The tremendous diversity of winegrapes is what started our research originally, back in 2011. Lizzie Wolkovich, an ecologist taking a break from her postdoctoral work to study French in Toulouse, met Kees van Leeuwen to ask if winegrapes were as diverse as reported. And they are. Several years after this initial meeting, she founded the Temporal Ecology Lab at Harvard University and began to formally study winegrape diversity. Working with colleagues in France (Avignon, Bordeaux and Montpellier) and in Davis, California she realized winegrapes are an excellent study system for climate change research—-both due to their tremendous long-term records (>700 years) and their diversity, which may allow growers to adapt to warming. The lab has continued research in these areas since moving to the University of British Columbia in 2018.
Much of what makes winegrapes remarkable and much of what defines terroir is variety diversity. Varieties include Pinot noir, Cabernet-Sauvignon, as well as others like Xinomavro which you likely hear less about. Winegrape varieties harbor a remarkable amount of phenological diversity — two different varieties planted side by side could reach maturity over 5-6 weeks apart, so you could harvest one plant in September and wait until mid-October to harvest the other. This is incredible diversity and fundamentally fascinating to understand how plants that are genetically so similar could respond so differently to climate. It’s also critical for dealing with climate change.
Across the globe, we have over 1,500 planted winegrape varieties but little of this diversity is used today. Diversity of most planted hectares of winegrapes is very low in the USA (70% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties, which we call ‘international varieties’), Chile (78% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties), New Zealand (92% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties), Australia (84% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties) and China (93% of hectares planted with just 12 varieties). Most hectares are planted with very few varieties, however, this is not equally true in Europe, where more varieties are planted overall and where each hectare planted is more diverse. This may have not been a major issue 30 or 40 years ago but climate change is a big challenge to agriculture as it forces growers to be more flexible and adaptable.