The figure of Robert Savé cannot be understood without the vineyard. This researcher’s eyes sparkle every time he talks about vines and wine. He has spent half his life surrounded by vineyards, and now works to preserve their production and protect grapes from climate change. He is a researcher and emeritus coordinator of viticulture at IRTA. Furthermore, he is a specialist in viticulture and climate change, professor of ecology at the UAB, coordinator of the Sustainability and Climate Change area of the Plataforma Tecnològica del Vi, INNOVI consultant, member of the GECC, the MedECC, the Scientific Council of the Collserola Park Elevator and the City Council of Sant Cugat del Vallès.
What is your connection to the world of viticulture?
After spending a long time learning soil ecology under the guidance of Dr. J. M. Alcañiz, I studied ecology in the 1970s. During my degree, I was able to work in the Department of Ecology at the UAB, directed and coordinated by Dr. J. Terrades… These beginnings allowed me to get to know, first hand, the ecology of the Mediterranean.
I have been working as a team player in the world of viticulture since 2000. I work in both the public and private sectors. The Familia Torres winery was one of the first wineries where I worked. Fortunately, I have also collaborated with other large cooperatives in Catalonia and even outside the territory. Thanks to this possibility, I have been able to have a very broad vision of this sector…
For me, the vine is fantastic! It is a tree that can be mastered from above, without the need to climb a ladder, and it only works for six months! It is an actively functioning plant in the Mediterranean landscape, very resilient and a major challenge to learn about its cultivation.
What do you think about the way the wine sector is working right now?
Some people think that it is higher if you cut off your neighbor’s legs. When we overcome this concept, we will be a very well organized and much more powerful sector. Right now, we are one of the most export-oriented sectors. Over the years, we have adapted to new market needs and situations. For example, in times of great difficulties such as Phylloxeridae or economic crises.
“Some people think you are taller if you cut off your neighbor’s legs”.
I think that now is a good time to be able to face the 21st century with a different vision and a different system. Climate change is not the one that worries me most in terms of vineyards and production. We have been lucky enough to be able to move, and at least we will have gone down to Murcia. In Murcia, we see that there is wine and, by the way, good wine… What do I mean by this? That in adverse conditions you can make very good wine. However, what we cannot do is to continue to make xarel-lo as we did in the 80s, on the same plot of land as in the 80s.
Is it a very competitive sector?
It is a sector that is structured with models from the early twentieth century associated with a model of ownership, production, manufacturing… which to adapt to the current consumption chain and the productive, environmental, economic and cultural challenges. It is very complicated and strong leaders are needed. Furthermore, it is for this reason that, even now, we inherit ways of doing things from many years ago. Therefore, adapting to the different demands of the market becomes very difficult. On this point, I think we have a great challenge ahead of us, because even now, many winemakers are still very keen to maintain their way of being and doing things regardless of the territory where they are located and the market and consumers for whom they produce.
Climate change is a reality and every day more and more studies confirm it… What are the main impacts we can expect in the Mediterranean geographical area?
The TICC (2016) and MedECC (2020) are objectively clear and conclusive: the Mediterranean is a global hot spot. Over the next few years, temperatures will rise more dramatically and considerably than in other parts of the world. On the other hand, rainfall will not decrease in terms of liters per year, but its frequency and intensity will change. This will lead to increased evaporation, which, combined with an equally lower effective rainfall, will lead to droughts. It is estimated that by the middle of the 21st century, there will be 20% less water availability in the Mediterranean basin. In addition to all this, there is the geographical and temporal uncertainty of this availability. The main impacts are – and will be – drought together with phenological and metabolic changes in the crop, associated with higher temperatures, which will obviously have a direct effect on the winery and the wine.
How will it affect grapes?
The territory, as shown by the Catalan Meteorological Service and the Catalan Climate Change Office, is very varied and, therefore, so is its effect on climate change. A good example of this are the agri-food indicators for the different DOs in Catalonia (developed by IRTA), which show general trends of the impact that the Mediterranean basin is suffering, but with different nuances in different points (reducing the vegetative and productive cycle, advancing sprouting and harvesting, increasing the need for water, generating sugar/pigment imbalances…).
