Wine production in Europe has fallen to 50-year lows due to the impacts of extreme weather events including hail, frost, drought, and rot. No one knows this better than Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, a company that owns some of the biggest names in port including Taylor, Croft, and Fonseca.
Inviting former President Barack Obama to Porto was undoubtedly intended to make heads turn. Obama’s administration was instrumental in bringing the Paris Accord into being, but here in Porto, he acknowledged that “the targets set by the Paris Accord are not enough to avoid catastrophe. Making some subtle jokes about his successors approach to science, Obama stressed the need for all businesses to acknowledge the losses due to climate change and work together to find solutions.
In this interview with Adrian Bridge, he goes into much more detail about how climate change is impacting his business and what steps he taking to mitigate and adapt.
Nick Breeze (NB): Why the Porto Protocol?
Adrian Bridge (AB): The point about it is that we as a company have been doing a lot about climate change, mitigating climate change as a company. We have won awards for our sustainable viticultural methods that we use. We continue to do more but I increasingly find that one has to get new ideas and new solutions
As a CEO of a business I am looking at how I can actually make adjustments to our business in order to deal with the climate issue because, as a winemaking business, we are profoundly affected by climate change. Grapes are very fragile; the vine is very hardy. It lives in remote regions and very often there are, without the vine, the valley of the Douro would be pretty much empty. It sustains the entire economy and yet, it is vulnerable to climate change.
So, the idea came out about a year ago, when I was trying to get a carbon footprint study done. It was difficult to find companies that had experience in it. I then had someone come and talk to me about let's do a climate change conference to talk about the problems.
I said ‘I don’t want to deal with the problems. I think we all know that there are problems, what we need to deal with is solutions’. And so the best way that it seemed to come out of that was to create this thing called the Porto Protocol.
The Porto Protocol has 2 really specific objectives. It is quite general, we are not looking to target a reduction in carbon footprint or things like that because for a lot of people they don’t know what their carbon footprint is!
The point is to do more tomorrow than you are doing today. So if you haven’t started to change your business to help mitigate climate change, it is time to start and start now! If you are already doing a lot, do more!
But one of the challenges in both those cases is, ‘okay great… but what am I supposed to do?’ And that is where the Porto Protocol will come in because it serves as a platform to share ideas, to share experiences., share solutions, share ideas, share success.
There isn’t the time, and broadly there isn’t the need, to reinvent the wheel. Not just from the point of view of the wine industry, because obviously, it is a global industry, there are lots of experience all over the world we can share, but there are many other industries that are interlinked and have got experiences, we can learn from.
So instead of thinking in silos of wine industry and wine solutions, hopefully, we can learn from other industries and we can be a platform that gets lots of people to join from lots of people to join from various different industries.
NB: Do you know if there are wine regions visiting from other parts of the world?
AB: There are some attending the event tomorrow but the main event for other wine regions, will really be on the 6th and 7th of March 2019. So we are running a 1 day event now which is the Climate Change Leadership summit, we are launching the Porto Protocol, and then on the 6th and 7th March next we’re are doing something called the climate change leadership and solutions for the wine industry, where we specifically have 2 days of conference of people sharing solutions that have worked for their business. That is where I expect to have significant attendance from wine companies from around the world and many people have indicated their presence.
NB: Climate has always been one of the key definers of the concept of vintage wine. What are your observations about how climate is impacting port production over the last couple of decades?
AB: I think in the Douro valley there has been a huge amount of change in the last generation. You’ve shifted from people mostly reliant on foot-treading to now where very small production is actually done by foot treading. We still as a business continue to do that.
You’ve seen changes in planting, you’ve seen changes in the quality of our spirit that we use for the process of fortification, so many of these elements have come together. But specifically from a climate change point of view, we have seen, in the process of growing all of our grapes, major change between the years. 2016, a year of a lot of rain, a lot of humidity. We needed to do a lot of treatments to offset powdery mildew; 8 treatments, that is a record number of treatments!
Last year, we had a very hot year and that heat meant that we started the harvest much earlier. We finished it pretty quickly. We were pretty much finished by the third week of September, which is almost unheard of.
But those conditions were completely different. In 2017 it was dry all year. It stayed dry right the way through to about the third week of February of 2018 and then it started to rain. It’s been pretty much continual rain and it has affected the growing cycle this year.
Some of our vineyards were immensely impacted. At the end of May, we had in a single hour, one of our vineyards received 12% of its annual rainfall and that fell mostly as hail. So not only did it destroy the vineyard but the sheer volume falling from the sky created a huge amount of erosion problems.
