In Spain’s Rioja, old vines could protect wine against climate change

  • Spain is the third largest wine producer in the world
  • La Rioja represents 21% of Spanish wine production
  • Vines over 35 years old seem to withstand climate change better
  • UN warns of agricultural production losses in Europe due to heat

LOGROÑO, Spain, Nov 3 (Reuters) – When Spanish genetics researcher Pablo Carbonell spots a green rectangle among the endless gray rows on his computer screen, it could be good news for winemakers struggling with the impact of a warmer climate.

The green reveals a change from the archetypal local vine genome that indicates a longer maturity cycle, increasingly coveted by winemakers in Spain and around the world.

Rising temperatures mean grapes ripen faster than before, leading to higher alcohol contents and weaker colors and aromas that can compromise the character of wines.

This means that vineyards – which for centuries have transplanted cuttings to ensure hardy, flavorful fruit – are now looking for grape varieties that are more resilient to climate change.

Few research labs are as systematic in pursuing this goal as the one in La Rioja where Carbonell works, but his findings portend a future in which scientific research could become a key aspect of wine production.

The publicly funded Institute for Vine and Wine Research, known by its Spanish acronym ICVV, studies the genomes of the most commonly used grape varieties in the Spanish region, where wine has been produced since the Middle Ages.

He determined that vines 35 years and older seem to cope better with climate change because they are more genetically diverse.

The lab’s ultimate goal is to ensure that grape growers plant specific vines that have been shown to be “more adaptable to climate change conditions,” Carbonell said.

The stakes are high for Spain, the world’s third largest wine producer after Italy and France and leader in exports and wine-growing area. Its industry is valued at more than 5 billion euros ($4.94 billion).

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned of the risk of Europe suffering “losses in agricultural production due to compound heat, dry conditions and extreme weather conditions”. .

His report will be among the topics of discussion at the COP27 climate summit will take place from November 6 to 18 in Egypt.

This summer has been the hottest in Spain since records began in 1961, with temperatures 2.2 degrees Celsius above average.

In La Rioja, minimum temperatures increased by an average of 0.9 C and maximum temperatures by 0.7 C, between 1950 and 2018, according to a study by geographer Raquel Aransay. Harvests advanced by 2.4 days per decade and the alcohol content of wines increased by 1.3 degrees per decade between 1992 and 2019, she said.

The northern region has only 0.7% of Spain’s population but produces 21% of its wine. Its more than 500 wineries produce 350 million bottles a year, with some vintages being valued at up to 5,000 euros a bottle.

The industry is worth around 1.5 billion euros per year and represents 20% of the region’s economy.

“We are very concerned about climate change,” said Iñigo Torres, director of Grupo Rioja, an association representing 60 wineries that together account for 80% of sales.

Torres noted that this year’s harvest started more than two weeks earlier than the historical average, altering the ideal balance of grapes for winemaking.

Production has been below average for the past four years due to less rain and higher temperatures, declining by 5-10% as the number of suitable grapes declined, he said.

NEW OLD WINE

On a recent morning at the ICVV, located outside Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, centrifuges beeped and liquid nitrogen vapor rose from a bucket as a researcher prepared to extract DNA crushed vine leaves.

It is the only laboratory in Spain and one of the few in the world to carry out a complete molecular analysis of the vine, said the director of the ICVV, Jose Miguel Martinez Zapater.

Their samples come from a nearby vineyard, used as a scientific bank, where cuttings of old vines up to 100 years old have been planted since the 1980s.

“The technique of resequencing genomes allows the identification of specific disease-causing mutations in human populations,” he said. “The same technology is applied for the vines, but we are looking for characteristics that allow the vines to better adapt to the environmental conditions.

Scorching temperatures could eventually bring winemaking to a halt in parts of Spain, Zapater warned.

The ICVV, which has an annual budget of 6 million euros and around 100 workers, this year began using its vineyard to produce wine on an experimental basis, concluding so far that the resistant vines to the climate always produce good wine with the characteristics of Rioja.

Other research teams are also seeking to recover old grape varieties with long ripening cycles and to study the results of cross-breeding.

About 60 km (37 miles) north of the lab, local winery RODA is also looking to the past to find future climate solutions.

Hoping to protect its vines from rising temperatures, last year RODA planted a new vineyard with curved rows to better retain water from rainfall in the hills of Cellorigo, which is among the coldest towns from La Rioja.

The vines were transplanted after being carefully selected from another vineyard where RODA studies the behavior of old vines – some up to 110 years old.

“Our biggest concern is what will happen in 20 or 30 years. We will probably have to change the grape variety, but we don’t really know how things will turn out,” said agronomist Maria Santolaya, from l technical team, reflecting on the recent sweltering summer.

“We hope not to have many years like this because it has been very problematic.”

($1 = 1.0120 euros)

Reporting by Joan Faus and Vincent West; Written by Joan Faus; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Charlie Devereux and Catherine Evans

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Elisha A. Tilghman