Some of the best winemaking regions sit on the same real estate as the most biologically rich habitats on Earth. As vineyards are expanding worldwide, so is a new conservation science dedicated to balancing wine with nature.
By David Malakoff
More than 7,500 years ago, farmers living somewhere in Eurasia performed a miracle of sorts: they transformed the fermenting fruit of a scraggly, weedy vine into a magical elixir that put a tingle on the tongue and a pleasing buzz in the brain. Winemakers haven’t looked back since. Last year alone, they tended 7.5 million hectares of vineyards that produced some 30 billion bottles of wine.
The global grape boom, however, is creating a bit of an ecological hangover. In some areas, vineyards are creeping into sensitive ecosystems; in others, grape growers are laying claim to resources, such as water, that other species need to survive. But an emerging community of “vinecologists” sees opportunity amidst the trellises: these ecologically minded researchers and vintners see a chance to strike a smarter balance between agriculture and conservation and to pioneer strategies that can deliver a crisp chardonnay with a bouquet of biodiversity.
“The frontier for conservation science is figuring out how to preserve biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes, especially agricultural landscapes—and vineyards appear to be a promising place to learn how to do that,” says Joshua Viers, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, who helps lead an innovative vinecology research program that is linking conservation scientists with winemakers. “If we can learn to do conservation in vineyards, then maybe we can learn to do it in brussels sprouts.”
The global recession, meanwhile, has opened a window of opportunity. After decades of explosive growth, the wine industry has slowed—giving vinecologists a chance to spread their ideas before a new wave of vineyard expansion begins. “We have a chance,” says Viers, “to influence the development of vineyards that could be on the ground for 30, 40 years or more.”
The opportunity is particularly ripe outside Europe, where vineyards have expanded in recent decades. In theory, you can grow the wine grape, Vitis vinifera, just about anywhere. In practice, however, vintners overwhelmingly prefer to plant their grapes in areas that have the cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers found in the Mediterranean region that gave birth to both the vine and the wine. This “Mediterranean biome,” it turns out, is roughly replicated in four other places on Earth—California, Chile, South Africa, and Australia. And it didn’t take grape growers long to exploit the New World Mediterranean (as biogeographers call it): between 1550 and 1790, they transplanted Old World grapes and winemaking technologies into these new frontiers, setting the foundation for today’s $280 billion industry.
Although Europe still produces about two-thirds of the world’s wine, New World winemakers have been increasing their share. And they got a major boost in the 1990s when growing demand for quality wines—together with declining production in Europe—spurred them to nearly double the size of their vineyards. Between 1988 and 2010, vineyards in the New World Mediterranean grew by some 155 square kilometers per year, Viers and colleagues estimated in a study published earlier this year. (1) By the time the global recession choked off expansion, the grape-growing footprint had increased by some 70 percent—to more than 6,700 square kilometers of vineyard. And although many vines were planted on land already being used for farming, “a substantial portion came from conversion of natural and seminatural habitats to wine grape production,” they note.
That’s a problem, because the New World Mediterranean isn’t just a great place to grow grapes. It is also well known for nurturing a dazzling array of specialized species, from long-lived, fire-tolerant shrubs to delicate salamanders and elegant grassland birds that have finicky tastes in nesting sites. Many were already laboring under the usual environmental threats posed by human activities; now, they had to contend with ranks of merlots and malbecs. In South Africa, for instance, some vineyards supplanted swathes of biologically rich, fire-adapted vegetation known as fynbos and renosterveld. In Chile, steep hillsides often ignored by farmers became perfect places to plant grapes, leading to the loss of previously protected habitats. In California, oak savannas and grasslands were flattened by zinfandel.
It wasn’t long before conservation biologists began to pay serious attention to the ecological implications of the wine grape’s spread—and what could be done to reduce the damage. By 2007, biologists and winemakers had organized the first international workshop on “biodiversity and vines” as part of a major conservation meeting in South Africa. There have been two more major vinecology summits since, along with a slew of studies examining everything from how planting grapes affects spider populations to whether consumers would be willing to pay more for “green” wines.
