When is a vineyard more than a place to grow grapes?

When it’s the epicenter of climate change research.

While farming and viticulture practices often take center stage, producers and regional boards are exploring if the grapes themselves hold the key to adapting to our climate crisis. Winemakers across the world are turning plots of land into mini-science labs, where they study and rethink what gets planted. Many of these wines will never hit the market, but the data and insights they provide may shape what’s on a wine list in the future.

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From varieties to clones, the landscape of tomorrow may look very different from today.

A Deep Dive Into Clones

It’s hard to imagine Argentina without Malbec, and few are a bigger proponent of the nation’s staple grape than Laura Catena of Catena Zapata. In 1996, she founded the Catena Institute for Wine to answer the question of what made for optimal plant material. At the time, consultants from Europe advised winemakers to use certain European clones, particularly for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other Bordeaux varieties. But when it came to Malbec, just a limited offering of Côt from Southwest France was available. Catena grew curious about her existing vineyards, which were planted by massale selection (i.e., cuttings from existing vineyards). Because there’s no way to exactly identify the clones — and in some cases the varieties — vineyards planted in this manner have a rich and diverse genetic makeup.

“In the massale selection vineyards, if there’s a weather phenomenon, vines are in different stages [of ripening], so you’ll lose less. These old varieties bring more freshness and acidity, and less alcohol.”

“We have this kind of Galapagos Island effect in the sense that we were so isolated economically and politically that nothing came in,” Catena says. This meant that for most of Argentina’s viticultural history, new vines were propagated from existing cuttings, some of which count parentage back to pre-phylloxera European vines from the 1850s. Choice cuttings were also shared among neighbors, further spreading the grapes — as well as mutations as vines adapted to their new local environments.

Catena convinced her father to study Malbec, and the Institute was born. Using 135 cuttings from their Angelica Vineyard, planted in 1922, they cultivated a plot with four cuttings to a row, located in the vicinity of their pyramid-shaped winery. With its uniform soils, the 24.7-acre site provided an ideal testing ground.

“The variability was crazy,” she says. “We had one cutting produce 20 percent more in terms of yields than another cutting. We had big bunches, small bunches. I mean, we had incredible diversity.” From these 135 clones, they earmarked five high-quality but low-yielding clones, and 15 that produced great quality but gave higher yields. These form the backbone of many Catena Malbec wines.

Through their work, they began to understand the rich genetic diversity they had in their land. To further their studies, in 2004, Catena sent several cuttings to UC Davis. The institution discovered the Catena clones contained epigenetic adaptations that made them more tolerant to UV exposure, likely a result of being cultivated in high altitudes.

Today, Catena continues to cultivate all 135 Malbec clones, which is vital in the face of our climate crisis. “In the massale selection vineyards, if there’s a weather phenomenon, vines are in different stages [of ripening], so you’ll lose less,” Catena says. “Whereas, if the whole vineyard is at one stage, that’s like ‘bye-bye whole vineyard.’”

At Oremus in Tokaj, Hungary, clones don’t just impact the quality of wine, but the style. A desire to understand which clones are best suited for dry wine production and those that lend themselves to botrytis — a key component in the famous sweet wines of the region — fuels much of the estate’s research. After purchasing the Petrács Vineyard, Oremus’s parent company, Tempos Vega Sicilia (TVS), implemented studies of the decades-old site. Unlike elsewhere in the region, the vineyard had not fallen victim to the high-yielding, homogenous replantings that swept Tokaj post-World War II. A study in 2000 revealed 400 different Furmint clones, all from pre-phylloxera vines, thrived in the vineyard; in contrast, the rest of the region largely relied on only four different Furmint clones for winemaking.

Spurred by the rising popularity of dry white Furmint, in 2006, TVS embarked on a formal research program to identify which clones were ideal for production. “What we wanted were loose bunches, not compact, so the sun and the wind can get in and dry out the bunches,” says general manager Robert Kindl. From the 400 samples sent to a lab in France, they identified 10 clones with the most potential to make quality dry wine and began vinifying in small batches to assess organoleptically.

The research now extends to include clones ideal for sweet wine. Once Oremus identifies optimal clones, they will plant them in one of three experimental vineyards, one located in a portion of Petrács, the other two being small plots nearby, totaling 0.74 acres. Kindl admits there are limitations to their research, as they don’t have an on-site laboratory or a dedicated research team. And botrytis, highly reliant on specific weather conditions and inconsistent in how it inoculates grapes, makes sweet-wine research even more challenging. “But we rather take things more slowly than do something prematurely,” says Kindl. “That’s just the philosophy of the company.”

Varying the Varieties

While Catena and Kindl use experimental vineyards to explore the depth of known grape varieties, others are looking at the breadth of what can grow — and potentially alter a wine region as the world knows it.

With a reputation as exalted as Burgundy has for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it’s hard to imagine the region ever focusing on anything else. But a 124-member-strong organization called The Land Study and Monitoring Group (G.E.S.T. is the acronym for the name in French) does exactly that. In 2016, the nonprofit established a conservatory of old Burgundian varieties in Savigny-les-Beaune.

“They’re very robust and less susceptible to diseases compared to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These old varieties bring more freshness and acidity, and less alcohol.”

“In the beginning, it was about recovering a bit of our genetic heritage,” says Jean-Claude Rateau, winemaker and former president of G.E.S.T. “We’re still searching for certain varieties that aren’t in the collection. So, we have about 50 varieties between old Burgundian ones and those that were once planted in Burgundy but no longer exist.”

