Forgotten grape varieties offer adaptation hope for an industry particularly sensitive to change. In an article on the Guardian website, Ashifa Kassam discusses how some winemakers are adapting to the changing conditions.
Climate-resistant grapes? Spanish winemakers revive ancient varieties
The ads – tucked in the corners of local newspapers and directed at winemakers – began turning up across Catalonia in the 1980s. “If you know where to find any uncommon grape varieties, please get in touch,” they read.
Dozens of tips came pouring in, shepherding Miguel A Torres in his search for long-forgotten wine grapes. But it wouldn’t be until a decade later, as the climate crisis began wreaking havoc on vines, that the fourth-generation winemaker realised his foray into the past could play a key role in tackling what lies ahead.
“I simply wanted to recover the heritage – the ancient traditions and vines – left to us by our ancestors,” said Torres, the president of Familia Torres winery. “And then we realised that some of these varieties take longer to ripen, meaning they might be able to help us in a warming world.”
It was a glimmer of hope as the wine industry grapples with a changing climate. Extreme weather, drought and steadily rising temperatures have laid bare a crop that is extremely sensitive to change. In Spain, rising temperatures have meant grapes ripening more quickly, leaving winemakers rushing to harvest in hopes of protecting the carefully concocted balance between the fruit’s sugars and acidity.
“Climate change is the worst threat the sector has ever faced,” said Torres. “In the 19th century we had the phylloxera plague that wiped out vineyards across Europe. This is much worse.”
As winemakers across Spain and around the world scramble to cope, they’ve increasingly looked to the past, resurrecting late-ripening and heat-tolerant varieties they might have shunned decades earlier.
In California, vintners are embracing grapes such as mourtaou, a nearly extinct variety from south-western France, to create peppery reds, while some in France’s Cognac region are toppling more than a century of tradition to trial climate-resistant grapes. In Bordeaux, concerns about the climate crisis recently helped to secure the approval of six new grape varieties, including castets, a disease-resistant variety that had been on the brink of disappearing.
The reasons these grapes fell into disuse varies widely, said José Miguel Martínez Zapater, the director of the Institute of Grapevine and Wine Sciences in La Rioja. Some were abandoned in the late 19th century as the phylloxera plague forced European grape growers to chase efficiency, while others were discarded as winemakers sought to comply with strictly defined appellations or consumer preferences for certain grapes.
Martínez Zapater’s publicly funded institute is one of several across Spain that have been peering into the past to bolster wine grape diversity – a years-long process that involves identifying the varieties, testing out their characteristics and seeking official approval for their use.
Their efforts have helped boost the number of commercially registered varieties in Spain by 50% in the past two decades, said Martínez Zapater. “In other words, people are finding varieties in different areas that they consider interesting.”
In Spain – home to a €5bn-a-year wine production industry whose production outpaced all other EU countries in 2021 – much is on the line. Last year, the country experienced its hottest year since record-keeping began; since 2015 the country has sweltered through four of its hottest years on record.
At the Agrarian Technological Institute of Castilla y Leon, known as ITACyL in Spanish, two decades of research have led to the recovery of more than a dozen varieties of grapes. The list includes estaladiña, a grape whose last recorded reference stretches back to 1914, and cenicienta, a grape close to extinction before it was revived to make fruity reds.
“The wines they make are very distinct and interesting,” said José Antonio Rubio Cano, who heads the viticulture and woody crop department at the institute. “They’re surprising and different from anything else.”
He stressed, however, that the embrace of these long-overlooked varieties is just part of the broader efforts needed as the industry adapts to a changing climate. “There’s no one solution,” said Rubio Cano. “It has to be a set of things; we have to pay more attention to the vines, be more aware of how their fruits are ripening and we need to develop a deeper understanding of the vineyard and the different varieties.”
Against the backdrop of north-western Spain’s rolling green hills, the Caserío de Dueñas vineyard is taking the institute’s research to the next level, planting hectares of eight of the recovered varieties to test out how the grapes behave in a real-world scenario.
“I find it super-interesting,” said Almudena Alberca, the technical director for Entrecanales Domecq, the vineyard’s owner. “The possibilities are endless.”
Alberca, who in 2018 became Spain’s first female master of wine, waved off concerns that the new varieties could challenge the characteristics that have come to define Spanish wine regions. “I think these varieties are going to provide support, as something we can blend into our wines,” she said. “Right now, a whole world of possibilities is opening up and we’ll see down the road where we need to go.”
Four decades after Torres placed his first ad seeking forgotten grapes, Familia Torres has begun releasing small quantities of wines made from the fruits of his quest, such as forcada and pirene. The wines tell a story that is both steeped in the past and nods at the enormous challenge that lies ahead as the climate crisis tightens its grip, said Torres.
“I’ve always said that the wine sector is the canary in the coalmine,” he added. “The consequences that vineyards are living through right now should make everyone take notice.”