The covid challenge for winemakers

 Gunter Leitzgen in the Bremmer Calmont, Europe’s steepest vineyard
Photo by kind permission of Susanne Leitzgen

“If you’ve got a glass in one hand a bottle of wine in the other, you won’t touch your face.” So say German vintners toasting the gradual end of lockdown as they survey the winding Mosel River from the top of the steepest vineyards in Europe. It’s an ideal place to think about the future. It’s where the vineyards dating back to Roman times give way to forests and unexpected swathes of arable land, which during and after World War Two saved the locals from starvation.

Once places of rural poverty – where a single cow would pull carts up and down the steep slopes to the forests and fields – high tech engineering, wind and solar farms now dot the landscape. There is keen interest in developing a greener, more equal post-Covid society.

Whereas vineyards have gradually expanded in Yorkshire from one in 2006 to around 20 hobbyists and seven or so commercial vineyards over the past 15 years, along the Mosel anxiety persists as viticulture continues to decline. In both locations, thinking about innovation to sustain and meet future needs at the most practicable local level is fed by a sense that post-Covid, things have to be done differently. As Mosel vintner, Susanne Leitzgen puts it, “Nature must be respected: humans must stop plundering it to death.”

Covid and climate change have highlighted labour problems and the sustainability of viticulture. Yorkshire vintner Chris Spakouskas co-owns Yorkshire Heart Vineyard in Nun Monkton with his wife Gillian. He notes how more rainfall and seasonal shifts can affect yields with late frosts killing the first flush of buds. Chris works closely with one of the top agronomists in the UK to help grow a healthy vineyard. He and Susanne agree that a lot of effort is essential to maintain healthy vines and for quality control. A smaller yield and high quality are both preferable to higher volume. A reputation for quality matters and a highly trained workforce is key.

Chris and Gillian do the lion’s share of the work at the moment and are trying to retain their furloughed employees, whom they say are the best group they’ve ever had. Chris feels he could double the workforce, income permitting, if the labour were available. Labour is in short supply in Germany too.

Susanne and her husband Gunter, renowned for training and examining apprentices, point out that as vintners they too rely exclusively on an established workforce with a trained-eye to thin or sift out grapes quickly that don’t meet the grade. Their small, local team works well and, ranging in age from teens to over 80s, speedily clambers up the vertiginous slopes. The older workers, hobbyist wine growers in their own right, patiently transfer knowledge about local signs of impending weather change relative to other vineyards round the next bend in the river. They anticipate hourly changes in humidity and precipitation, and track insect movements as signs of sudden fungal attacks, early ripening of fruits and seasonal shifts.

Winter and spring have been extremely busy times irrespective of Covid-19 in Yorkshire and along the Mosel. As Susanne says, “Nature doesn’t recognise Covid. In that respect, nothing has changed. Social distancing outside isn’t a problem.” Workwise things have changed though. For Susanne the new normal is internalised as, wearing a mask, she prepares individually wrapped lunches for the apprentice and seasonal workers who previously would have sat around a large communal table.

However, masking up for Susanne was normal practice for many activities, even before last week’s relaxing of lockdown. Be-masked apprentices learn in the wine cellars about making sekt (a champagne) and the stringent temperature requirements governing grape harvesting and processing in winter to make high quality heavy, sweet Eiswein (ice wine). Non-compliance attracts stiff penalties and if the temperature does not fall sufficiently, some years no Eiswein can be made. Processing and bottling are equally strictly controlled to maintain purity standards. Outside, vintners already use FFP3 face masks as protection when dousing the vines with anti-fungal sprays. Helicopters spray regularly but owing to the steepness of the vineyards, workers carry heavy cylinder sprays to treat each vine, which they inspect daily.

For now, keeping Covid at bay and protecting and encouraging would-be young vintners is the order of the day. As in Yorkshire, tourism has been badly hit. The traditional Mosel cruise boats can’t now drop off hikers and tourists at local restaurants, flea markets, medieval festivals and open-air concerts. So the locals are supporting local trades more than usual. Traditional Roman-themed village parties bringing Bacchus, the wine queens, soldiers and princesses to bless the grapes have been postponed. Vintners’ incomes there and here are inevitably adversely affected.

Both Susanne and Chris have won prestigious awards for their work. Wine-tasting tours in Yorkshire will be difficult to re-start but for Susanne, they are not even a consideration. Leitzgen viticulture is all about wine and especially specialist Riesling wines. By contrast, Chris also has a brewery and would normally supply currently closed pubs and clubs. Leitzgen wines are in high demand by restaurants in Germany but they have yet fully to re-open.

Online and tele-sales continue for both, but Chris feels that Covid has hit the Yorkshire vineyard movement so hard that it will take years to recover. For Yorkshire Heart, expansion may have to wait awhile and land put to alternative uses like camping in the short term. That is not on the cards for Susanne: volume is tightly regulated and ceilings on production cannot be breached, so expansion is not a priority. Sustainability is.

Meanwhile, both work hard to ensure the best possible quality output this year while staying alert to a second Covid wave. Susanne is not complacent. The situation in the UK is not just a salutary warning of how not to manage a pandemic: it scares them. At the same time, both are determined not to relax their commitment to quality and to get that demands patience.

Bacchus will return.