So, these are usual occurrences and when we talk about climate change, sometimes people get confused. You know, 'climate change, global warming, it’s not getting warmer so therefore it is not climate change!’ The climate change we are talking about is unusual weather occurrences at different times of the year.
And this produces a huge amount of challenge, particularly in the agricultural sector where you are vulnerable to that change. If we have a heavy amount of rain during harvest, that can destroy a harvest.
No matter how good your growing cycle was, if it pouring with rain in harvest, you may well find that your grades start to rot. Why? Because the vine will suck up water, expand, the skins break, you have moisture, tightly dense bunches, you have rot, you have infections, you have all sorts of things.
So, the vine is hardy, but the grape is relatively vulnerable fruit.
NB: It is also the frequency of these events. Do you notice them becoming more frequent?
AB: I think it’s very difficult for me to make a comment on that because I have only been in the port business for 24 years. One of the interesting things I would say, is if we talk to some of our farmers, who took over from their father or from their grandfather, and therefore you have had the acquired knowledge over multiple generations, they will tell you things are different. They won't tell you precisely why it is different, but things have changed.
I think the import point about that inherited knowledge that is passed down between generations is that it is a very powerful tool when we are talking about climate change. This is because one of the unique things about the wine industry, that I would argue, is that it is the only branded agricultural business in the world. No other agricultural products really sells itself on the basis of place.
Very often these are remote places and very often these places are looked after by family businesses. Family businesses are very well positioned for this issue of climate change precisely because they are prepared often to take a long-term view.
In the world of corporate, Wall Street, and so on, the medium term is 6 months, longterm is next year! In family businesses, medium term is 5-10 years. Long-term is the next generation.
NB: AS climate scientists continue to predict a warmer climate with greater weather disruption, do you, or have you considered in investing in any scientific instrumentation for reading micro-climate data?
AB: We have online stations that we use in a multiple number of properties that we have in the Douro valley, and some properties that we don’t own but they are partner farmers, where we gather data and we use that data to inform our 72 partner farmers of what is happening climatically and advise them on the appropriate time to take action.
A good example of this might be when you need to spray for mildew. There are certain conditions which you can see coming, that mean you need to do it, and there are other moments when people might feel ‘I must, I must’ and we can say, ‘no, no, this is not appropriate’. The data that is telling us what is appropriate is coming from those micro stations.
So the interesting thing today is that not only is that equipment relatively inexpensive, it is also online, it is fairly easy to gather that data, and it is fairly easy to manipulate that data to a way that produces a positive outcome. That’s what we do and that is what we have been doing for years.
NB: With temperatures rising in the longer term trend and extreme weather events in the shorter term, what sort of interventions are you taking to mitigate against the impacts?
AB: We do obvious things which might be putting in place photovoltaic cells on top of our winery because a winery roof is a great place to generate electricity and indeed, last year our port business generated 76% of our total energy needs came from solar photovoltaic cells.
We reduced water, that is an important point. In 2005 we put in place a sustainable viticultural model with a new way of planting vineyards in the Douro which has essentially eliminated the need for herbicides and pesticides. We won an award for that in 2013 and we have been able to share our experiences with other farmers.
I am a strong believer that the way that we do this is not with a study and powerpoint presentation. It is by doing it and showing results. And those results are, not only that we eliminated herbicides and pesticides and dramatically reduced pesticides, that actually has had the advantage of reducing any runoff. That has saved us money; there are good economic arguments and it has benefited the environment.
And we can use this to influence our farmers to use exactly the same model to help with the layout of their vineyards. It is very precise. It is not only a single row, it is a very specific angle we use last guidance to get the tractor to do a precise 3% incline so that any water falling, drains in and drains along and therefore doesn’t cause erosion.
There are lots of aspects to it. We started it 13 years ago and we are happily sharing that information with other people. There is more were can do but we need to learn from other people to do more.
NB: What form does the sharing of information take?
AB: We have courses which we give our farmers in the Douro. We have also been very instrumental in trying to create and start other initiatives. One important one we started about 3 years ago was to get people to look at a system to get rid of this problem of hail.
So, broadly speaking, you seed the clouds with the use of silver oxide in the burners. You have to do that over a course of a number of kilometres to be effective and we have been trying to get people along the zone which is at risk, which we have a number of vineyards underneath that, in all to agree to give us a certain amount of land. We need 9 square metres but in certain strategic places, in order to make a system that works.
