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Spanish Winemakers Go Cooler to Stay in the Game

The Torres vineyards stand above the town of Tremp, in the northern Spanish region of Catalonia. The winemakers have begun to take climate change into consideration when choosing the location for production.
Jessica Goldstein, NPR
The Torres vineyards stand above the town of Tremp, in the northern Spanish region of Catalonia. The winemakers have begun to take climate change into consideration when choosing the location for production.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /
Torres wine began to grow pinot noir grapes in the town of Tremp about six years ago, where the higher altitudes and cooler weather served for better growing conditions.
Jessica Goldstein, NPR /
Torres wine began to grow pinot noir grapes in the town of Tremp about six years ago, where the higher altitudes and cooler weather served for better growing conditions.

Most of the time when we think about global warming, we think about dire consequences — disappearing ice caps, rising sea levels, more intense storms. Higher temperatures will have myriad effects on our lives and culture. But not all of these effects will be catastrophic.

In Spain for example, winemakers are heading for the hills.

For a while, Pancho Campo of the Spanish Wine Academy had a message no one wanted to hear. He had conducted a climate study on a major wine-growing region called Penedes, near Barcelona and close to the Mediterranean coast.

"The first thing that we observed is that temperatures have increased an average of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius (3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit). And that is a lot," Campo says. "Also, we have observed that rainfall patterns have changed. It rains more when it should be dry, and the way it rains is very aggressive."

At first, Spanish winemakers ignored his results — they said the weather was always changing. But in the past year or two, more have started to listen, and they've realized they are going to have to adapt.

Winemakers are thinking about changing their growing patterns to grape varieties that can tolerate more heat, and they are also altering their watering schedules. Some are even moving from the traditional wine-growing areas near sea level.

"They're going to higher altitudes – a place called Tremp. Higher altitudes, lower temperatures," Campo says.

Keeping Cool

About six years ago, Torres wine started growing pinot noir grapes about 5 miles and several hundred feet above the town of Tremp, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the mountains that divide Spain and France. The area is stunningly beautiful — high mountains to the north, and an undulating valley falls away to the south. And it's pleasantly cool, even in the bright morning sun. The natural landscape is dry and brown; the Torres grapevines are the only thing that's green.

"We were thinking about having a special flavor, special finesse that you cannot find in other, warmer areas," says Albert Puch of Torres wine.

He says climate change was far from their minds when they first began growing grapes in Spain.

"But now when the scientists said there is the global warming coming, this state has more relevance for us," Puch says.

Changing Tastes

Puch says it's not just the weather that's changing, but also the market. He says consumers are no longer interested in where a wine comes from, or what year it was produced. They're only interested in how it tastes.

It used to be different. For example, in neighboring France, the great wines of Bordeaux are still produced according to strict rules about where the grapes come from. If the climate is bad and it rains when it should be sunny, then the grapes will be bad. French winemakers accept that some vintages will be better than others.

Puch says that attitude no longer works for many wine drinkers. He says Spanish winemakers used to be like the French, but now they're competing with winemakers from Chile, Argentina, California, Australia and New Zealand.

"They said 'I want to make a good wine, with a funny name, and that's it,' " Puch says. " 'And a good price.' And they rule the market. If it's a global warming, it's a global market, too."

And so Puch and Torres wine will do what it takes to make a popular wine. If that means moving to cooler vineyards higher up in the mountains, then that's where they'll go.

Produced by Jessica Goldstein

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. From 2011 to 2020 he produced stories that explored the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.