|It was only nine in the morning and already temperatures in Beaujolais were heading towards 30°C. As I scrambled up a shallow slope towards the vineyard, the oppressive heat was a handy reminder of the impetus behind the project I was about to visit.
Sicarex – an organization working with and on behalf of the region’s wine producers – is dedicated to viticultural research. For several decades, its scientists have been working on a number of practical experiments, many of which are designed to mitigate the worst excesses of climate change. Ahead of me lay serried ranks of white grapevines – a mix of Alsace and Rhône varieties; the rows to my right were planted with red varieties, mostly a selection of innovative crossings and unusual Gamay clones. Further away, down the hill, lay plantings of additional hybrids, all of which – it was hoped – would bring fungal disease resistance to the region’s vineyards.
Sicarex’s work isn’t limited to experiments with unusual grape varieties. Among its various avenues of research are studies into the effectiveness of anti-hail netting; ways that carbon can best be captured in the soil and adaptations to the way the vine canopy can be managed during the course of the growing season so as to curb rising sugar levels.
Beaujolais isn’t alone in seeking viticultural solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change. Wine-growing regions around the world are looking for ways to ensure their continuing commercial survival in a world in flux. Bordeaux hit the headlines (in the wine world, at least) a couple of years ago when the INAO approved the experimental plantation of six new grape varieties, all adapted to heat and drought stress, in the region’s vineyards (although they have yet to be accepted by the more prestigious crus).
The Australian Wine Research Institute runs a vast array of research programmes focused on (among other things) the way biodiversity can improve a vineyard’s resilience, the optimization of water efficiency, and the identification of potential vineyard sites that might help address climatic variability. South Africa, too, is investing heavily in viticultural research, with the Gen-Z Vineyard Project, a 360-degree take on addressing the challenges faced by the next generation of grape growers.
In fact, you could pick any wine-growing region or country, pretty much at random, and identify a series of comprehensive, detailed research programmes, all designed to address the issues viticulturists will have to face in the years to come. But while it’s reassuring to know that these investigations are underway, there’s been less discussion about how they will be implemented.
The first hurdle, of course, is convincing growers to adopt the scientists’ advice. The most forward-thinking producers are already ahead of the game. Companies like Torres in Spain have long sought to identify both cooler sites for new vineyards and grape varieties (and associated rootstocks to which they can be grafted) that are better adapted to hot, dry summers. But opinions – and long-standing traditions – can be hard to shift. This is especially the case in regions that once struggled to ripen grapes reliably and where many producers may be inclined to view warmer summers as an advantage rather than a threat. Those who own older vineyards located in prime sites are also understandably reluctant to grub up their venerable vines to hedge against unpredictable risks.
Even assuming that growers take on all the available advice in the hope of future-proofing their vineyards, it will take time for the benefits to become apparent. Some modifications are, of course, simpler and speedier than others. Altering the way leaf canopy is managed during the growing season might show near-instantaneous results, while updates to a trellising system could take a bit longer. Other changes are not for the faint-hearted. If you go for the nuclear option of replanting from scratch, the cost of the investment – in terms of both time and money – is clear. What’s less obvious, perhaps, is the number of years it will take before your new vineyard repays that investment by producing high-quality wines.
The final link in the chain is acceptance by the person who’ll actually end up drinking the stuff. Most viticultural adjustments pass unnoticed: since when has even the most discerning wine lover given a damn about rootstocks or trellising systems? Selling wines made from unfamiliar varieties (or, heaven forfend, exotically named crosses) may, however, prove challenging. Some regions should find it relatively easy to adopt new grapes with a proven track record in another region or country – Australia has made a virtue of its investment in Iberian and Italian varieties in recent years – but the idea of blending drought-tolerant Marselan with Gamay in Beaujolais’ crus may be a tougher sell. And just imagine the likely response to similar modifications to a premier cru from Burgundy! The higher up the prestige scale you travel, the more difficult change may be – both practically and philosophically – for both individual producers and wine regions.
Despite years of research in the world’s vineyards, the tough conversations about how the wine world adapts to climate change have really only just been broached. It can only be hoped that the wine lovers of the future will be as adaptable to change as today’s producers already need to be.