas related to viticulture. Established by the Generalitat de Catalunya, the group’s main objective is to study the impact of climate change on vineyards, and to propose adaptation strategies.

The Innovi Catalan winemaking cluster also helps winegrowers to adapt to new climatic conditions, and promotes sustainability in the sector by communicating information and innovative techniques. In addition, the Asociaciones de Defensa Vegetal (ADVs) are also a valuable source of information and direct support for winegrowers, focused on the municipal level.

In addition to these initiatives, there is also an association dedicated to biodynamic viticulture. Through the implementation of biodynamic agricultural practices, this body is pursuing more effective climate change adaptation, taking into account environmental aspects and sustainability in wine production.

These alliances and partnerships are testimony to the wine industry's commitment to the fight against climate change, uniting efforts and knowledge within a context of environmental transformation.

Perspectives in the face of Climate Change in the Cava Industry

Adapting to climate change is crucial to preserve the quality and uniqueness of Cava in a changing environment. Through specific efforts, the aim is to develop efficient and environmentally-friendly agriculture.

Continued rainwater harvesting initiatives are essential to address water scarcity in the future, but responsible water management must also be practised. Reducing risks and maximising grape quality in changing climatic conditions is critical.

Strategies such as delayed pruning and green pruning are vital viticulture techniques to adapt to climate change and maintain grape quality.

The Cava sector is facing unprecedented challenges, but is determined to adapt with innovative solutions while maintaining its reputation as a producer of high-quality sparkling wines.

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