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SWR interview with Prof. Ulrich Fischer: What will Palatinate wine be like this year?

After a changeable summer, this year's Palatinate wine is eagerly awaited. The vintage could be interesting, says Prof. Ulrich Fischer and explains why climate change, of all things, makes red wine even better.


SWR Aktuell: The main grape harvest in the Palatinate starts today. What is your forecast: What will the 2021 vintage be like?

Prof. Ulrich Fischer: The 2021 vintage really is a challenge for the winegrowers in the Palatinate! We have learned this year that climate change means more than just hot and dry, it also means wet and cool. As a result, the grapes are significantly delayed in their ripening compared to the warm years we have become accustomed to.

SWR Aktuell: What does this mean for the winegrowers, what are the challenges?

Fischer: The challenge is that the vineyards vary: There are some that are well advanced, and there are others that are still lagging behind in terms of ripeness. In addition, the wet weather this summer means that there are also some pests on the move, such as the cherry vinegar fly. For the winegrowers, this means that they have to keep a close eye on their vineyards and pick selectively. Either they go through the vineyards before the full harvest and cut off infested grapes or they are instructed to take a close look during the manual harvest.

SWR Aktuell: The summer was mixed and very wet - how does that affect the grapes?

Fischer: The summer wasn't so bad, because it was warmer than we felt. And the Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir vines are used to the cool weather. This means that they work better at 20 to 25 degrees than at 35 degrees. From this point of view, the vintage was not so bad in terms of the weather. There was always water so that the vines could continue to grow. And looking back, the great vintages are always those that have a long growing season, i.e. when we harvest the grapes late.

SWR Aktuell: What distinguishes these great and special vintages from the others?

Fischer: The longer the growing season, the more aromatic substances and acidity can be formed, which support a fresh, fruity, German style of wine. We also see opportunities for this vintage - even if we feel the summer was rainy. And that's why this vintage offers opportunities to make somewhat fresher, somewhat lighter white wines, great rosé wines, but also great sparkling base wines. So we have good starting conditions for an interesting vintage.

SWR Aktuell: It was still raining in the days before the start of the harvest. Is that critical for the grapes?

Fischer: The rain is not so critical, because here in Neustadt or in Deidesheim, for example, on the somewhat sandier soils, we are below the normal rainfall per year; August in particular was very dry. We received less rain overall. And the 15, sometimes even 30 liters that have now fallen are not bad at all for the vines. This is not a catastrophe. It's good that it's now getting cooler again due to the cold front. When it rains in the fall, it should be cool, because the fungi don't grow in the cold. But if it's warm and wet, then they have good conditions.

SWR Aktuell: What does that mean for organic winegrowers?

Fischer: It was certainly a particular challenge for organic winegrowers. Not only did the water mean that the fungal pests had very good growing conditions, but the vines also grew quickly. Organic winegrowers work with products such as copper and sulphur, which are applied but not absorbed by the plant. Conventional winegrowers work with agents that are partly absorbed by the plant and thus provide a kind of protection for the growing shoot. That's why it was a particular challenge for organic winegrowers: they had to start plant protection early enough and then keep at it. Overall, winegrowers have learned a lot about organic plant protection in recent years. With the knowledge of 20 years ago, everything would have been much more difficult.

SWR Aktuell: Periods of heat, drought and rain - climate change also has an impact on viticulture. How does that manifest itself?

Fischer: We notice it as follows: We have been measuring ripeness for over 50 years. We look to see when the vine starts to sprout, flower and ripen. These are very defined points that you can immediately recognize on the vine. And if we look at this over the last 30 or 40 years, we are now around three to four weeks earlier in terms of ripening than we were in the 1970s. There's no need to argue about that! There is very clear and scientifically significant evidence of this. As a result, the grapes have become somewhat riper and German red wines have become more competitive with southern products. Seen in this light, Pinot Noir, but increasingly also Merlot or Syrah, could really hold their own with wines from southern or central France and northern Italy. I don't want to say that we are now the winners of climate change. But I am a scientist and we are observing things.

SWR Aktuell: What are the undesirable consequences?

Fischer: At the same time, new, heat-loving pests are appearing. These are fungi that spread particularly in the trunk of the vine. Walkers in the vineyards often see vines that have completely collapsed, with withered leaves and grapes. This is a consequence of this esca disease. And we have insects like the cherry vinegar fly. It looks like the normal fruit fly we know. But it has a special characteristic: it can pierce the grape skin, lays eggs in it and the larvae grow and open the grape skin to pests. The bacteria and yeasts now have access to the grapes and convert sugar into alcohol and acetic acid. This is undesirable from a sensory point of view, because we want to produce wine, not vinegar! The cherry vinegar fly is also a reason why more red grape varieties are now being harvested early to make a delicious rosé wine rather than red wine.

SWR Aktuell: Does climate change require completely new, resistant varieties?

Fischer: There are two reasons for new grape varieties: firstly, when it gets warmer, our early varieties simply ripen too early, lose their acidity too early and therefore also their character. The second reason for new varieties is that society, politicians and the EU are demanding that agriculture use fewer pesticides. This affects both organic and conventional winegrowers. This is why there is a new trend towards planting fungus-resistant grape varieties. These are European varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc or Muscat, through which the resistance genes of American wild vines to these diseases are crossed - using normal cross-breeding. The result is that these grape varieties only need to be sprayed a third as often and may not need spraying at all in 20 years, which represents progress for the environment, winegrowers and consumers alike. The varieties offer many opportunities to work in a more environmentally friendly way across the board in the future

SWR Aktuell: What is your favorite wine to drink?

Fischer: Oh, that's a difficult question! (laughs). I love the variety, that I can drink different types of wine here in the Palatinate, but also all over Germany. That's fun for me! But the most common grape variety we drink is Riesling. Even wines that are eight, nine or ten years old. It's a great, great pleasure to drink mature Rieslings!

SWR-Aktuell: You're probably not a fan of the typical Palatinate Riesling spritzer?

Fischer: You're right! I grew up on the Moselle with lighter, sweet Rieslings. And I have to say: when I'm thirsty, I drink mineral water and when I want to have fun and enjoy wine, I drink wine. But diluted? We put too much effort into making the wines so balanced and harmonious and well-balanced. Diluting them with water is not my thing! I haven't become a true Palatine yet by paying homage to the Schorle like the locals do!


You can find the entire interview with Prof. Ulrich Fischer on SWR aktuell Rhineland-Palatinate at this link: