Spanish scientists look to old vines to save wine trade

Spanish scientists look to old vines to save wine trade

Genetics researchers in Spain’s wine region believe that vines that have lived for more than 35 years are better able to cope with the high temperatures brought about by climate change.

Winemakers in the Rioja region of northern Spain make some of the best wines in the world. Wine has been produced here for hundreds of years.

But in recent years, winemakers have struggled to produce good wine. They say wine tasted better in the past when temperatures were generally cooler. The summer of 2022 was the hottest in Spain since record keeping began in 1961. Temperatures were 2.2 degrees Celsius above average.

Researchers like Pablo Carbonell think that old vines might grow better at higher temperatures.

As part of his research, Carbonell examines rows of gray shapes on his computer filter. Among them was a green rectangle. This, he says, represents a kind of vine that produces grapes that take longer to mature, even in warmer conditions.

Technicians prepare vine samples for DNA extraction at the Vine and Wine Research Institute (ICVV) in Logrono, Spain, October 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Vincent West)

A longer maturity period is what winemakers want. Current vines are producing grapes ready to be picked too soon. Such grapes do not make a wine that has the right color and smell. The wine also has too much alcohol.

People who work in the vineyards have long crossed old vines with new ones. Now they are working with special labs – like the one where Carbonell works – to find a climate-resistant vine.

The place is called the Vine and Wine Research Institute. It is known as ICVV in Spain. Scientists study there genomes of grapes commonly used in Spanish wine.

The lab is working to keep Spain’s wine industry alive as temperatures rise. Scientists say old vines have a plus various Genetic constitution.

Spain is the third largest wine country in the world behind France and Italy. The production of Spanish wine contributes nearly $5 billion to the country’s economy every year.

Wine grape plants grow next to sample tubes at the Vine and Wine Research Institute (ICVV) in Logrono, Spain, October 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Vincent West)

Wine grape plants grow next to sample tubes at the Vine and Wine Research Institute (ICVV) in Logrono, Spain, October 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Vincent West)

The United Nations warns that climate change will lead to crop loss in Europe due to heat, dry conditions and “extreme weather”. The report will be included in the discussion at the COP 27 international climate meeting, which kicked off this week in Egypt and runs until November 18.

La Rioja Region has 500 wineries and accounts for 21% of Spanish wine production, totaling more than $1.5 billion a year. Spain needs the region’s wine production to continue.

Inigo Torres is director of Grupo Rioja, a trade association representing 60 wineries in the region.

“We are very concerned about climate change,” he said. He noted that this year’s harvest started two weeks early. The change affects the taste of the wine.

Torres said the warmer weather also limits the number of grapes growing on each vine. As a result, total wine production has decreased by 5-10% over the past four years.

José Miguel Martinez Zapater is the director of the ICVV. He and his scientists are working on analyze wine. They are looking at vine cuttings that are nearly 100 years old.

He said the lab does the same kind of work scientists did to sequence the human genome. But instead of looking mutations that cause disease, wine scientists are looking for traits, or qualities, that could allow vines to survive in a warmer climate.

Technicians prepare vine samples for DNA extraction at the Vine and Wine Research Institute (ICVV) in Logrono, Spain, October 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Vincent West)

Technicians prepare vine samples for DNA extraction at the Vine and Wine Research Institute (ICVV) in Logrono, Spain, October 5, 2022. (REUTERS/Vincent West)

In addition to genetic research, scientists are also working on different planting methods. A winery called RODA plants vines in a curve instead of a straight line. The hope is that the plants will absorb more water this way. The new vineyard is made up of vines over 100 years old and moved from another location.

Maria Santolaya is an agricultural engineer and part of RODA’s technical team. She said she hopes next summer won’t be so hot. The hot weather, she said, “has been very problematic.”

Winemaker Victor Alonso cleans his automated grape picker as his brother transports bunches of grapes near Haro, Spain, October 29, 2022. (REUTERS/Vincent West)

Winemaker Victor Alonso cleans his automated grape picker as his brother transports bunches of grapes near Haro, Spain, October 29, 2022. (REUTERS/Vincent West)

But “our biggest concern,” she added, “is what will happen in 20 or 30 years. We don’t really know how things will turn out.

I am Jill Robbins. And I’m Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on a Reuters report.

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words in this story

filter -not. the flat part of a television or computer screen

mature -v. be ready to eat

genome -not. complete set of cells or genetic material of a living thing

various –adj. made up of different things

Region -not. a part of a country that is different from other parts

analyze -v. study something carefully

mutation -not. a change in the genes of a plant or animal that causes physical characteristics different from what is normal

curve -not. a rounded line, shape, or path

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