They’re wine grapes that are well-adapted to hotter climates – the kind of conditions that California may be facing as the climate continues to warm. But for wineries that have staked their reputations on certain wines, adapting to climate change could be a tough sell.
Talk to any wine lover in California and they’ll tell you how lucky they are to live in such rich wine-producing region. Take the recent meeting of the San Francisco Wine Lovers Group at Toast wine bar in Oakland, where the favorites are California Pinot Noir, Russian River Zinfandel, and Napa Cabernet.
In fact, the type of grape – or varietal – is how most of us think about wine.
“That’s the big problem,” says Andy Walker, a grape breeder in Viticulture and Enology at the University of California-Davis. “We’ve spent the last 100 years emphasizing varieties and we’ve really marketed those names very effectively.”
Walker is strolling through UC Davis’s test vineyard, where hundreds of different wine grapes from around the world are grown. The vast majority are unknown to consumers, because most wineries focus on only a handful of grapes. “Chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, pinot noir – those would make up probably a large percentage,” he says.
Those are all French varieties, mostly suited for cool climates. California is warm by comparison and thanks to climate change, it’s expected to get a lot warmer. Extreme heat can be the enemy of good wine. “It destroys acidity primarily and it changes color and aromatics,” says Walker.
According to a recent study from Stanford University, about two degrees of warming could reduce California’s premium wine-growing land by 30 to 50 percent. That could happen as soon as 2040. Water supply is also expected to be an issue.
“I think the interesting thing for me as a breeder is to take advantage of this and say, OK, here’s a chance now to change thought, and let’s actually readapt varieties to California,” he says.
But in many circles, grape breeding is a dirty term, according to Walker.
“Viticulture is the most backward form of horticulture that exists. We use these varieties that haven’t been changed for decades, for millennia in some cases. And it really doesn’t make any sense.”
The problem starts in today’s vineyards. If you look at rows of Pinot Noir vines, you aren’t just looking at the original varietal. You’re looking at clones. That’s because vines are grown from a branch that’s taken off an existing plant.
“Pinot noir is being propagated year after year after year. This essentially means that grapes have not been having sex very much,” says Sean Myles, a geneticist at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.
He says breeding is key for other crops, since farmers need seeds to plant every year. Wine grapes miss this opportunity to develop adaptability and disease resistance, since vines don’t grow from seeds.
“That means that we’re not allowing the genetic material to be shuffled anymore. That genetic material is now standing still in time. And while the pathogens are evolving, the pinot noir is not,” says Myles.
Andy Walker says there’s plenty of genetic diversity out there for breeding, if you wanted to make today’s varieties more heat tolerant or drought resistant. But there’s a very big problem. Once you breed your pinot noir with something else, you can’t call it pinot noir anymore.
“The last decision that hardest. Can we market this variety? We know it produces exceptional wine. We know the quality is better. But the next step is can we actually market it,” says Walker.
That’s a deal breaker for many vineyards, who think consumers won’t buy varieties they don’t recognize. Walker says looking ahead to climate change, there are already varieties out there today from Italy and Spain that would do well in a warmer California. “We could produce Barbera instead, or Negroamaro or Nero d’Avola from southern Italy and we’d be far better ahead.”
These lush reds are popular in Italy but not so well known to Californians. Walker says it’ll come down to marketing. “I don’t think it’s the consumer that’s going to make the shift. They have to be directed.”
“I think it’s really a pull from consumers,” says Nick Dokoozlian, a Vice President at E & J Gallo Winery, the largest family-owned winery in the US. “In most cases, we’re responding to consumer demand for a cultivar.”
Dokoozlian says Gallo has been testing new wine varieties throughout its vineyards and has found some promising grapes. “The problem is we can’t necessarily sell those varieties. Consumers aren’t aware of them. The marketing aspect of climate change and the adaptation to climate change, really, the hurdles on the marketing side are much, much more significant.”
Since vineyards can last up to 30 years, he says switching varieties is a major financial gamble. “The wine business is an extremely capital intensive business. The financial risk of planting the wrong variety in the wrong place is pretty significant.”
Still, given the temperature and water supply changes projected for California, Dokoozlian sees the market shifting eventually. “I’m looking forward to having world-class California Nero d’Avola soon.”