• Dona Stewart

To Combat the Effects of Global Warming, France to Freeze Grapevines

Vines from the past could help save France’s wine industry from climate change. Scientists at the French National Institute for Research into Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) will freeze grape vine tissue in an effort to preserve biodiversity.

‘Cryobanks’ housed in the newly inaugurated ARCAD “Agropolis Resource Center for Crop Conservation Adaptation and Diversity” facility at the Montpellier SupAgro campus will serve as a genetic database upon which future generations of viticulturists can draw. Built at a cost of €10.4 million ($12.0 million) tissue will be stored at temperatures of negative - 196 º C (-321 º F).

Included will be specimens from the Vassal-Montpellier Grapevine Biological Resources Center (Grapevine-BRC). Known as the ‘Domaine de Vassal’ collection it is thought to be the largest collection of grapevines in the world. Today it contains more than 7800 varieties from over 50 countries. Collection of specimens began in 1876 in an attempt to save examples from species threatened by the global spread of phylloxera. The specimens were cultivated in sandy soil which inhibits the growth of phylloxera and nematodes that may carry viruses.

According to Dr. Philippe Chatelet of INRAE, “it is likely cépages such as ancient French varieties, presently little cultivated or even not grown any more, will be initially targeted for cryobanking.”

However, before any vines can be frozen additional experimentation is needed to increase the responsiveness of more varieties to the cryopreservation process, which Chatelet has found to be ‘highly genotype-dependent’, and to improve the post-rewarming regeneration rate. The cryopreservation protocol includes a sanitizing technique - cryotherapy - to obtain virus-free regenerated specimens.

Biodiversity for Climate Adaptation

These historical varieties offer a rich bank of genetic material to combat the impacts of climate change such as water scarcity and increased incidence of mildew and fungal disease. France has long been researching potential varieties for their climate adaptation potential. Increasingly these ‘new’, but historical, varieties are being introduced throughout country. In Bordeaux, for example, the nearly extinct Castets grape, a little-known red variety with good resistance to downy mildew was recently approved for cultivation. However only 5% of the vineyard can be planted in these new varieties and they cannot account for more than 10% of the final blend.

Rising temperatures are already exposing vines to increasing hydric stress in many areas. The search for varietals with higher water stress tolerance is currently the focus of multi-location field trial evaluating 279 grape varieties. Finding varieties with a higher water stress tolerance is key to enabling continued grape cultivation and wine making in regions where irrigation is not possible or sufficient water is not available.

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