Researchers are also thinking about what winemaking could look like in a warmer world. Grape-growing regions could shrink in area by 19 to 73 percent, according to a new study by Lee Hannah of Conservation International. (2) Climate change could force winemakers to relocate into higher elevations and new growing areas, creating new threats to ecosystems.
It is still early days. But the loosely knit vinecology alliance says the growing body of research is already providing some useful—and occasionally surprising—insights into a complex agro-ecosystem that, like it or not, appears to be on the rise. Here’s a tasting from several lines of research.
Return of the Native Grape
Tucked into an emerald cleft in the mountains of northeastern Virginia, Chrysalis Vineyards is every wine tourist’s dream. A stone patio beside a rustic tasting room overlooks a postcard-perfect scene of stately trees and trellised vines. This is no ordinary vineyard, however. Chrysalis is home to the world’s largest planting of Norton grapes, a native North American cultivar that got its start in nearby Richmond in the early 1800s.
Once the most common wine grape grown in the eastern U.S., the Norton nearly disappeared as a result of Prohibition in the 1930s and the popularity of vine varieties from Eurasia. Now, Chrysalis founder Jennifer McCloud is helping lead a Norton renaissance. “It makes a gorgeous dry red,” she says.
Connoisseurs aren’t the only ones taking note. The Norton has become a poster child of sorts for ecofriendlier winemaking. That’s because, as a homegrown cultivar, it tends to be more resistant to the insect pests, microbes, and fungal diseases that regularly dine out on widely used Eurasian strains. Defending those immigrant grapes often requires using chemical cocktails that can wreak ecological havoc. But McCloud says her 69 acres of Norton vines “don’t need as much help from us to do pretty well.” Going native not only promises to reduce costs and environmental impacts, she says, but helps her “greener” red wines stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. “This is great wine made from a real American grape—how often do you get to experience that?”
Rescuing the Norton also addresses another conservation concern: preserving and utilizing the genetic diversity of the world’s wine grapes. “The general impression has been that there are a lot of different wine grape varieties and therefore it follows that there is also extensive biodiversity,” wine researcher Roger Pinder wrote in the International Journal of Wine Research in 2011. (3) But that’s not quite right, geneticists reported the same year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). (4) After analyzing some 1,000 grape strains, Pinder noted, they found that extensive inbreeding “seems to have limited wine grapes to a relatively small number of varieties sharing many incestuous relationships.” As a result, like many other agricultural operations, vineyards tend to rely on a few dozen copycat variants that are vulnerable to knockout blows from pests and disease.
The good news, the PNAS study found, is that breeders have yet to fully exploit the genetic treasure locked within wild and obscure domestic varieties, including genes that might produce vines needing less water and fewer chemicals. “Developing an environmentally sustainable wine and grape industry,” the authors argue, “will rely on tapping into this tremendous diversity.” Amen to that, vinecologists respond. One key to reducing vineyard impacts and adapting to future climate change, they say, will be planting vines that are better adapted to local biomes—rather than going to Herculean lengths to manipulate the environment to suit the grape.
Breeding and fielding a new grape variety can be an arduous and risky task, however. New cultivars must not only perform in the field but also meet consumer tastes. “You can’t separate the environment from the economics in this business,” says McCloud of Chrysalis. A grape that’s an ecological hit, she says, won’t get far if it doesn’t also please the palate.
Ironically, even as researchers highlight the importance of grape genetic diversity, some wild varieties that might hold especially valuable genes are facing difficulty. In Europe, native Vitis sylvestris strains are becoming “highly threatened . . . because of habitat loss, competition with alien grape species, and intensive forest exploitation,” Hungarian researchers reported in the journal Vitis. (5) But genetic testing, they add, is helping identify the remaining strongholds of these wild vines, in hopes of preserving them for posterity.
The Unkempt Vineyard
It’s become conventional wisdom in conservation circles that an untidy farm is a wildlife-friendly farm. Bramble-choked fencerows and lush, weedy field edges often shelter species that lose out when farmers exploit every possible patch of ground.
