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Studying Iberian winegrape diversity to better adapt viticulture to climate change

Iberian Future Wines: studying Iberian winegrape diversity to better adapt viticulture to climate change

The problem

Climate change has affected, is affecting, and will affect winegrape production given that—perhaps even more strongly than other agricultural species—the vine depends on local climate. Experts’ forecasts of climate change tell us that we should expect more events of heat waves, late frosts, warmer winters and less precipitation in many of the winegrowing regions of the world. But, we do not need to imagine future pessimistic scenarios, as winegrowers and wine producers are experiencing climate change effects today, as their harvests take place earlier and musts get sweeter and less acidic as climate warms. While climate change will not be a problem for all growing regions of the world—some currently cold producing regions may even benefit from it—, we can almost be certain it will seriously affect Southern European viticulture.

The solutions

There are different solutions to adapt winegrowing to climate change that require varying degrees of effort from growers. A first solution focuses on local management measurements aimed at buffering local shifts in climate by using irrigation, shading, shifting orientation, etc. A second solution involves shifting where winegrapes are grown. This means planting at higher latitudes or elevations, where climate is becoming increasingly suited to grow grapes as climate warms. A third solution, would involve using winegrape diversity, by replacing currently planted varieties or rootstock for others better adapted to future climate.

Of course, producers could choose not to adopt any of these adaptive measures, at the risk of suffering declines in yields and/or quality. Sometimes, that may be their only alternative given that all the described solutions involve costs and risks, not necessarily affordable by everyone. Ultimately, knowing which solution to choose will depend on site-specific cost-benefit analysis, but such analysis should be informed by the best available science in order to be as accurate as it is possible.

Why diversity matters

The rationale for why winegrape diversity is relevant is rather simple. If only two varieties of winegrapes existed—for example, one relatively tolerant to heatwaves and another relatively tolerant to drought—and climate change pushed local climate of a given region beyond the conditions that any of these two varieties can endure, then viticulture would simply not be feasible in that region. Fortunately, there are over 1,000 varieties of winegrapes planted worldwide—most of which are found in Southern Europe—, encompassing a rather broad range of, tolerances to climate conditions, phenology, and overall responses to climate conditions. This huge already existing diversity confers the vine a high potential to adapt to changing climate, just because out of the many varieties to choose from, there should be at least a few able to endure the new climate of a given region.

The higher potential to adapt to unknown conditions conferred by diversity does relate not only to climate conditions but also to other sources of stress such as disease. The grape phylloxera makes for a classic example of the utility of diversity, as its only successful control relied on the diversity within the Vitis genus, providing phylloxera-resistant American rootstock to grafting vines into.

Scientists have explored diversity-based adaptation to climate change less than other solutions, even if it has advantages such as allowing vineyards to stay in place and providing a large degree of adaptation potential, given the very different climates to which winegrape varieties have adapted across centuries. Despite this potential, producers may still find challenging to choose the appropriate varieties for the climate expected in their vineyard over the next decades—more so in the case of Iberian varieties, many of which have been poorly (if at all) studied. The generation of scientific knowledge on which varieties will be better suited to grow where under future climate will ultimately require tight collaborations and exchanges of knowledge between growers and producers and scientists.

What we are doing to address the issue?

Adapting viticulture to climate change will require widespread collaborative efforts between growers and researchers, including the sharing of data, information and practices across vineyards and regions. In this spirit, we recently started a research project and platform entitled Iberian Future Wines.

Iberian Future Wines is aimed at compiling, centralizing, sharing and analyzing data on Iberian winegrape varieties, to assess and predict the impacts of climate change on Iberian winegrowing. Specifically, it unifies data on the phenology, climate tolerance, oenology and agronomy of most representative varieties of mostly Spanish (and hopefully increasingly Portuguese too) winegrapes, to assess the effects of climate on their quality and productivity. Advanced stages of the project will allow fitting predictive models of maturation for the studied varieties within winegrowing regions of both the Iberian Peninsula and the world.

This project, coordinated by Drs. Morales-Castilla (Universidad de Alcalá) and Cabello (IMIDRA), brings together researchers from several institutions (CSIC, IMIDRA, UBC, INRA, INIAV, etc.), specialized journalists (www.spanishwinelover.com) and actively invites interested scientists and wine makers to participate.

Synthesis and unification of data on winegrape diversity are central to evaluate and predict the effects of climate change on viticulture and to inform adaptive solutions. Taking part in this project offers participants the chance to collaborate in a pioneer European research, the results of which will ultimately inform growers about the best-suited solutions to adapting their crops to climate change, about the varieties that would perform best in their farms and, about the expected climatic conditions forecasted for their farms under different climate change scenarios. Beyond visibility and outreach of their collaboration, participants will facilitate to growers the results of climate change impacts assessments, specific for their growing lands.

How to participate

If you are interested, please visit the Iberian Future Wines website and even better, contact ignacio.moralesc@uah.es for more information on what data would be useful, how to contributing it and what are the benefits of doing so.

Ignacio Morales-Castilla

Ignacio is a Postdoctoral Fellow At The Department Of Life Sciences Of The University Of Alcalá
Why biodiversity is distributed on Earth as it does? What is the signature of historical and evolutionary processes on current diversity patterns? Can we predict the future of biodiversity in a changing world? These are among the central questions in which Ignacio’s research program focuses. Specifically, it aims to: (1) disentangle the relative roles of evolution and ecology as drivers of community structure, (2) understanding how different aspects of the species’ niches are evolutionarily conserved, (3) enhancing models of biotic interactions and/or species distributions by integrating phylogenetic, functional and geographic information. Ultimately, he’s interested in better understanding and predicting species and ecosystem vulnerability in a context of Global Change

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