Local winemakers trying to keep up with climate change challenges

Winemaking goes back to the earliest days of civilization, but climate change is presenting the industry with unprecedented challenges today.

Local researchers are leading efforts to see how winemakers can still thrive in an uncertain environment.

Alex Bienvenue of the Glendale Ridge Vineyard in Southampton says his facility is now growing many types of hybrid grapes. This is fruit that is created by a marriage of traditional plants and those that might be a little harder.

“I think it’s a balance of offering tradition and then new things that people might like to try as well,” said Bienvenue.

Changing time-honored traditions in winemaking is challenging, but it might be necessary.  
"With climate change, buds and leaves are coming out at different times than they used to," said Cat Chamberlain, a researcher at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. "Wine grapes are sensitive not only with their leaves, but also when the fruits develop and when they mature, and so the time between when they first develop and when they mature is shortening."

Weather plays a huge role in how a wine tastes. “Winegrowers are starting to harvest a lot earlier which is leading to higher alcohol content, possibly more acidity, less sugar content, and it’s really changing the quality and taste that we are used to with a lot of these varieties,” added Chamberlain.

Chamberlain is part of a team trying to encourage winemakers to go beyond using a dozen or so popular types of grapes that create the majority of wine.

“There are so many varieties that would actually match the shift in climate and have shorter growing seasons. They can reach that full sugar content, have that correct alcohol content, and the taste that we as consumers like. If wine growers start utilizing these other varieties, we might be able to keep up with the shifts in climate.”

Those predicted shifts are severe.  Consider that the Champagne region of France would no longer be suitable for growing Champagne grapes due to an increase in temperature. England, however, would become suitable to grow those grapes as it warms up.

Researchers at UMass Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture are working with other scientists around the country to develop hybrid grapes that can withstand changing weather patterns.

“We are gathering data from different climates, different soils, different lengths of the growing season is also important, lots of different factors that go into the performance of different varieties,” said Sonia Schloemann, a fruit specialist.

They also find that some of the popular grape varieties, known as ‘Vitis Vinifera,’ might actually survive warmer New England winters, but could be harmed by more rain.  “We just don’t know with climate change,” said lecturer Elsa Petit.  “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

As Adam Bienvenue enters his second season making wine in Massachusetts, he’s keeping his glass half full.

“If I was living in a different region, I might be a little more pessimistic, but living in New England, I am very optimistic.  We’ve actually had a number of new wineries open in the region.  The business itself is booming.”

It is believed that the American wine industry will have an easy time adapting to new circumstances because it is not bound by the strict laws that oversee European producers.

Comments on this article