The urgent need to embrace new varieties

Saturday, 21. April 2018 - 15:30

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Joël Rochard points to a map of France, at Champagne. Could Syrah grow here one day? “It is not unimaginable,” he says.

Rochard is the national expert in sustainable development at the French Institute of Vine and Wine, based in Epernay. In addition to looking at sustainable production methods, an important part of his work focuses on climate change. “It is certain that the climate is changing, the temperature is rising,” he says, “but how fast cannot be predicted very precisely.” 

Under normal conditions, the climate zones in France make it possible to grow a wide variety of grapes, the temperature differs 0.6 to 0.8 degrees on average per hundred kilometres between north and south. Over time, these small differences together with terroirs have allowed a diversity to flourish in different regions. “All varieties have a climatic optimum,” explains Rochard. “If it is too cold, the grapes will have some vegetative taste, lack aromas and sugars. If it is too hot, overripe tastes will prevail and the necessary acids will be lacking.”

Changing the map
The borders of wine production are already shifting to the north of Europe as a result of temperature rises. “In Germany and Switzerland the farmers benefit from higher temperatures; they experiment a lot and are able to make better red wines than before”, says Rochard. ”In the south, winemakers face more drought than before. In some regions the high alcohol content already proves to be problematic for a pleasant balance of the wine.”

Overall, the changes may happen gradually, but they will add up to a dramatic overturning of the wine map. French wine farmers are already experimenting with varieties that previously have not been cultivated in particular areas. According to a recent study this could be the best way to adapt to climate change. “In some experimental fields in AOC regions, farmers study how new varieties will do, such as Syrah in Bordeaux,” says Rochard. Although new varieties may do well, farmers may not plant them legally for commercial purposes within an existing AOC area. Until that changes, it is possible to experiment on a larger scale with grapes within the IGP. 

But while French President Macron is making a strong effort to pursue the Paris climate agreement, the attention of wine producers is not yet focused on climate change. “The French farmer is not losing sleep at night over global warming yet,” says Rochard. “The majority of companies are concerned with ensuring their day-to-day operations. Only when climate touches them directly they will launch into immediate action like in the year 2003, when vineyards had to cope with extreme drought. Since then, many have become more sensitive to the climate.” Last year was another wake-up year, due to extreme frosts and later water stress. “Many farmers therefore focus on methods that allow them already to achieve better yields under extreme conditions – or they contribute to counter global warming in their operational management.”

Diversity needed
A study published this year in Nature Climate Change focuses on the need to invest in diversity within the existing vineyards, in order to maintain crop yields, wine landscapes) and wine quality. In most countries, 70 percent to 90 percent of the surface is planted with only 12 of the well-known varieties – or 1 percent of the total diversity. There are an estimated 1,100 varieties of Vitis vinifera in use for commercial wine growing purpose across the globe, offering a tremendous diversity of traits. Researchers, however, have mostly focused on key varieties such as Syrah and Chardonnay, which means there is little data about more obscure varieties. 

It's in the more obscure varieties, however, where the helpful traits are likely to be found, that will be necessary for the long term future of the industry.

“Yet this adaptation will require growers and researchers to work together in gathering data and in building better projections of which varieties will be best for which regions in the future,” the authors conclude in their study. 

It will also be important the vignerons have the legal ability to plant new varieties, as using existing vineyards will allow local landscape to be preserved. And last, but not least, consumers will also have to accept new varieties from their beloved regions.
Hans Kraak