Climate change appears as an open door for winegrowers in Denmark
After the rise of the temperature, Danes have seen the national wine industry boost in the past decade, but still there is a long path before Denmark becomes a strong wine producing region in Europe
By Olga Kalatzi and Clara Ribera
SIMON Hedegaard has his vineyard in the coastal but sheltered town of Skødstrup, in central Jutland (Denmark). Hedegaard is one of the one hundred commercial wine producers that today cultivates and makes wine in Denmark. He started working on his own vineyard ten years ago as a hobby. Now his hobby has almost turned into a part-time job, combined with his other and main job as a nurse with mentally ill people. Hedegaard spends 3.000 hours every year to produce the same amount of bottles, which are sold afterwards in his winery and other local shops in the area.
The global warming has had a key role to the upscale in wine production in Denmark. An increase of 1ºC has been registered in the past century in the country. Jens H. Christensen, researcher at the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI), predicts that in 2050 Denmark will be about two degrees warmer than it is now. As a consequence, the growing season will be extended for more than a month and the number of days affected by a heat wave in summer will be doubled.
“This half or one increasing degree is helping to make wine much richer in flavour. A longer ripening allows also more aromas to be developed. A week earlier or later makes a huge difference in terms of ripening”, explains Torben B. Toldam-Andersen, expert in Agricultural Plant Science in the University of Copenhagen.
In 2000 Denmark could count five vineyards on its lands, a number that increased to 35 in 2005, and today is over a hundred. It is a very small industry, but still, the boost is significant.
Jørgen E. Olesen, a researcher from the Agroecology Department at Aarhus University (Denmark) argues, “Without a favorable climate, such increase would have not been possible.” This Scandinavian country is characterized by mild winters and cool summers, not particularly the paradise to cultivate high quality grapes to produce wine.
Climate change, a factor
Climate change is one of the most important factors in the success of all agricultural systems, determining whether a crop is suitable to be grown in certain regions –including the wine grape. In viticulture, weather conditions are the most incidental aspects in the ripening of the fruit that is directly linked to the quality of the wine afterwards produced.
“There is no question about it: the rise in the temperature due to climatic reasons is a big advantage for the wine production in Denmark”, says Rasmus Ørnberg, head of Environment and Biodiversity department at the AgriFish Agency of Denmark.
The vine is a crop mainly influenced by the temperature and the quantity of sun exposure. The more heat it gets, the more sugar the grape will have. And the amount of sugar is connected to the percentage of alcohol the wine accumulates. Although sugar is a substance that can easily be added after adjusting the parameters, the European Union holds very strict rules in terms of how much sugar or acid a producer can add to the fresh grape or the young wine in order to keep it as much of an agricultural product as possible. Denmark belongs to Zone A according to the EU legislation and producers can only add sugar up to a certain limit.
“In order to make wine in a cool climate you need to add sugar before fermentation to raise the level of alcohol, and the limit for our region is 12%. The allowance we have to enhance the alcohol is a good thing. However this regulations are very different from place to place”, explains Jean Becker, former president of the Danish Vineyards Association.
The parameters are variable depending on the region and the climate conditions the area goes through every year. Denmark has had an especially cold summer in 2015, allowing a higher percentage of added sugar to compensate the high levels of acid that the wine will have.
It might seem that by regulating the sweetness or acidity of the beverage, you can adjust the effects of climate change on the grape. “The consequences of global warming can be altered to a very little extent by winemakers in the cellars. In the end, to make a good wine, you need a high quality grape, coming from varieties perfectly adapted to the prevailing climatic conditions in a region”, says Markus Rienth, professor at Changins, a University of applied science for viticulture and oeneology located in Switzerland.
The most noticeable event resulting from climate change is the expansion of the agricultural land to northern latitudes. “The fact that now temperatures are warmer, allow wine producers to grow varieties that used to be cultivated exclusively in southern regions –Spain, Italy, France–, and at the moment they are grown upper north”, adds Rienth.
Until 2000, Danes were forbidden to manufacture wine. After this ban was lifted the Danish wine industry began to grow. The EU law that regulates from 2008 the wine industry in the communitarian market is very tight. This is to preserve the best traditions of European wine growing and to promote its social and environmental role. To do so, Europe is divided in three zones (A, B and C). Denmark belongs to zone A, as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Czech Republic, Poland and the northern part of Germany. Due to the lack of sun, this area is allowed to enrich up to 3% the level of alcohol, only if it does not cross the legal border of 11,5% – a higher percentage of alcohol is allowed in southern Europe. Totally on the opposite side of the scale, producers can carry out acidification of the beverage by adding 2,50 g/L maximum. On the other hand, Spain belongs to zone C, the warmest and driest. This zone it is only allowed to enrich the wine with up to 1,5%, but the total alcohol level allowed is between 12,5% and 13,5%. In years when climatic conditions have been unfavourable, Member States can request to raise the enrichment limit by 0,5% in all three zones.
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A threat for the south
Southern countries, however, such as Italy, Spain and France are already facing the effects of global warming. It is getting too warm, which makes the grape ripen very early and very sweet. “You can produce a wine, but you will not be able to produce high quality wine. Southern wine growing regions will suffer in the next fifty years since most of them grow already varieties with a very high need in temperature”, says Rienth.
Marie von Ahm, member of the fine wine think tank Grand Jury Européen, agrees that the climate is getting warmer and more extreme in southern countries like Spain. Apart from high temperatures, rainfall is becoming more abrupt and less “spread out” over the growing season. Meanwhile the hydric stress is also affecting taste.
