Tradition and climate change: “The vineyard moves north”

A dry summer, a rainy autumn: conditions that are far from ideal for winemakers. How sensitive should they be to the weather, how do they react to climate change? What about the prices? An oenologist from a family business talks about it with Mr. Becker, wine is luxury food. One. which depends on the weather. What does the perfect vintage look like for wine time?

Marco Becker: (laughs) A beautiful, cool and cold winter to contain parasites, a spring that is slowly warming up, so as not to get a sunburn in March. Emergence in mid-April. A not too hot but sunny summer. In between, always rain, that is, evenly distributed precipitation. And then an autumn from mid-September, perfect for the harvest – from five to six weeks – with cooler nights for the aromatic ripening of the grapes. Would be a dream!

How did it go this year?

At least the start was very promising – at the beginning of the year it was relatively warm, which meant that the vines started sprouting early and then you already know that autumn and harvest are coming soon enough. As a rule, it takes about 100 days from flowering to ripe grapes. In spring, you already knew that for most varieties, autumn would start as early as the end of August.

Would a later reading be better?

Absolutely! For us, early autumn still means warm August days. So, for example, rot can spread even faster. Thereafter, as a rule, cooler weather and less fungal infestation also mean less rot, because biological processes take longer. Grapes don’t spoil so quickly.

But in late August, early September the weather was quite rainy …

The Beckers, a traditional family of winemakers with a passion for grapes.

(Photo: Timo Jaworr)

We have had relatively a lot of rain, which is not ideal for the harvest. We also had a hailstorm which damaged some of the grapes. Rain and hail cost us five to ten percent of the harvest this year.

Are you still satisfied with the 2022 vintage?

He wouldn’t need the hail in the end. The rainfall in September was also double the normal. The conditions were far from ideal for the harvest. But all in all it was a pretty good year for us. From that point of view I am satisfied.

Summer was relatively hot again, like it had been years before. What does this mean for grapes and for your work?

The grapes ripen earlier in the hottest summers. The Öchsle degree, the sugar content of the grapes, increases and the wines eventually have more alcohol and become heavier. However, the trend among customers is quite the opposite. Warmer summers are not a new phenomenon to us, nor are they surprising: we have been dealing with climate change since the 1990s – and as winegrowers we initially benefited from it. In the meantime, however, everything has moved too far: currently the harvest takes place about four weeks in advance, no longer at the end of September, but at the end of August. This is accompanied by rising temperatures during the harvest. This year we went to the grape harvest around 4am to avoid the midday heat if possible.

As a winemaker, how else can you react to climate change?

Viticulture is extremely complex. Everything takes time. In our family business, we try to react with other more heat resistant grape varieties. We are traditionally located here in a prime location for Riesling. But now it’s too hot for Riesling here. That’s why the vineyard itself is also moving north: Denmark, Sweden, even Norway now grow wine. However, the upheaval or adjustment is happening slowly. The normal rotation period in viticulture is said to be 25-30 years. This is the time when a complete conversion of the vine takes place.

So will Germany’s white wine country become a red wine country in the coming years and decades?

It will take time, but it will happen. The problem with this: red wine is available almost everywhere in the world. Competition for the then German red wine would be significantly greater. So far, the wine region of Germany has benefited from its rather cool climate and German white wine has made a name for itself around the world, not least because the competition was not as great as with red wine. Climate change is causing Germany to increasingly give up its wine identity and give it to the north.

Is this change also reflected in the prices?

No, not directly. It is more the trend that determines the prices of wine. There is a world market in the industrial wine sector and German wine has not been able to keep up with prices for a long time. Industrial wines are the wines that go into processing. Cheap grape juices or sparkling wine, for example, are mainly imported from other EU countries: Spain, Italy, France.

So should German winemakers rather focus on the more profitable bottle business?

At least that’s where many winemakers and wineries want to go. We were a pure supplier to large “fass wine growers” wineries. However, we have systematically reduced this area since the early 2000s. As a family business – my wife, my three children and I – we now sell around 20 percent of bottled wine and the trend is steadily increasing. But this small family business could not be managed in any other way: the average price for a bottle of wine in this country is just under 2.60 euros.

Family business keyword: what are the advantages?

Becker – the winery

The family-run winery in Mainz-Ebersheim has roots in agriculture that go back eight generations. Since the early 2000s the company has increasingly focused on bottled wines. Their share of the total production is now nearly 20 percent or nearly 30,000 bottles. We mainly grow dry red and white wines from different grape varieties, some of which are then also stored in barrique. It is sold through several farm stores and nationwide through an online store. Several wines were awarded.

First, of course, is direct contact with the customer. This is unique in family businesses. Customers have a bond with us: they know us, the company, the family, the philosophy. Build a relationship, nurture it and grow from it.

Direct contact with customers is an advantage, especially in today’s world of high inflation, fears of recession and rising energy prices …

Absolutely! It is not just rising prices that have a negative effect as a cost factor. Availability is also an issue, for example with glass. Some bottles are already in stock to guarantee bottling next year. Rising commodity and energy prices are particularly evident in crop protection. Here the prices have tripled in some cases. The doubling of the price of steel also affects.

In which way?

In many places the posts to which the screws are attached are no longer wooden, as they should be replaced every three to five years with today’s qualities. Instead, many winemakers, including us, use galvanized steel poles. Although they cost more, they can last 30 to 40 years.

So will the price of wine go up?

Yes, although the magnitude cannot be accurately estimated at the moment. At the moment we are still selling at the old prices, we are selling off vintages that have already been bottled, so to speak. But that will change in the next year when we include the rising costs. But I think the price increases will be limited. We must not forget that wine is not a staple food, but a luxury.

Thomas Badtke spoke with Marco Becker

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