Vinexpo's Symposium, Focused on Climate Change, Made a Big Impression

How will the wine industry grapple with a challenging future? With an all-hands-on-deck approach

Vinexpo's Symposium, Focused on Climate Change, Made a Big Impression
Dana Nigro, Katie Jackson, Miguel Torres Jr. and Paul Roca of the OIV, left to right, debate adapting to a changing climate. (Phil Labeguerie/Vinexpo)
May 21, 2019

Act for Change, a symposium on climate change, proved a highlight at last week’s Vinexpo Bordeaux. "The Symposium was a smash," said Rodolphe Lamyese, CEO of Vinexpo.

Organized in partnership with Wine Spectator and moderated by CNN's John Bittermann, the symposium gave the wine trade a rare opportunity to listen to a multi-disciplinary panel—international experts in viticulture, winemaking, cork production, politics, science, economics and geography—presenting recent research as well as action strategies.

The pivotal question: How and where will the world grow grapes in 50 years?

Several speakers set the scene by providing concrete data on climate change. Harvests are arriving a worrisome 26 days sooner in Alsace, according to Philippe Mauguin, president of INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. "We've been resilient until now but there's a limit," said Mauguin. INRA predicts that harvest dates will continue to advance by six days every decade, negatively impacting the quality of the grapes. "We start to appreciate the limit of resilience."

Is the solution inside the grape?

The symposium found no single solution, but instead many options that when implemented together strengthen the future of wine, starting with the grape itself. INRA is pioneering work on a grape variety that transpires less at night, allowing it to cope better with water stress. They've also developed grape varieties that resist disease, requiring 80 to 90 percent less treatments with pesticides. "It's not the only answer, but it's an interesting one," said Mauguin.

While there is a vocal resistance in the industry to hybrids, grape types that are a cross of traditional Vitis vinifera types with other grape types, such as American varieties , some vintners have decided to give them a chance as a way to reduce pesticide use.

"The new generation of hybrids by INRA, they are about 98 percent Vitis vinifera," said Jonathan Ducourt, of Bordeaux wine producer Vignobles Ducourt. They made their first wine from hybrids in 2016. "We wanted to see the results in the bottle. We will learn from these varieties, the kind of vinification and aging we can do."

They've taken a financial gamble. The experimental varieties aren't allowed in their appellation, so they sell the wine as a Vin de France, basically table wine. Ducourt argued that appellation rules should be changed to allow a small quantity of hybrids in the blend, not enough to change the typical characteristics of the appellation, but enough to encourage the growers to experiment.

Other vintners say solutions exist within Vitis vinifera's remarkable ancestry. "One thing very important for us was the recovery of ancestral grape varieties in Catalonia," said Miguel Torres Jr., president of Bodegas Torres.

Through DNA, the company has identified 54 ancient varieties, of which six show potential to withstand climate change in terms of acidity, pH and other key qualities. They believe the varieties date to the Middle Ages, when they were suited to a warmer climate. They naturally endure water stress and higher temperatures and ripen later. "We've already started making wines with these," said Torres. "I can tell you, almost the only thing I’m planting right now are these ancestral varieties."

Reducing the carbon footprint

Fresh looks at traditional products have also revealed some surprising news about cork stoppers, according to Antonio Amorim, chairman and CEO of cork firm Corticeira Amorim. A recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers audit on carbon dioxide retention by the company’s Neutrocork wine stoppers found that the growth and production of each cork stopper captured 392 grams of CO2, setting off almost exactly the CO2 associated with the production of a glass wine bottle.

"The cork industry is carbon negative. We're not carbon positive, we're not carbon neutral, we're carbon negative," said Amorim. Cork trees can live 200 years and they're harvested every nine years. "We don't cut trees. Each ton of cork we harvest from the cork forest retains 3 tons of CO2. I believe the cork industry has a contribution to give."

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Adapting with the land

Nor do cork trees require irrigation—which is a good thing, since water is a major concern for everyone. "Water is becoming scarcer and more impacted as the climate warms and storm events become stronger and more unpredictable," said Katie Jackson, senior vice president of corporate and social responsibility at Jackson Family Wines.

"Our primary focus has been increasing our water security in our vineyards and reducing and reusing as much water as possible in our wineries. So since 2008 we've reduced our water use per gallon of wine produced by 60 percent, and that means we're saving 29 million gallons of water each year," said Jackson. "We're also pioneering technologies like a UV technology to sanitize our tanks using just UV lights at the end of harvest."

And then there is the land itself. Will today's wine regions exist in a hundred years? If history is any indication, they can if both the vine and vintners adapt. "It's not an absolute drama for viticulture on the condition that we adapt to climate change," said French geographer Jean-Robert Pitte. "We have had climatic periods over 8,000 years, since we began cultivating grapevines in the mountains of the Near East."

Fifteen thousand years ago, glaciers touched Lyons. But by the 10th century the Medieval warm period made growing wine possible in England and other northern regions. "In the 12th and 13th centuries, the harvest began at the end of August or beginning of September, like today," said Pitte.

Those boom years for northern winegrowing ended when the so-called Little Ice Age set in from the 14th to 19th centuries. Now another geographical shift is underway. "We have been winegrowers since the 16th century and we're the first generation that has to question what are we going to plant and if the vineyards we have are still going to work in the future," said Torres.

Torres has planted at 2,500 feet above sea level in the Priorat and at 3,900 feet above sea level in the Pyrenees. "Twenty years ago no one thought this could work," he said. "The grapes are starting to ripen there. I can tell you, it's going faster than we thought."

Torres has also bought land in Patagonia. "We believe in 20 to 25 years, viticulture will go there, and it will be possible to make great wines there."

But everyone in the wine industry will need to have the same foresight. As International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde told the audience in a video address, "Climate change is running faster than us. We need to accelerate the pace."

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