Not surprisingly, numerous studies suggest that’s true in vineyards, too. In Switzerland, for instance, vineyards that allowed some grass to grow between the vines (not the usual practice) had more woodlarks (Lullula arborea) than those using herbicides to keep the soil bare. (6) And in New Zealand, native butterflies tended to do better in vineyards having more patches of native plants, Mark Gillespie and Steve Wratten of Lincoln University reported last year in the Journal of Insect Conservation. (7)
Many grape growers, however, see danger lurking in the weeds. The wild relatives of wine grapes, for instance, can harbor diseases that spread to nearby domestic grapes. And researchers in California have found that weedy stream banks can increase the number of pests in nearby vineyards, presumably because they offer the insects a safe haven. That’s why many vintners routinely destroy the untamed vines and mow or reduce riparian refuges.
Such practices may drive conservationists crazy, but they make perfect sense for the individual grower trying to protect a valuable harvest. A broader ecological perspective could help resolve that dilemma, say vinecologists. Instead of studying just one vineyard, vinecology aims to zoom out—to consider the larger wine-growing landscape and how the entire mosaic of land uses, including weedy patches, might influence pest problems.
Indeed, when California researchers took that approach in studying a feared grape sickness called Pierce’s disease, which is spread by leafhoppers and other insects, the results were somewhat surprising. The 2006 study, led by Kendra Baumgartner of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, confirmed that disease rates were higher in a single vineyard if it was adjacent to a riparian area. (8) Yet when the USDA researchers looked at the bigger picture, they noticed that the proximity of other vineyards and urban lands also played a role in higher disease rates, suggesting that riparian areas alone weren’t to blame. They also realized that vineyards surrounded by thicker riparian and woodland belts had lower disease rates, perhaps because the wild patches harbored things that like to eat leafhoppers. Fields with thinner riparian barriers, however, wouldn’t get that benefit because “insect predators are often more vulnerable to loss of natural habitat than are their prey,” the researchers noted.
The take-home message is that “growers might be able to address pest problems better if they work together to preserve more riparian areas” rather than reduce them, says Joshua Viers. But achieving that level of cooperation, he adds, is one of the great challenges facing the industry.
Fish & Streams
Water into Wine
The amount of water used to produce your favorite vintage is becoming an increasingly vexing issue in the arid, New World Mediterranean climates where vineyards have been expanding the fastest. In California, for instance, recent research has concluded that some watering methods are putting salmon and aquatic ecosystems in danger.
Although making wine takes a fair amount of water—20 to 30 gallons per glass by some estimates—grapes aren’t an especially thirsty crop. Cotton, and even corn, can suck up more per acre, experts estimate. Still, certain vineyard practices can put a lot of pressure on streams, rivers, and groundwater. When spring temperatures drop to near freezing, for example, some growers spray water on their vines to protect sensitive buds (the ice actually insulates sensitive tissues). In California, analysts estimate that this technique is employed on some nine percent of the state’s irrigated vineyards, often by using water pumped from nearby streams. That may not seem like a big issue—except when numerous vineyards in the same watershed simultaneously flip the pumping switch.
In the California wine mecca of Sonoma Valley, for example, “there can be an incredible peak demand for water during a concentrated two to three days” that can remove up to 95 percent of a stream’s flow, says ecologist Theodore Grantham of the University of California, Berkeley. During a particularly chilly spring, “as much water could be used in just two weeks . . . as in an entire season for standard irrigation needs.” Flows can also drop precipitously in hot summer months, when growers sprinkle water on vines to protect them from extreme heat, a team led by UC Berkeley’s Adina Merenlender reported in a 2009 study. (9) Such withdrawals can be bad news for fish and aquatic insects. A study of three small wine country streams in northern California concluded that, when vineyards covered more than 20 percent of a watershed, insect communities began to suffer. (10) Grantham and colleagues also found worryingly low survival rates among young salmon in four vineyard-heavy watersheds. (11)
“I don’t suggest we get rid of vineyards, but we do need to focus our attention on water management strategies,” Grantham says. One solution already in play with some growers: Building small off-stream reservoirs that store spring runoff and give vineyards a water supply that doesn’t deplete local streams when salmon are running. “We can protect flows for fish,” Grantham believes, “and still have our glass of wine.”
