The wine industry is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, but it could be in serious danger due to climate change. Scientists Grant Cramer and Anne Fennell are studying how different grape varieties respond to harsher conditions such as drought and spring frost. Their research could help vineyards and other farms that grow grape products, such as raisins, juice and fresh fruit. Changing Planet is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
Grapevines and Drought
ANNE THOMPSON, reporting:
Winemaking is among the oldest trades in the world, dating back nearly 9,000 years. But this ancient craft is today a big business, a 160-billion-dollar a year industry. The United States is the fourth largest wine producer in the world, with wine being produced in all fifty states. Other uses for grapes, juice, raisins, and the fresh fruit itself, only increase the importance of this crop.
Dr. GRANT CRAMER (University of Nevada-Reno): We're talking about a lot of money. Grapes are the most valuable fruit crop in the world.
THOMPSON: With our planet rapidly getting warmer, and in many places drier, farmers and investors are worried about the impact global warming will have on grape crops around the world. Scientists are helping to discover which varieties of grapes can handle climate changes the best. Plant biologist Dr. Grant Cramer at the University of Nevada in Reno conducts research that is partly funded by the National Science Foundation.
CRAMER: Temperature is a very big concern for grapes. It's probably the most important characteristic that defines whether we can grow grapes in a region or not.
THOMPSON: Cramer and his students are conducting research in a vineyard to discover how different grape varieties react to hot and dry environments.
CRAMER: In this vineyard that we have here, we have thirteen varieties, half of them are red and half of them are white.
THOMPSON: Cramer and his team are finding out which grape varieties handle hotter and drier climates better than others. Their research involves analyzing genetic sequences of the different types of grapes.
CRAMER: In modern biology genomics is really the revolutionary kind of biology that we're doing today and it's very, very powerful. It allows us to look at the entire set of genes in the grapevine and see what is changing in response to the environment.
THOMPSON: A genome is a grouping of a species' genetic and hereditary information found in DNA. This makes every species on the planet unique, including different types of grapes. In 2007, scientists in France and Italy sequenced the genome for the grape used to make pinot noir. Today, Cramer and his team are currently sequencing the genome of the cabernet sauvignon grape.
CRAMER: The DNA code of that grapevine allows us to know what it is programmed to do. And so we can compare and contrast pinot noir to cabernet sauvignon. What makes a pinot noir a pinot noir, what makes a cabernet sauvignon a cabernet sauvignon and this code is key to that factor.
THOMPSON: The genome also holds information about how different grape varieties react to their natural annual cycle of dormancy. Dormancy for plants is much like hibernation for certain animals. Each winter, as the length of day shortens and the temperature drops, grapes habitually go into a dormant state. In the spring, when the average temperature becomes optimum for growing, the grape plants sprout, bloom, and eventually, produce fruit in the fall.
Dr. ANNE FENNELL (South Dakota State University): For a perennial plant like the grapevine, to go into dormancy you need an environmental cue. That cue could be day-length, it could be a drought stress, it could be a low temperature condition. And a lot of times all of those work together synergistically to help a plant move into dormancy.
THOMPSON: Dr. Anne Fennell, also funded by the National Science Foundation, is growing a vineyard near the campus of South Dakota State University. She fears that if average temperatures start to increase, and seasons become longer, it may impact the timing of blooming. This could make the vine more vulnerable to spring frosts, something that could, if harsh enough, destroy an entire crop. Fennell hopes to determine the mechanism of dormancy, and to predict which types of grapes can handle the climate upsets that may lie ahead.
FENNELL: Winter conditions are not the same everywhere and we need to identify materials that are best adapted to different conditions.
THOMPSON: On campus, Fennell is also growing grape plants inside a light-controlled greenhouse. To test dormancy, she uses a system of shades to control the length of time the plants receive light.
FENNELL: The plants respond to a wide range of light quality. With this automated photoperiod system, it's kind of an on and off, it's a switch.
THOMPSON: Like Cramer, Fennell is also looking at grape plants at the genomic level to help further identify the genes that control dormancy.
FENNELL: What I'm trying to figure out is how that environmental cue transcends from the leaf to the bud which is actually going dormant so that it can survive the winter.
THOMPSON: Changing climate conditions not only impact how the grapes grow, but also how they taste. And taste is not only crucial for the grape crop, but the entire wine industry.
CRAMER: This is our well-watered cabernet and we've got our drought-stressed cabernet sauvignon here. And I think we will see very easily the differences in the wine.
THOMPSON: Scientists like Cramer have found that some grapes react positively to mild drought conditions, causing the grape to be sweeter and redder in color, like Cramer's cabernet sauvignon sample.
DANNY (student): The drought-stressed notes is just more complex and it's layered you know, you get something at the beginning and then it just continues to--
CRAMER: Mm-hm. It's clearly a superior wine.
THOMPSON: One day scientists like Fennell and Cramer may be able to use their genetic research to not only help engineer key traits to improve wine quality but also to increase yields of all types of grape crops. By understanding which grapes will withstand climate change best and hold their unique flavor, this age-old industry may continue to thrive long into the future.
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