These scientists are simulating climate change to save wine


This vineyard has traveled 30 years into the future. These aren’t typical grape vines. They’re actually owned by a university, where researchers are conducting a one-of-a-kind experiment. They’re pumping carbon dioxide into their vineyard to see how grapes will grow in 2050. They’re simulating the future to find all the ways that climate change is about to endanger one of the world’s most economically and culturally important crops. Because if we want to save the wines we love, we need to know exactly what we’re dealing with. I’m Michael Tabb. This is Quartz. Please subscribe to our channel. Climate change is already having a huge impact on winemaking. Winemakers are adapting to hotter temperatures and more extreme weather by growing new kinds of grapes, fundamentally changing the types of wine they make. We actually did a whole video on this. You can find the link in the cards. But if winemakers want to keep making the wines they’ve always made, how do they need to adapt? And is it even possible? Here, in Western Germany, some researchers decided to find out. “So if you want to look in the future you need to mimic the future. You cannot do it in a greenhouse. We want to learn to adapt ahead of time to the conditions that are waiting for us in 30 something years.” That’s Dr. Hans Reiner Schultz, President of Hochschule Geisenheim University. They’re located in the Rheingau an area that’s been growing wine since was commanded to by Charlemagne – 1200 years ago. Here in the university’s vineyards, they grow lots of grape varieties, but Riesling is the regional favorite. Riesling from this region is known for being light and dry with low alcohol content. And it takes a lot of work to make sure it keeps those characteristics each year. It’s all about balancing acidity and sugar in the grapes. This balance depends on temperature. It also depends on carbon dioxide. CO2 is one of the main ingredients in photosynthesis, combining with water to make sugar and oxygen. But no one really knows what rising CO2 levels are going to mean for individual grapes or the wine we make from them. And that’s true for a whole range of climate-sensitive crops. You may have seen this chart before. For almost 10,000 years, all our crops grew in a pretty consistent atmosphere. Around 200 years ago, things started to change. Here’s where we are today. Chances are we’ll be around here in 2050. So, for the past few years, Hochschule Geisenheim University has been pumping CO2 from this tank into this part of the vineyard they own. It’s not a lot of carbon dioxide, just enough to raise the concentration of the gas in the air by about 20 percent to the levels we expect around the world in 2050. It’s one of a few dozen similar experiments with different crops around the world. It’s going to take years, if not decades, for this experiment to show definitive conclusions. But there are already signs that grape vines respond to CO2 in ways that are much more complicated than anyone expected. Here’s what they’ve noticed. Lots of the sugar is developing in the grapes themselves, making them bigger and juicier. Grape bunches are also getting longer with more berries. The grape vines are soaking up more water from the ground. This could mean the vines are going deeper and faster.

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Moths grown under higher CO2 levels, feeding on the altered crops, are reproducing faster, that may lead to more larvae that eat grapes and make them susceptible to fungi and diseases. What’s become painfully obvious is that just a little carbon dioxide can massively disrupt this extremely sensitive ecosystem. That means if growers want to maintain successful harvests, they need to re-learn their craft. Because within a few decades, everything from plant structure to water usage to pest growth will totally change. So far, the additional CO2 hasn’t much changed the flavor of the university’s wine, but it’s still early. And experiment aside, rising temperatures are already making the grapes in Rheingau sweeter. That transformation is only going to accelerate as the climate warms further. Which gets us to the real concern – it isn’t that there won’t be wine in the future, it’s that growing traditional wine will become much more difficult and it won’t taste the same. Growers here could just decide to grow something different. Thanks to climate change, Rheingau is now perfect climate for growing Sauvignon Blanc. Some growers are open to that. But most will keep growing the same Riesling they’ve grown for centuries. “It’s not only just a pure plant, so it’s a cultural heritage, it’s a landscape which comes with it, it’s the tourism which comes with it, it’s the economy in certain rural areas which completely rely on making wine growing grapes. So that makes it different and it makes it more important to look closer at it.” Experiments like this can help growers and winemakers find new techniques to preserve this heritage in a changing climate. “Grape growers and winemakers have to be much more flexible today, because fluctuations between vintages but also within a vintage, how suddenly the situations are changing are much more accentuated than we used to have. If you’re not flexible, you’re lost.” Hey, we’re making a series for Quartz members we think you’ll like. It’s called “Because China.” China is reshaping our world in a lot of interesting and unexpected ways. Click the link in the description or the comments and sign up for a free membership trial to watch this series and more great videos.

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