Sourcing from institutions, nurseries, and private collections throughout France, they amassed an assortment of grapes, all of which are planted in the 1.2-acre vineyard. Some names are familiar, such as Aligoté, Côt, and Gamay, but Enfariné Gris and Castille may not ring a bell. Tiny is the operative word: Only 8 vines of each variety are cultivated.

In partnership with the Bourgogne Wine Board, G.E.S.T. vinifies micro-lots of wines (only about one liter) for trials. Rateau says that style-wise, the results aren’t surprising as they have historic documentation to reference. “For example, Gouais is known to be extremely productive but not of good quality,” he says. “It was abandoned in the past because it produced a lot of wine but it was acidic and lacked flavor.” However, it is the parent of many grapes, such as Chardonnay and Aligoté. “By coincidence, we planted Aligoté right next to it, and when you compare the two, they have exactly the same foliage. So, you really see the genetic relation.”

Rateau says there is a “genuine interest” in the region to reintroduce the old varieties. “They’re very robust and less susceptible to diseases compared to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,” he says. In the 1960s, an interest in clonal selection for Pinot and Chardonnay led to widespread use of a narrow number of what at the time were high-performing clones. But today, these “competition winners,” as Rateau puts it, are too powerful, and “these old varieties bring more freshness and acidity, and less alcohol.”

G.E.S.T.’s vision for Burgundy is both radically different yet true to the region. “We won’t have plantations that are 100 percent Chardonnay; instead, we’ll have plantations with 85 percent Chardonnay and complementary varieties that aim to bring additional qualities that Chardonnay no longer possesses,” says Rateau.

In newer regions, these experiments could help form an appellation’s identity. “Back in 1975, our whole vineyard was an experiment, because no one knew what would grow on Red Mountain,” said Richard Holmes of Côte de Ciel in Washington State’s Red Mountain AVA. Winemakers originally thought cold-climate white varieties, such as Riesling would do best, but it soon became apparent that Red Mountain was red wine country. However, the pendulum could swing in the other direction if Holmes’s experiments with Albariño and Arneis in his Ciel du Cheval Vineyard prove fruitful.

Each variety takes up just half an acre, out of the total 107 acres under vine. The two white varieties were first planted in 2017. Both were vinified in stainless steel in order to understand how the pure varietal character shows in the plot. The grapes show long-term potential, “but we’re going to let the wine sit in the bottle for a little bit before we really make a final judgment,” Holmes says. While Arneis and Albariño seem promising — 2021 was the first commercial vintage — breadcrumbs of failed experiments, such as Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Chenin Blanc, trail behind. “But this is what it takes: You plant it, you grow it, and then you need to make wine for three to four seasons before you can really come out with a judgment,” Holmes says.

The desire to grow white grapes stems partly from personal preference for Holmes and partially from market demand. Perhaps Red Mountain could be a white-capped mountain, as the AVAs founders first suspected, after all.

Wines of the Future

Despite the flurry of activity in these experimental vineyards, especially around ancestral varieties, will the quality be high enough to warrant bottling a wine?

“We are finding out that some of these ancient varieties have great potential to make wines under the climate emergency we are living in.”

Familia Torres believes so. Over 40 years ago, Miguel A. Torres, fourth generation and winery president, began collecting samples of old vines throughout Catalonia, Spain, in hopes of preserving a piece of the region’s culture. With the vision of a botanical collection in mind, Torres placed ads in local newspapers asking people to call if they had vines on their property. Unidentified samples were sent to the University of Montpelier in France and compared to its  existing database of grape varieties. Many returned with no provenance, prompting Torres to cultivate Mas Rabell, their experimental vineyard in the Penedes DO. Today, the site hosts 64 varieties.

Six of these recovered varieties are already being put to work. As far back as 1996, Garró, a floral and tannic red variety, was added to the Gran Murelles cuvée. Since 2015, Torres has released a varietal bottling of Forcada, a white grape with notes of citrus, white flower, and saline. Joining it is a single-varietal Pirene, released for the first time last year. With high tannins and notes of red fruits and black pepper, it might be Spain’s next great age-worthy wine. “Although at the beginning it was a philanthropic project, now we are finding out that some of these ancient varieties have great potential to make wines under the climate emergency we are living in,” says Miguel Torres Maczassek, the fifth generation and general manager, thanks to their high acidity and ability to ripen late. “To be honest, these are the varieties that we’re planting the most right now.”

The region of Franciacorta in Italy, already seeing success with the recovered variety Erbamat — approved for use in the region’s sparkling wines in 2017 — is now in next-phase trials to better understand this high-acid white grape. Noting the differences in cluster size, the research team deduced they were working with various clones of Erbamat. With assistance from the University of Milan, the Franciacorta Consorzio is now digging into this topic more and isolating clones they feel will perform best.

Around the time that Erbamat entered into law, the Consorzio rented approximately 10 acres for a new project. Here, they are attempting to cross Erbamat with other varieties, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “The question is, what would happen if we create a new generation of Erbamat?” says Silvano Brescianini, president of the Franciacorta Consorzio.

After a few initial micro vinifications, they will cultivate these crossings and determine quality. It’s a long-term project, Brescianini says, and a risky proposition: 10, 15, even 20 years worth of work could still end up yielding grapes that aren’t interesting. “But,” he adds, “if you don’t try, you will never see.”

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