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Climate change is changing the aroma of wines

Global warming affects vines and the taste of wine
(photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Ethan Bilby

Wine connoisseurs like to credit different soils and geographic conditions for extracting a wide range of aromas from the same grape varieties—even within the same region. For one of Europe’s favorite drinks, people tend to think that there is a ‘typical’ flavor profile for each region. The problem is that it is possible that climate change is changing the fundamentals of wine.

Dr. Gabriela M. Patrick has thought a lot about how climate change affects the flavor imparted to wines by their unique geographic and climatic profile—what is commonly referred to in the industry as “terroir.” The problem affects all wines, from the full-bodied reds produced by the Cabernet variety associated with France’s Bordeaux region to the light whites such as Pinot Grigio common to northern Italy.

Red and White Project

As a historian, Petrick has spent the past two years researching how tastes in wine, both literally and as preferences, change over time. She leads the EU-funded Red and White project, which ends in November 2022.

“When we think about the taste of a certain Old World-style wine, such as a Bordeaux, compared to a California-style Cabernet, they’re quite different,” says Petrik, who is an American citizen but conducts her research at the University of Stavanger. Norway. “And that has a lot to do with the climate.”

Global warming poses a variety of threats to Europe’s wine sector, from abnormal weather — including severe hail and spring frosts — that can damage crops to higher temperatures that can lead to more the early ripening of the grapes and to an excessive increase in the alcohol content of the wine.

At the same time, climate change is making winemaking possible in areas traditionally too cold for it. An impressive example in this regard is the United Kingdom, where there are now more than 500 vineyards and a wide range of still and sparkling wines are produced.

In general, the riper the grapes, the more sugar and the higher the alcohol content of the resulting wine. Higher alcohol content can, for example, make wine taste worse, according to Petrick.

Variations in alcohol level due to changes in acidity and sugar content can affect people’s perceptions of wine quality. Sometimes, however, it is also a reflection of what they think the wine “should” taste like.

Evolving tastes

Petrik’s historical research reveals that wine aromas have evolved much longer than previously thought.

If we look at a typical red Bordeaux for example, the taste is not unchanged. A “good” year will be different from a “bad” year, and a 1930 wine will be very different from a 1990 vintage.

In the 1960s, the Bordeaux region grew much more black-skinned Cabernet Franc—the parent variety of the better-known Cabernet Sauvignon—until they were supplanted by another of their descendants: the fruitier Merlot varieties.

The transition is at least partly a response to blends originating in California and elsewhere in the New World, and is really an attempt to adapt to American purchasing power and global tastes.

Wine is, after all, big business. The EU is the world’s largest producer of wine, accounting for 64% of global production in 2020. EU wine exports are worth more than €17 billion annually.

The Bordeaux “mix” is a bit lighter as a result of the switch to Merlot. Cabernet Franc is a relatively acidic grape variety with a higher tannin content.

While this particular change is intended to appeal to American consumers, European winemakers today understand that they may need to make even more adjustments to adapt to climate change.

Acidity test

French wine regulators recently allowed six new grape varieties — four red and two white — with higher acidity to be blended with Bordeaux wines. The reason for this is the concern of the producers that as a result of the warmer climate there is more sugar and less acidity in the grapes.

“They want to add some acidity so that the alcohol content of the wines doesn’t go up,” Petrick says.

The idea is that by adding new grape varieties to the mix of wines from the Bordeaux region, winemakers can try to compensate for changes due to climate change and return aromas to what is considered “typical”.

In the future, growers may need to employ a range of strategies to maintain the typical flavor profiles of their region—or resort to growing their vines in different locations.

For example, Pinot Noir, the dry, medium-bodied red wine that made France’s Burgundy wine region famous, is now more common in Germany as temperatures rise there. Cultivation gradually moved north in an effort to maintain traditional quality and balance between sugar and acidity.

The stress of wine

Although rising temperatures are already changing the way wines are made, European researchers are looking to enlist some natural allies for winegrowers.

Dr. Daniel Revillini works at Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC) and intends to investigate how the grapevine microbiome—the bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms that live in and around grapevines—can help mitigate the effects of climate change.

As part of the FUNVINE project, running for two years until October 2024, Revilini plans to take soil samples in 15 wine-growing ecoregions around the world. The aim is to better understand the stress factors exerted on vines.

“There is a huge variety of climate-related stressors — from drought to extreme temperature amplitudes and even floods,” says Revilini.

In addition, the intensification of wine production with the excessive use of plowing and chemicals erodes the health of the soils and reduces the natural resistance of the plants.

By comparing the microbiomes of vines in different regions, Revilini hopes to create a scale that can show winegrowers which conditions maximize the beneficial characteristics of bacteria and fungi while minimizing stress and pathogens.

Friends and enemies

Microbes can help plants in a variety of ways. These include extracting nutrients from the soil, protecting against disease and even retaining moisture.

Microbes also benefit from this highly symbiotic relationship.

“Plants can determine which are the good and which are the bad microbes through hormonal signaling processes,” says Revilini. “The plant knows when its leaves are being eaten by signaling as well.”

Plants can reward “good” microbes with natural sugars. If the plant refuses, the microbes simply won’t cooperate.

When plants refuse resources, their microbial partners can store what they would provide in turn until the next reward. Identifying beneficial microbes, such as those that retain water or fight pathogens, can help vines survive climate change and make vines more resilient.

“We’re hoping to find the point where you can minimize fertilizer feeding, pesticide treatment, and maximize the beneficial parts of the microbiome that can support plant and soil health,” Revilini says.

The research in this article was funded by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie (MCA) action of the EU. It was first published in Horizonthe EU research and innovation journal.

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