Monday, January 15, 2018

Recovery from vineyard fires

Last October there were, as many of you know, a few unexpectedly large fires in some parts of California. Indeed, the entire 2017 fire season was worse than usual (see 2017 California wildfires); and Wildfires are burning longer and hotter each year). Naturally, this attracted a lot of media attention, in the "wine and vine" media as much as anywhere else, since the fires occurred in a well-known vineyard area.

This seemed to distract attention in the USA away from the equally bad 2017 fires in Portugal (although see Decanter's report Deadly fires hit wine regions in Spain and Portugal). There were two lots of fires, actually. The first one was a firestorm in June in the Pedrógão Grande area of central Portugal — at least 65 deaths and 204 injuries, followed by three days of national mourning (see June 2017 Portugal wildfires).

The October fires, on the other hand, involved a series of several thousand fires spread throughout much of northern Portugal and north-Western Spain (see October 2017 Iberian wildfires) — at least 45 deaths in Portugal and dozens of injuries.

I am not sure that any vineyards were directly affected by the June fires, but some of the October fires had their effect, especially in the Dão viticultural region of northern Portugal. One of the purposes of this blog post is to draw your attention to a Portugese winery that is adopting an innovative way of recovering from their October fire.

This is Casa de Mouraz, a pioneering organic/biodynamic winery near Tondela, in the south-western part of the Dão region. It is a family business, run by husband and wife team António Lopes Ribeiro and Sara Dionísio. Sarah Ahmed provides a brief introduction to the winery and its wines (Catching up with the organic wines of Casa de Mouraz). Some of you may have encountered their wines, as reportedly 98% of the production is exported.

Casa de Mouraz was badly affected by a fire on October 15, which burnt 50% of the vineyards, damaged some of the equipment, and destroyed part of their wine store and its contents. Quinta dos Roques, further east, was another winery that was severely affected on the same day (see Rising from the ashes, the Dão’s phoenix 2017 vintage).

The strategy for Casa de Mouraz to bounce back has been to start an Indiegogo campaign — Casa de Mouraz wines 2.0 - Rising from the ashes. They are seeking €100,000 to get started on their long-term plan, which will ultimately cost an estimated €600,000. You can read about their plans (and the rewards for donors) on the campaign page.

You could do a lot worse than support this Indiegogo campaign. [Note: the October fires occurred after the Dão grape harvest, which was the earliest in memory, so the wines will not be affected.]

Fires and viticulture

The ultimate cause of the Portugese fires is a simple one, and it is the same as the one in California — eucalypts and pines don't mix. Well, they do, actually, but in an extremely volatile manner when the weather gets warm. Trust me — I grew up in the homeland of the eucalypts, so I know exactly what they can do when they get a bit hot and dry. Indeed, the affect of fire on native plants is what I used to study as a scientist when I lived in Australia; so I have a personal as well as professional interest in this topic.

Eucalypts occur near many vineyard areas. From their native Australia, they were transplanted during the 1800s to all continents except Antarctica, into almost all climates where they will grow. Indeed, it's a long time since I traveled anywhere in the world without seeing a eucalypt or two. People thought that they "would cure malaria, solve the drainage problems that defeated Roman emperors, fill the Sahara with forest, and reveal the presence of gold" (Ashley Hay. 2002. Gum: the Story of Eucalypts and their Champions).

As a consequence, in many places eucalyts have actually replaced the native shrublands and woodlands. They are used as a valuable source of hardwood in areas that either lack native hardwood species, or where such species have been removed. They can be used as a cash crop, for example for paper production, building timber, railway sleepers, telegraph poles, etc.

The main point is that the eucalypts can deal with fires rather easily. After fires, the Australian media always used to ask: "when will the burned forest come back?"; and the botanists always tried to patiently explain that the native plants hadn't gone anywhere — they were still there, still alive, and ready to regrow as soon as the rains came. Fire is a natural part of their life.

But it isn't a natural part of most agricultural systems, least of all vineyards. Therefore, while it is obviously important for the affected agricultural areas to recover from the effects of the 2017 fires, it seems to me to be equally important to think about the future, in terms of prevention. We need to be proactive not just reactive.

Fires in what are called Mediterranean-type climates (hot dry summers and mild wet winters) are to be expected — they cannot be avoided, for basic climatic reasons. Nor can fires be excluded from areas with natural Mediterranean-type ecosystems — fire is a normal part of such systems. Indeed, in those parts of Europe, North America, South America, Australia and South Africa that have such ecosystems (see the map), the plants naturally take it in their stride.

You may not have realized it before, but the map shows you that much of the world's fine-wine viticulture actually occurs in areas with Mediterranean-type ecosystems. The natural vegetation of these ecosystems are shrublands with small trees, variously referred to as heaths, maquis (France), macchia (Italy), matorral (Spain, Chile), chaparral (California), kwongan (south-west Australia) and fynbos (South Africa). This native vegetation is highly flammable, and most of the indigenous shrubs (and trees, when they occur) actually require fire as part of their life-cycle.

So, in all of these cases avoidance of fires cannot be our agricultural management strategy, if we care about biodiversity, because recurrent fires are a natural component of that biodiversity. And, after all, isn't the whole point of biodynamic agriculture to care about biodiversity, while producing high-quality agricultural products?

That leaves us with survival as our basic strategy, just as it is for the native plants and animals, which re-emerge with aplomb after a fire. Vineyards and wineries in fire-prone environments thus need to be able to withstand recurrent fires. We don't know when or where the fires will occur, but we do know that they will eventually come in all Mediterranean-type ecosystems, whether they are deliberately lit or not. When they do come, the vineyards and wineries must be ready — not just as single entities but as a group.

Hoping to escape fires is not a viable strategy any longer. It seems to me that not much thought has yet been given to this topic. There are many possible components of a such a strategy, including winery design and vineyard management, which I will not go into here.

However, perhaps the deepest thought needs to be given to the necessity of having non-native trees such as eucalypts inter-mixed with vineyards. The natural vegetation of Mediterranean-type ecosystems is flammable on its own, and yet into this environment we have actually introduced eucalypts, the most flammable trees on earth. It seems to be the height of silliness to have them in fire-prone areas containing vineyards. All this does is make a potentially bad situation infinitely worse.

Vineyards are usually capable of withstanding relatively mild fires (see Months after Wine Country fires, damaged vineyards face uncertainty), but they cannot survive a severe eucalypt-propagated wildfire. We cannot keep relying on insurance policies and crowd funding for the long-term fire management of the affected viticultural areas.


  1. ". . . eucalypts, the most flammable trees on earth."

    We here in California are acquainted (through 4th of July Independence Day celebrations) with a handheld firework known as a Roman candle.

    Watching a eucalypt burn is akin to watching a Roman candle firework go off.

    Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, eucalypts were planted by California vineyard owners as wind breaks.

    The unintended consequence has been to worsen wildfires when they break out at vineyards.

    (Aside: the most famous Napa Valley vineyard with a eucalypt wind break is "Martha's Vineyard" -- home of Joe Heitz's revered California Cabernets in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. Their "minty / eucalyptus" character comes from the oils given off by the nearby trees.)

  2. Yet to be determined is what affect the wildfires will have on producing "smoke tainted" wines.