Big and small winegrowers in Spain, Italy and France are trying to find ways to cope with these unstable climate changes by creating new vine varieties which can be more resilient to higher temperatures. Adapting viticultural techniques, for instance, change vine training systems to minimal pruning, can be a mid-term solution for some regions explains Markus Rienth. Every region has its own particularities and traditional procedures, which will make different as well the adaptation process.
Another solution might be also the shift to the north. There are already some companies seeking cooler places where to cultivate their traditional varieties. There is not a wide range of options: either they climb up mountains or they acquire land in northern regions.
In north-eastern Spain, the company Freixenet which produces sparkling wine has started to plant Pinot Noir and some other varieties in the mountain region of Cerdanya, very close to the French border.
“The warmer it will get, the more likely we will get better wine in the north. Of course if we speak in that extent, not everyone will be able to move their production. So, smaller producers might lag behind in the end,” adds Reinth.
The reason to look for cooler regions is that cold-type climate raise the level of acidity, a component which, as well as sugar, influences the wine’s quality. Although acid level is something that can be rectified during the winemaking process, the reality is that natural acids are lacking in the grapes from southern Europe, mostly due to the heat.
Danish viticulture is challenged
2014 and 2015 already appear as two of the warmest years. With the production mostly depending on climate, last year was the best in terms of quality and quantity of wine in Denmark. On the contrary, 2015, even though it has been generally a warm year –worldwide speaking–, at a local extent it has been very cold and wet. This has been translated with an output of one third of the production compared to 2014.
Becker, former president of the Danish Vineyards Association, states: “We know through facts that it is getting warmer in the north and in the south, but not in middle regions like Denmark. What is happening here, actually, is that it is getting more unpredictable.”
The instability of the climate and its extreme changes are one of the main difficulties faced by the small but expanding Danish wine sector. Producers cannot rely on stable outputs because of fluctuating weather conditions.
“The weather in Denmark can be very shaky. We have some years that are good and some that are not that good. We cannot produce the same as Italy, Spain, France and Greece where they rely on a stable production capacity because the weather is more steady”, says Svend A. Hansen, chairman of wine association Danske Vingaarde.
Source: Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI)
Danish Ministry of the Environment / Danish Nature Agency
On top of the unstable Danish weather, winegrowers also face high expenses. In order to start cultivating a vineyard, a person needs to invest at least one million Danish kroners, DKK (134.000€).
Simon Hedegaard, the winegrower and nurse, invested 1M DKK ten years ago to cultivate one hectare of land. “After ten years I started gaining some money. It is a very expensive hobby”, admits Hedegaard.
Esther Lauresen, another wine farmer in the hinterland rural town of Kjellerup (Denmark), agrees that producing wine in Denmark is very expensive, and not so competitive in the international market. “Danish wine does not have a chance in the European Union”, she says. The production process and the labour are more expensive in Scandinavian countries where everything is made by hand. Producing one bottle of Danish wine takes a lot of time, which makes the price of the litre climb up to between 15 and 30 euros.
Although Denmark is a very agricultural country, the government does not fund any viticulture activity. Production is very small and there are very few vineyards that actually make money.
“If a vineyard does not make profits, the government considers it as a hobby. If you get the commercial wine producer status, you get taxes back. I get 35% back of the goods I use to produce wine. They check if we are still making money every ten years”, says Hedegaard.
Average anual temperature in Denmark (1990-2100)
Red wine (hL) produced in Denmark annually
Why was 2014 a very productive year?
Development of climate regions in Europe
Not only about climate change
The reason we are producing wine in Denmark has nothing to do with climate change. The interest started in the 80s when some people started experimenting with different varieties. Nowadays is thanks to the Germans that we have around 300 different types of wine grape that can be grown in Denmark and similar climate regions” says the former president of the Danish Vineyard Association Jean Becker.
These hybrids that come mainly from the Germany and Switzerland have a shorter ripening process and are much more resistant to plant sickness. If the traditional vine varieties need 150 days to carry out their whole development, these hybrids can do it in 80 days.
Additionally, some producers adopted some alternatives in order to make profits even in the bad years such as the present one. Some wine farmers make wine and schnapps out of other fruits like apple or cherry, “and here in Denmark we have lots of fruits that are good for wine.”
Jean Becker, former president of Danish Vineyards Association
A promising future
In the local level Danish wine has already started to make the leap. Danes, as well as many Scandinavian tourists, visit the Danish vineyards to taste the wine and take a closer look to the production process. Thørbjorn Risgaard, the founder of the vineyard in Kjellerup, invites an expert from Luxembourg every year to teach and help him improve his viticulture techniques. “He says the white wine is quite good, although not as good as the German or the French. And the red wine has a lot to improve still.”
At an international level it is not likely that Danish wine can be competitive. “We need to remember that in a good year like 2014 the yield per hectare is one third of the production in the same amount of land in Germany. Nevertheless, on the quality side, there is a future for Danish wine”, says Jean Becker, who has just returned from the International VitiNord Conference in Nebraska (USA). This conference gathers experts from all over the world to discuss cold climate viticulture and their future. Although Danish wine has a lot to improve, Becker explains that there is a lot of interest in how the country is developing the industry.
According to Marie von Ahm, international wine consultant, there is still a long way to go before Denmark becomes an ideal place to grow high quality wines in a broader specter. “It will take a lot of climate change before Denmark becomes a wine producing country”, agrees Torben B. Toldam-Andersen, professor of Agricultural Plant Science in the University of Copenhagen.
“The wine industry is still in the infancy. There is much more to learn and experience before Danes produce truly great wines that can compare to international levels. A lot of work needs to be done” says von Ahm.
The path travelled in the last ten years gives hope to winegrowers in Denmark and other northern countries, which are quickly developing techniques and adapting to new climate landscapes. Jørgen E. Olesen analyses: “Some would consider climate change a threat, and some others an opportunity. I think it is a challenge”.