For grapes, this climatic situation will lead to lower production and a different quality. Is it worse? No, it is different. They will sell things that may be highly positive or things that will not be so positive. I think there will be a return to estate wine. Having lower yields can affect the grain and, consequently, the skin to pulp ratio which, in turn, will have different degrees of ripeness. The production will be different… And more work for the winemakers.
“In the future, we will have less harvest, and we will have a different harvest… Is it worse? No, it’s different”.
Will production be lower?
We will have less production. It is estimated that, by 2050, there will be 17% less agricultural production in the Mediterranean basin. On top of all this, there are agricultural regulations and pacts. Next year, the Green Pact will be implemented. This means that at least 25% of production must be organic and that, in addition, we will not be able to use phytosanitary products. We should reflect… Organic production promotes on average 10% less production per year. We are moving towards lower production.
“In 2050 there will be 17% less agricultural production in the Mediterranean basin”.
Will all wineries feel it in the same way?
Wineries will have to make strategic decisions. Nowadays, 3,000 plants per hectare are generally planted. Although we know that it is raining less and less each year, we continue with intensive plantings… Maybe we should consider it, because with less production, and the environmental conditions we have and will have, we can continue to make good wine.
So production has to change if it is to change… Will we have less production, but will it be of higher quality?
It will be different because the proportion of sugars, colors and aromas will be totally different. The grape pulp will not ripen in the same way as the seed or the skin… This results in an unbalanced product, at least compared to the current one.
It will be very difficult to maintain a very specific taste in each vintage…
It will be very difficult… But that’s what marketing is all about, knowing and modulating consumer tastes. In the same way that it is sold as a value that all vintages have the same profile, it can be sold in the same way that the value is the difference.
When will that happen?
I will answer with a question… Why is Familia Torres going to Tremp? Why have certain wineries here, which have incorporated varieties from Central Europe, raised their prices in the last 8 years? It is already being noticed for those wineries that want to distribute wines with special characteristics…
Grapes and poorly processed wines are becoming more and more unbalanced. The evolution of the climate in the Mediterranean, from the 60s and 70s of the last century until now, has changed a lot. In the past, the Mediterranean basin could be compared with certain areas of Europe climatologically speaking. Now, any similarity with Bordeaux is purely coincidental.
“Now, any similarity with Bordeaux is purely coincidental”.
How do you think we can minimize that impact?
I would put a lot of emphasis on soil quality. Soil is a great reservoir of water, of biodiversity and is also rich in carbon, it is the key place, necessary for rooting plant material that is productively resistant to heat stress, drought and late frosts. We must move towards a low-carbon, common-sense agriculture that is low in carbon and high in common sense for an eminently rainfed Mediterranean crop.
What measures do you think the administration should take?
The government is a tool of society and, therefore, it does what is asked of it and what it can. In Catalonia, we have many public institutions (IRTA, URV, CREAF, CTFC, UAB, UB, INCAVI, VITEC, UdL, ACA, SMC, ICGC…) carrying out important studies on climate change and its effects on socio-economic sectors. They need to be coordinated and aligned with the sector.
What role does the consumer play in minimizing the environmental impact of the wine sector?
The consumer/consumer is the key point, the target of the sector’s production; however, we are subjected to a continuous barrage of cross-information. I have even heard advertisements from electricity companies claiming that they are sustainable companies… I guess they say that because the cables are supported by high voltage pylons. An ordinary consumer is unable to tell the difference between organic production and conventional production. We have to explain to them that in one system compared to the other, more and better protection is provided now and for the future of the territory, the economy and the culture. The wineries and farmers should work together to maintain the economic and landscape resources available to us. For me, this is what we must sell. The consumer can tell if a wine is organic by the label, the important thing is what is behind the label and inside the bottle.
¿Cómo definirías un buen vino desde el punto de vista de la ecología?
I am not an oenologist. I am just a simple wine enthusiast. Anyway, I believe that a good wine, like most things in life, is the one that is generated with a good product, a clear objective and a good knowledge and common sense during the whole process of its elaboration. In addition, a good wine requires good company, a good environment and being at the right moment. The relationship between the elements in a space and time is, for me, ecology.