The interesting thing is that the institute of meteorology has the data, can tell you precisely when the risk of hail will happen. That data is good. That data works. The problem is, if you are sitting underneath saying, ‘It is gonna come in hours time and there’s nothing I can do about it!’ That is that. You can’t go and put an umbrella over all of your vines.
But, with that data, what you could do is fire the systems, seed the clouds, have it fall as rain and not as hail. Yes, you’ll have a problem with maybe a lot of rainfall, which might cause erosion, but it is not as destructive as hail.
NB: In terms of notice period for activating that kind of system?
AB: You need an hour! The beauty of all this is that nowadays we are looking at interconnectivity, you’ve got telephones, internet, wifi wireless, and all that sort of stuff that you can make work. You can get that system to work by pressing a button on a computer and it will fire. They do it in Burgundy, why not do it in the Douro?!
So again, this technology is known, the data is there for what to do about it. We know that it will help solve it. All we have to do is get enough people in the right places to agree to give 9 square metres of land for us to put the system on.
Quite frankly, yes it costs money, but as a company that just had a vineyard completely wiped out in a single hour, after we had this hail storm in the end of May. We had 12% of our annual rainfall in one single hour. That event cost our business about €400,000 by the time you take all the erosion, infiltration, damage to buildings and so on and so forth. Running a system of seeding the clouds costs a whole lot less than that.
As a big company, we can do it. Smaller farmers alongside who don’t have the financial resources would benefit, well great! That is great!
NB: Then this kind of technology can be rolled out to other regions.
AB: If it works and it is applicable to other people, then it is all part of sharing the solutions.
NB: Are there interventions in vineyard management that you have considered or are opposed to in trying to mitigate climate change impacts. You have just mentioned cloud seeding, but others are resisting irrigation.
AB: I think we have got to be extremely careful with irrigation. I think a lot of people look at the river Douro, see a wide body of water and think there must be a large quantity of water there so why can’t we irrigate. I think we have to remember that, for example, last year, the source of the river Douro dried up for 3 weeks. There was no water. The flow, therefor was severely diminished. The idea that we could take water out and plant in regions that have never supported vines because irrigation will help them, will simply be a way of increasing our evaporation rate and slowing down the flow in that river more.considerably.
I wrote an article several years ago in which I spoke about the Douro lakes. I think it is a piece of misinformation to talk about the Douro river in Portugal. It doesn’t exist anymore. It disappeared in the 1970’s when the river was damned. It is a series of lakes. It might look like a wide body of water but we need to remember in the summer, that often came to a small trickle, small enough in places for you tube able to jump over.
So, we don’t have a lot of water in the Douro Valley and we do need to think about the fact that because it is a series of lakes, lakes will accumulate run-off. They don’t necessarily clean the way a river does, so we have to think very carefully of what we are doing, what we are applying to our vineyards, what our run-offs are, and what we are extracting from that river.
NB: The reason I was asking about these interventions is because it comes back to this concept of the vintage that represent the climate and the different aspects of that year. I was wondering if there are some interventions that don’t really change that idea of the vintage while other might?
AB: I think the Douro valley is a series of micro climates and will continue to be a series of micro climates. What you tend to find is in years when there is a generally declared vintage, the vintage has been good fro everyone. So the overall, not the microclimate but the overall climate has been positive for the growing of ports.
But I also think that the way that we grow our vines and the efforts that is placed now is producing better port every year and therefor giving us plenty of material to choose from to make vintage port.
So I don’t see it from the specific perspective of vintage port it is an issue, nor do I think it would change particularly the style. Vintage port is an expression of terroir. Obviously, once you start to irrigate, you dramatically change the yields off your vineyard then I think that clearly will have impact in terms of quality.
But that just may mean that those grapes no longer produce or those vines are no longer producing things that go into vintage port. They are producing more and therefor the flavours are not as concentrated and rich as you need for vintage port.
NB: How would you describe your level of optimism towards port production or even towards viticulture in Europe as a whole?
AB: I think there are major issues. That is why we need to talk about solutions and there is no doubt that the wine industry in many parts of the world is being challenged by changes in climate. Obviously as a company which has now been operating for 326 years we probably have some sort of credibility about talking about the long-term, and if I say that I certainly expect that our business will still be here in 100 years and this or that might happen, I think there is more credibility in that than if we had started our company 5 years ago.
But do I know what those problems are? Do I see what those challenges are? Not entirely. But I do see that the current behaviour that we are taking needs to change if we are going to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change.
That’s why what we need to do is stop talking and start doing. We need solutions, we need actions!
Nick Breeze's article on attending the Climate Change Leadership summit in Porto in July 2018 can read here in The Ecologist.
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