Forests & Birds
Plastic corks and screw tops now seal up to 30 percent of the world’s wine bottles, and that’s threatening an ancient cork-making industry that has helped preserve key habitat for Mediterranean birds.
These savanna-like landscapes, known as montados in Portugal and dehesas in Spain, are home to two tree species that provide most of the world’s corks: the cork oak (Quercus suber) and the holm oak (Quercus ilex). In a centuries-old tradition, corkmakers remove long strips of bark from the oaks every nine years, starting when the trees are about 25 years old. The bark then regenerates, often allowing for a half-dozen or more corkmaking cycles.
Cork forests do more than help keep wine fresh and provide jobs for nearly 100,000 people. They are also among the last remaining hotspots for an array of birds, including the Spanish imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti) and the black stork (Ciconia nigra). But “without the high income resulting from the production of cork stoppers, montados may lose their economic viability” and be cleared for other uses, Ana Leal of the University of Lisbon warns. (12) Worldwide, researchers estimate up to 2.2 million hectares of cork forests could be at risk, with nearly one-third of the total in Portugal and one-fifth in Spain. Corkmakers need “clear signs . . . that their land is economically, ecologically, and culturally valuable and viable using traditional land management practices,” the authors conclude. Perhaps a toast, then, to putting a cork in it?
Sales & Marketing
Eco-Premium or Penalty?
Buy a bottle of Chameleon sauvignon blanc chardonnay from South Africa’s Jordan Wines, and, reviewers predict, you’ll taste some “zesty, citrus-melon” notes “balanced by a long creamy finish.” You’ll also be contributing to a pioneering effort to blend conservation into the wine industry, an effort that vinecologists hope will have worldwide influence.
Jordan is one of nearly 200 South African vintners who have created the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI), a decade-old alliance with conservation groups that so far has protected more than 126,000 hectares of rare and endangered habitat. Specially labeled wines have also helped raise money for conservation and science; sales of Jordan’s Chameleon vintages, for instance, support studies of the Cape dwarf chameleon, a tiny lizard.
The BWI is an alliance born of crisis—and some economic self-interest. Nearly all of South Africa’s vineyards are located in the Cape Floral Kingdom, a small but remarkably diverse biome with specialized habitats that have all but disappeared over the past century. To enlist the region’s winemakers to save what was left, the Botanical Society of South Africa and other groups promoted the potential business value of producing “green” wines. South Africa’s vintners rely heavily on export sales to Europe and North America, and many saw the potential of the BWI label to boost sales.
Replicating such efforts elsewhere in the New World Mediterranean has proved problematic, however, in part because it is not clear how much wine buyers care about conservation-friendly vineyards. In New Zealand, for instance, a BWI-like effort (the Greening Waipara project)—begun at about the same time—has experienced far less success, a recent study found, in large part because growers perceived little economic benefit. (13) Likewise, in California—even though many wine growers have reduced water and energy use—vintners have been reluctant to adopt habitat conservation initiatives despite the potential promise of eco-labeling.
Indeed, research suggests consumers can have counterintuitive reactions to such labels—eco-labeled wines can even incur a sales penalty rather than deliver a price premium. Consumers asked to choose between two lower-cost, lower-quality California wines, for example, were likely to pick the eco-labeled bottle, according to economists Magali Delmas and Neil Lessem of the University of California, Los Angeles. But when presented with more expensive, higher-quality wines, consumers preferred the bottle without the green label. “These results indicate that respondents obtain some warm glow value from eco-labeled wine, but also interpret it as a signal of low quality,” they concluded.
Earlier research led by Delmas reached a similar but more nuanced conclusion. (14) Whereas eco-labels by themselves aren’t likely to deliver a price premium, they stated, “eco-certification” programs requiring wine producers to meet a broad range of environmental requirements can raise prices, probably because they help improve overall wine quality. The key lesson, vinecologists argue, is that ecologically sound practices simply produce a better—and more valuable—glass of wine. ❧
A veteran science journalist, David Malakoff is a former Editor-at-Large for Conservation magazine. He is now on the news staff of Science in Washington, D.C., where he covers the politics of science and research discoveries. He has also worked as a science editor and correspondent for NPR and as a freelancer for many print and online outlets.
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