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Can a Revamped DOC help wineries?

The members of Northern Italy’s Garda DOC are optimistic because they believe they can increase their tourism.

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A geologist gave a detailed explanation of the region’s climate and soil composition to sixty journalists from throughout Europe and the United States during a breezy early summer day in Dogana di Lazise, a town in Northern Italy on the shore of Lake Garda. Wine experts scribbled notes in a serious manner while scowling and donning headphones so a translator could translate for speakers of languages other than Italian. The Lake Garda DOC was discussed instead of agreements or sanctions in the setting of a United Nations meeting. The cooperative, which spans 370 square acres of Northern Italy between Lombardy and Veneto, was competing to establish its wines, predominantly whites and sparkling with a brilliant, approachable character, as a household name not only in Italy but also internationally.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata, sometimes known as a DOC, is not exceptional in and of itself. Over 300 DOC wines can be found in Italy, where a system designed to stop wine fraud was introduced in 1963. A wine must meet stringent quality standards, be produced in a certain location, and, depending on the DOC, adhere to specific limitations such as minimum alcohol level or harvest yields. Similar to the well-known restriction that a sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it originates from the Champagne area of France, this protected appellation of origin is widespread throughout most of Europe.

However, the news of the DOC’s redesign made a splash for a number of reasons. The DOC was established in 1996, so it wasn’t particularly new, but it had recently acquired popularity as a means of allowing the lesser-known regional sparkling wines to compete in the UK market. Its size is out of the ordinary for a DOC because it combines the DOCs of Valentèsi, San Martino Della Battaglia, Lugana, Colli Mantovani, Custoza, Bardolino, Valpolicella, Valdadige, Durello, and Soave into a sort of super group. From manufacturing 4.5 million bottles in 2016 to 20 million last year, the region’s production more than doubled in the previous five years. But Garda DOC is even more optimistic than that; they aim to increase region-produced wine output to 40 million bottles year, primarily for export. The consortium’s head, Carlo Alberto Panon, stated that the group currently exports 80% of its products.

However, in 2022, employing a DOC as a marketing tactic is a difficult decision. Yes, it’s a useful approach to clearly identify a number of wine styles that aren’t as well-known or recognizable in the United States. However, as the panel’s experts made clear, a significant portion of the characteristics of the wines they hope to safeguard and promote depend, like those of other wines, on biodiversity and climate. If you haven’t noticed, those are seriously in flux as of 2022 due to the fast intensifying effects of climate change. Wine is a regional product. Is a DOC something that helps protect wines or something that ties them to a specific set of traits that may become harder to replicate as a place’s features change?

The Lake Garda of 2022 won’t resemble the Lake Garda of 2032, that much is almost certain. According to environmental scientist Justin Herndon, “when an area transitions from dryer to wetter, or vice versa, the composition is going to change, and it’s going to impact how the wine tastes, how the grapes develop.” The problem with climate change is that it’s unclear how it will affect the climate or whether certain regions would experience more regular instances of severe weather. Thanks to chemicals and weather controls, winegrowers may reduce the consequences to some extent, but it requires a lot of work. But eventually, Herndon added, “you’re going to have to decide between a low-intervention strategy and completely altering the qualities of the wine.”

Crushed: How Climate Change Is Altering the Way We Drink author Brian Freedman concurred. “Global weirding is more prevalent than global warming. Is the soil chemistry more significant than unusual downpours, wildfires, or extreme heat? The soil chemistry won’t alter significantly because it took millions of years to get there. Will the underlying geology be superseded by that?”

Like all DOCs, the Garda DOC’s effectiveness rests on how deftly it can handle these upcoming changes and how adaptable its governing members are about its constraints. “It would hurt a region if it works in such a way that the rules and regulations that are laid down at the outset are chiseled in stone from on high,” said Freedman. For example, if there are extremely rigorous requirements for the quantity of plants per acre or the altitude they must grow at, that could lead to problems later on. According to Freedman, “if that’s permanent, like any regulations, that’s setting yourself up for failure.” “The capacity to pivot must exist.”

To their credit, the Garda DOC members appear to anticipate that. They are thinking about what makes their region unique both today and in the future as they try to promote their local wine. Freedman continues, “If the rules are unchangeable, that’s setting yourself up for failure.” But one of the things that particularly struck me was how adaptable and ready to change so many manufacturers throughout the world are, and I believe that will be extremely beneficial to them.

“I respect their optimism,” Freedman remarked of the Garda DOC. And yeah, those wines are good.