Climate change is threatening vineyards across the globe. But a little-known French research center may hold the key to safeguarding your favorite wines from the changing growing conditions.

Emily Dilling
February 13, 2020
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Situated in the sandy soil between the Montpellier countryside and the Mediterranean Sea, a unique vineyard enjoys a privileged view. But instead of tours and tasting rooms, the Centre de Ressources Biologiques de la Vigne (CRB-Vigne) de Vassal-Montpellier is a research branch of the Montpellier SupAgro (the local agricultural university), aimed at protecting biodiversity in wine making. Currently, just 20 grape varieties represent 87% of the vineyard crops in France. But CRB-Vigne grows a breathtaking collection of 8,100 grapevines, representing more than 4,000 species. And the solutions for growers struggling to adapt to the challenges of climate change could be hidden among these unique vines.

Sonya Khegay/Stocksy

Environmental shifts are becoming increasingly apparent in French vineyards (and those around the world, for that matter). Scorching summer temperatures burn grape leaves, destroying the plant's armor against pests and diseases, and result in grapes that are high in alcohol but low in flavor complexity. Extreme weather can also mean spring frosts that attack budding grapevines and freeze flowers before they can bear fruit. And drought years (like 2019, when the French government declared a water crisis for more than a third of the country) produce smaller grapes with meager juice output and a high acid content, which yield sour and bitter wines.

CRB-Vigne has been troubleshooting problems for growers since 1876, when—in the face of an outbreak of the insect phylloxera that ultimately wiped out half the vineyards in France—scientists established the center to find a remedy and safeguard against future afflictions. It imported phylloxera--resistant rootstock from North America and grafted it to native grapevines, creating plants immune to the insects' threat.

The center also became a vault for grape varietals, in case of another plague on French wine, creating a treasure trove that is proving valuable today for a different reason: Many virtually forgotten grapes preserved by CRB-Vigne may be more fit for our warming planet. Take Magdeleine noire de Charentes: When locals discovered this grape in Brittany in 1996, they had no idea what it was. Experts at CRB-Vigne identified it as an ancestor of merlot and malbec. This specimen ripens early, so it can be picked before the onset of sweltering summer heat or extensive exposure to drought. Other heirlooms that were abandoned because of their low acidity and alcohol content now have attractive qualities for the modern winemaker. "At first, growers were interested in reclaiming a lost heritage and finding a niche in the market using lesser-known varietals," says Jean-Michel Boursiquot, a professor of vine science. "But for about 10 years, they have been choosing varietals that are better suited to our changing climate."

Wine making has always been a balance of agriculture aided by alchemy. Now, more than ever, vintners need science to guarantee the survival of their craft. The CRB-Vigne's raison d'être may be what allows us to keep raising a glass.

This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine March 2020.