Ice in the vines

April is always a difficult month for winemakers. It’s a period when they walk on a knife-edge between the excitement of seeing the buds push through and the terror of frosty nights.

This was brought home to us around April 6 and 7. From the full glory of spring, when we were dining outdoors in 26°C/79°F, we plunged to freezing point and even further, snow falling and heating systems whirring back into life. It was a sharp and unpleasant jolt. The Chianti Classico and Montalcino areas recorded temperatures between -4 and -6°C (23-25°F), both in the valleys and high up the hills, where things are usually a bit less severe. The main problem, indeed, was not the temperature per se – the humidity at the bottom of the valleys would have made it feel even colder – it was the violent winds that embroiled Tuscany and tormented the vineyards.

The other evening it was a bit nippy, so I put another duvet over the summer bedsheets, which I had broken out only two days before. My mind made the connections and I thought of the little buds that I had seen that very morning, just beginning to poke through the vines.

Agriculture is so often at the mercy of the weather. Once upon a time, in Tuscany we tended to get away with what often flattened vineyards in northern Italy and especially in France. No longer: climate change has become undeniable. The damage done by these April chills is enormous, though it’s too early to make calculations. Some buds, which had just begun to open when the cold struck, might well show no signs of outwards freezing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t have suffered on the inside, maybe even to the extent of failing to produce fruit. At this delicate stage, the vines have gone into shock, triggering a protective mechanism that will slow down their normal growth. Depending on the severity of their damage, we might have a diminished harvest; we might even have to write it off completely.

In Burgundy, particularly in the Chablis area, winemakers have become adept at tackling ice of cataclysmic proportions. For years now they have been able to deploy tricks and techniques that lessen the damage to frozen buds and allow them to salvage, at least partially, the future production of wine. When frost descends, the locals are roused in the middle of the night by alarms like air raid sirens. They light burning bundles of wood and oil, which emit the smoke and heat required to melt the ice from the vines. Alongside this technique, they spray the vines with water, normally just before the break of dawn. Counterintuitively, this measure is meant to create a layer of ice around the grapes, which actually protects them from the cold morning air, especially if the wind is blowing. The vineyards are lit up like runways and these astonishing images fill the social media pages of winemakers and wine lovers.

These methods have already spread to Italy’s more mountainous areas, whether in the cultivation of wine or other fruits. In Tuscany, however, we do not yet have the systems in place to combat freak conditions like this, which are becoming more and more frequent. The winemakers of Montalcino took the independent decision to light up the fires as practiced by their Burgundian counterparts in a desperate attempt to stave off the worst. But given how common these phenomena are becoming, the Tuscan wine consortia will have to get plans of defense in place for the coming years.

Little by little, we are becoming aware that we depend entirely on the life cycles of plants. We depend on them for the air that we breathe, for the food that we eat and, in our case, for the work that we do: they are the most precious and fragile processes in the world. There cannot be a more pressing goal at this present moment than that of ecological transition. Taking care of sustainability is no longer a mere ethical choice; it’s a matter of survival, and we have to start from realizing that we owe nature everything.